By s_kawee

Christmas is a great festival, and it contains a popular and a technical meaning. Currently, its popular significance differs whether it is celebrated in the Global North or in the Global South. Risking the danger of broad generalizations, one can observe these differences at different levels.

For example, the popular meaning of Christmas in the Global South comes from commemorating and celebrating the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (ca. 6 BCE). Normally, Christian children in the Global South enact in their churches at least the following twelve nativity scenes: 1) the angelic annunciations to Mary (Luke 1:26) and Joseph (Matthew 2:20–21; 2:13, 19–20 and 22), 2) the census under Quirinius, the Roman Governor of Judea (Luke 2:1–5) requiring all Judeans to come to Jerusalem, 3) the move of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea (Luke 2:1–5), 4) the birth of Jesus in a manger (Luke 2:6–7), 5) the appearance of the angelic hosts to the shepherds in the fields (Luke 2:8–14), 6) these shepherds adoring baby Jesus (Luke 2:15–19), 7) presenting Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:21–38), 8) the visit of the magi (Matthew 2:1–22) to the two-year old Jesus, 9) Mary, Joseph and Jesus fleeing to Egypt (Matthew 2:13–15), 10) Herod the Great killing all two-year old boys (Matthew 2:16–18), 11) the death of King Herod the Great in 4 BCE, 12) Mary, Jospeh and Jesus returning to Nazareth (Matthew 2:19–23).

Christians in the Global South look forward to this great festival; clean their houses, wear new clothes, visit families and friends, share greetings and gifts, cook special meal, and rejoice. One can observe these characteristics whether Christmas is celebrated on 25 December or, due to a difference in calendar among the Orthodox Christians, on 6 January.

The popular meaning of Christmas in the Global North is different in two ways: Firstly, Christmas is either an embarrassment or a commercial activity or a family gathering around a Christmas tree. Commercial sales of greeting cards, gifts, and other related items surge high. Otherwise, at interpersonal level, some people are afraid to greet their neighbours with ‘A Happy Christmas’. They prefer to post their Christmas greeting cards to their neighbours and colleagues rather than meeting them in person and wishing them a ‘Merry Christmas’. In the pluralistic and post-Christian atmosphere, they seek to maintain religious and cultural neutrality. Hence, they have renamed Christmas as a happy festival, and they wish each other happy holidays. Their Christmas festivities do not give prominence to Jesus and confine often to a crib.

By contrast, Santa Claus as Father Christmas looms large, dispenses gifts and sweets to gleeful children. His reindeer Rudolf with a sledge decorates house entrances, rooftops, and lawns. The song Jingle Bells fills the air. Secondly, Christmas among the migrant communities in every country of the Global North demonstrate their ancestral tradition of celebrating Christmas. The Latinos and Hispanics in the United States of America, for example, sing their Feliz Navidad and wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’. They go to church and enact abovementioned Christmas scenes. In all instances, Christmas ends before the new year starts.

The technical meaning of Christians does not refer to Christmas as a seasonal festival. Rather, it implies an ongoing missional obligation that incarnates Christmas in the everyday activity of the worshippers. The secret of Christmas lies in its suffix –mas, which in turn contains a general and a particular meaning. Generally, it refers to the Eucharistic services in a Roman Catholic or in an Orthodox church. The worshippers revere seeing the Eucharistic hosts blessed, lifted, and distributed by their priests. By accepting the sanctified elements, the participants receive God’s grace in the company of other worshippers.

This general understanding of a mass is devoid of its actual meaning. Here the suffix – mas entreats the worshippers to leave the church building at the end of the service, enter their world, and serve the Lord Jesus Christ by serving their fellow human beings. The suffix –mas comes from the feminine Latin noun messa (‘dismissal, sending off’). It refers to the act, by which the priest speaks at the end of each worship service: “Go into the world and serve the Lord”. The congregation responds: “With God’s help”.

Additionally, messa is related to the Latin verb mittere (‘to send’). In this sense, both messa and mittere are the roots for the words for the English understanding of what mission is and what a missionary supposed to do.  Mission indicates the acts of commissioning someone for a specific task and sending them to achieve the task. Thus, the technical meaning of ‘Christmas’ focuses its attention on increasing the knowledge and experience of Christ among people, whether they are at home within the same socio-cultural milieu or in far-away cross-cultural settings in other places. Thus, every Christian, who worships God along with fellow worshippers on a Sunday receives the missionary mandate “to go into the world and to serve the Lord”, is experiencing and bearing the true Christmas.

The message of Christmas, which the angels sang at the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:14), astonishingly remains unchanged: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” 

Merry Christmas to you all!

Prof. Dr. Daniel Jeyaraj is an accomplished church historian and currently serves as the Academic Dean at Oxford Center for Religion and Public Life.