I posted this three years ago. This year it is a good reminder to me. Christmas this year was not anything I had anticipated. A few days before Christmas I contacted Covid. All the plans for candlelight service at church and gathering with my daughter and her family for a fun day had to be cancelled. Christmas Eve my husband caught Covid from me and we spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day basically sleeping when we were not coughing our heads off.
Our daughter, who normally would have been over – wearing a mask – to bring us food and check on us also had Covid and like me she shared it with her husband. We are so thankful our granddaughter has remained negative. So, we were basically on our own.
Spending Christmas alone while we struggled to have enough energy to sit up awhile and wish each other Merry Christmas made this anything but the Christmas we had always enjoyed. Today we are on the mend but still so tired. It will be quite awhile before we will be back to normal. But as I am saddened by no Christmas for us – I am thankful that the real reason for Christmas is still true. In the midst of our sickness, we are minded that “the joy of the Lord is our strength.”
Christmas 2019 is history. My decorations are all back in the boxes and the boxes are all in the storage area in the basement where they will sit until next December. Here and there I see a few houses with Christmas lights still up but most of my neighbors have removed all the reindeer, snowmen and nativity sets from their yards.
Gifts have been given. Some were, no doubt, a big hit. Others may have been a disappointment. Store clerks have been busy at the return counters.
Children are counting down the days until they have to return to school while many are heading back to work after a few vacation days.
Here and there I hear comments about the letdown after Christmas. It is understandable that after all the shopping, decorating, baking, parties and family gatherings, going back to the “normal” routine of life can be a bit of…
I love the old Christmas carols that I grew up singing and listening to on the radio and at church. But a couple of trees ago a new carol was written. To me, it is one of the best conveyors of the Christmas story.
Six years ago a dear friend died just before Christmas.
My husband and I had watched him battle cancer (two different kinds) for over two years. It was hard to see him slowly lose the battle. He fought hard and he never lost his courage or his great sense of humor.
His family asked my husband to do the funeral service. It was an extremely hard thing for Paul to do. They had been friends for almost 20 years. In the very beginning of their friendship, I had surgery for breast cancer. The cancer was very advanced and my husband was frightened as his mother had died from breast cancer. Richard came to the hospital and sat with my husband through my surgery and did not leave until I was out of recovery. That cemented their friendship.
That – and their love of golf and corny jokes. Although they claimed they played golf, I think from listening to their tales that they spend more time laughing at each other’s skills than they did actually playing the game.
After my retirement, I often joined the two of them for breakfast. It was such fun to just sit and listen to them as they teased one another and shared stories of their time on the golf course.
While it was hard for my husband to do the funeral service, he was honored that the family said that was what Richard would want. As we arrived at the funeral home, his daughters handed us an envelope. On the outside it said, “Paul and his bride.” That was how Richard always referred to me – “Paul’s bride.” When Paul and Richard met, if I was not present, he would always ask, “How is your bride?” The handwriting on the outside was clearly not Richard’s. So we assumed it was just a card saying thank you for doing the service.
When we opened the card it was a Christmas card. Thinking it was a little strange that his daughters were giving us a Christmas card, we opened it up. My heart skipped a beat as I saw the signature inside the card. It said simply, “Richard.” We immediately recognized his signature. Also enclosed was a picture of him.
His daughters told us although Richard never sent Christmas cards, just before his death he asked them to get him some Christmas cards. He then signed a few and asked them to give them to his special friends at his funeral. He knew he would not be here for Christmas and he wanted us to know what our friendship had meant to him.
This is a special card my husband and I will treasure forever.
At this time of the year we turn to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke to read the Christmas story. Each Gospel gives us a different aspect of the birth of Jesus.
Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is the King. He starts his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus showing his descent from Abraham, the founder of the Jewish people, and David, their great king. It is the story of Joseph we read. Matthew tells us of the wise men who came from a distance bearing gifts and seeking for the newborn king of the Jews.
Our nativity sets showing the wise men at the manger are not correct. Exactly how many wise men there were we do not know – only that there were three gifts. Their arrival happened sometime after the birth of Jesus as Matthew tells us that they found Jesus in a house and calls him at that time a child. When Herod realizes the wise men are not coming back to tell him where this child is, he orders all boys in the area who are two years old and under to be killed.
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi
While they asked for the king of the Jews, they clearly recognized that Jesus was God as Matthew tell us:
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.
