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Christmas and the manner it is celebrated

By W.T.A. Leslie Fernando 

(Reproduced from the Daily News of December 22, 2001)

Christmas is a festival celebrated all over the world in a grand scale. People prepare months ahead for Christmas. The shops become full of goodies. Journals are filled with Christmas advertisements. Hotels organise Christmas lunches, dinners and dances. People rush in cities and there is so much glitter to make Christmas a merry and joyful event. 

However, the Birth of Christ celebrated at Christmas was not such a fascinating and fantastic event. According to the Gospel of St. Luke it was a very moving and humble story. 

Augustus Caesor, the Roman Emperor at the time had decreed that all his subjects should come to their native place to be enroled at the Census. Joseph the poor carpenter came to the city of David called Bethlehem with his wife Mary, pregnant with a child because he was of the house and lineage of David. 

As there was no place in a single inn for this poor carpenter and his wife, they took refuge at a stable in Bethlehem. There Mary got labour pains and delivered Christ unto this world. The holy angels announced the good news not to the rich and affluent making merry in the city of Bethlehem but to some shepherds watching their flock in a nearby field. 

The shepherds followed the light from heaven and found Baby Jesus in a stable with Mary and Joseph. It was to this very stable that the three Kings from East came in search of Divine Baby guided by a star and paid their homage with gifts - frankincense, myrrh and gold. 

Thus Christ the King of Kings was born poor in a stable while his divinity was proclaimed by holy angels, innocent shepherds and crowned kings. Christ being the Son of God, He could have born to power, wealth and worldly distinction. But in His birth Christ had made the important decision that the luxuries of the world was not for Him and He would reject them for Himself. 

The exact date of the birth of Christ is not given in the Bible. Although Easter had been celebrated from the beginning, Christmas was not there among the earliest festivals of the Church. It was only after the Roman Empire embraced Christianity in the 3rd century, that Christians began to celebrate Christmas on December 25. 

Although the birth of Christ was a humble event, when it began to be celebrated on December 25, Christmas became a fantastic festival with all the merry-making, revelry and feasting of pagan festivals. 

Long before the birth of Christ, the Romans celebrated the feast of the Sun on December 25. When the Roman Emperor Constantine espoused the cause of Christianity, he christianised pagan observances. Accordingly he ordered that birth of Christ should be celebrated on the day of the Roman feast of the Sun. Later in 354AD Pope Liberius confirmed that Christmas should be celebrated on December 25. 

As time went on many features associated with the Birth of Christ were incorporated to Christmas. 

In the medieval times St. Francis of Assisi introduced the Crib depicting the birth of Christ in a stable. During Christmas the Crib is a main attraction in churches and in homes all over the world. 

Carol singing is another significant event at Christmas. The central theme of Christmas Carols is the proclamation of the birth of Christ to the shepherds by the angels. From the time of the Portuguese Christmas Carols have been a popular feature in Sri Lanka. 

In the past after the midnight Mass at Christmas, the Carol party went round the village in a decorated cart. Children clad in white as angels in a white background, singing carols set to oriental music was a fascinating spectacle indeed. 

The legendary Santa Claus, who distributed gifts and toys to poor children is a special feature at Christmas. Christmas tree which has a pagan origin is also made use of to distribute gifts to the poor. 

Family re-union is a well known tradition at Christmas, and all the members of the family come to the parental house to greet the parents. As Christmas is also a season of goodwill, they also visit relations and friends. 

As it is not always possible to visit relations and friends in the latter half of the 19th century, people in England began to send Christmas greetings by post. Soon sending greeting cards with wishes for Christmas and the New Year became a popular practice all over the world. The greeting cards depicted a religious outlook with the Crib or the visit of the three kings to the stable and other Christmas scenes. 

During Christmas nativity plays are enacted all over the world on the birth of Christ and incidents connected with it. There have been nativity plays in Sri Lanka from the Portuguese times. It is on record that in 1613 A.D. a nativity play on the incarnation of Christ was enacted at Kammala. 

It was Christmas that gave birth of Nadagam, the earliest form of recognised drama in Sri Lanka. The late Dr. Edmund Peiris, the former Bishop of Chilaw who has done much research on the origins and development of nadagam shows that the first Sinhala nadagam was "Raja Tunkattuwa" presented by Mihindukulasuriya Gabriel Fernando of Chilaw. It was based on the birth of Christ in a stable and the worship of the new born divine baby by the three kings of the Magi. 

"Raja Tunkattuwa" was a success and it was followed by many other nadagamas on the lives of saints and other Catholic themes. Before long nadagamas based on secular themes too began to be performed in various parts of the country and nadagam became an accepted form of drama in Sri Lanka. Nadagam is a classic contribution made by the Catholics to arts and culture in our country. 

The times have changed. Even the special features of Christmas that highlight the birth of Christ are now being fast eroded by secular aspects, commercialisation and consumerism. 

Christmas Carols are now performed in somewhat sophisticated manner. In most of them the simple and serene outlook is fast disappearing. In some places like super-class hotels much noise is made with background music drowning the spiritual outlook in Carols. 

The symbol of Santa Claus who was a benefactor of the poor is often used for advertising purposes. In one year there was an advertisement with a bottle of arrack on the hand of Santa Claus. In some Carols you could see Santa Claus dancing to baila tunes and collecting money. 

In some places Santa Claus distributes few gifts from the Christmas tree and much more is spent on entertainment of others and for advertising the event. Some present expensive Christmas hampers for higher-ups and authorities to obtain special favours, advantages and business gains. 

The Crib is displayed in many houses in a glittering manner diluting its holiness. Musical shows are relegating nativity plays during the Christmas season. 

Some waste money on sophisticated and expensive greeting cards that have no religious outlook or any bearing on Christmas. In foreign countries there is a recent development to depict their own photographs in place of Christmas scenes in greeting cards. And this practice might spread to Sri Lanka as well. 

Many celebrated Christmas with so much glamour and splendour in contrast to humble birth of Christ in a stable. Most of the Christmas parties, Christmas nites and dances with abundant liquor seem to be contrary to the theme of Christmas. The liquor is taboo in other religious festivals whereas eating and drinking are part and parcel of Christian celebrations more specially at Christmas. 

Although the issue whether Christmas is celebrated on the exact date could be overlooked the manner we celebrated Christmas is not befitting the humble birth of Christ in a stable. 

It is time for us Christians to incorporate humility and simplicity to our lives as well as our religious forms, practices and institutions in accordance with the true spirit of the birth, life and teachings of Our Lord Jesus Christ. 


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Last Updated Date: September 25, 2003 .