Matthew shows us that his birth is for all people. These wise men were Gentiles, yet they were one of the first to worship him.
On the other hand, Luke emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. He traces the line of Jesus all the way back to the first man, Adam. It is not of the wealthy, educated Magi that Luke writes, but the lowly shepherds in the fields, the lowly widow Anna who has been awaiting the arrival of Messiah.
While these two portions of Scripture are the ones we look to as we read of the birth of Jesus, I think there is a passage in the book of Philippians that gives a greater understanding of the meaning, the purpose of the birth of Jesus.
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
As we celebrate the birth of this little child, let us not forget the very reason He came was to save us. And just as the shepherds and the wise men worshiped Him, let us bow down in gratitude and love to our Lord and King.
Today most of us think of Christmas carols as something we hear on the radio, or we sing at church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services.
However, singing carols in many places used to be more than just singing a song at church. It was a time to connect with neighbors as people would gather together and go from house to house singing Christmas songs.
In doing research on old, unknown Christmas carols I found that it is believed caroling began in the 13th century. Neighbors would sing to one another, and the term used was “wassailing.” The word comes from an Old Norse term that meant “be well and in good health.
In England as neighbors gathered to share songs and wish each other well, they also shared warm drinks. By the 14th century the word “wassail” become associated with the warm drink shared at Christmastime. It is wine, beer or cider with sugar, spices and fruit.
Apparently as the community began to share maybe a bit too much of the wassail the Christmas season became quite a time of parties and drinking (does this sound like us today?) and the Puritans Parliament in England actually outlawed celebrating the holiday in the 1640s and 1650s.
English bishop Hugh Latimer, said that “Men dishonor Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.”
In New England Christmas caroling was condemned by the famous minister Cotton Mather who wrote in 1712 that the “Feast of Christ’s Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty …by Mad Mirth, by long eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling. . . .”
Growing up my church family often gathered on Christmas Eve and visited the homes of older members who might not be able to attend church services. We would stand outside their homes and sing carols. Sometimes they would invite us in to share a warm drink. When we were missionaries in the Philippines, we were serenaded at Christmas by students at one of the Bible colleges where we taught.
Even this year our church will be gathering to share Christmas carols with the community. We will gather afterwards to share warm cocoa and cookies.
If you would like to try a pot of wassail, here is a recipe from allrecipes. There are many other recipes available if you google.
Ingredients: ½ gallon apple cider 1 (46 fluid ounce) can pineapple juice 46 fluid ounces cranberry juice cocktail 1 orange, thinly sliced 5 cinnamon sticks 1 tablespoon whole allspice berries 1 tablespoon whole cloves
Step 1 Pour apple cider, pineapple juice, and cranberry juice into a stockpot. Place orange slices, cinnamon sticks, allspice berries, and cloves in a muslin pouch or directly into the apple cider mixture. Bring apple cider mixture to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until flavors have blended, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove orange slices and spices before serving.
Here is a second recipe from the “Williamsburg Cookbook” that is served at Colonial Williamsburg.
Ingredients 1 cup sugar 4 cinnamon sticks 3 lemon slices 2 cups pineapple juice 2 cups orange juice 6 cups dry red wine ½ cup lemon juice 1 cup dry sherry 2 lemons, sliced
Directions: Boil the sugar, cinnamon sticks, and 3 lemon slices in ½ cup of water for 5 minutes and strain. Discard the cinnamon sticks and lemon slices.
Heat but do not boil the remaining ingredients. Combine with the syrup, garnish with the lemon slices, and serve hot.
If you try one of the recipes, I would love to know which you tried and if you liked it. (But don’t drink too much and cause a riot.)
One of the earliest carols written in North America is a song we never sing. Most of us have probably never even heard of it. It was written by John de Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary to the Huron Indians.
Brebeuf, along with a group of Jesuits, lived with the Hurons in what is now modern-day Ontario. The missionaries learned the native language and tried to introduce the Christian message in their language. They translated hymns and other Christian writings into the Huron language and then read them aloud to the Indians in their own mother tongue.
Brebeuf wrote the carol “Jesous Ahatonnia” (“Jesus is Born”). For the melody he used a sixteenth century French folk song. As you read the words of the carol you can see how he tried to use their own culture and understanding to tell the story of the birth of Jesus.
The Huron Carol
Twas in the moon of wintertime When all the birds had fled, That mighty Gitchi Manitou Sent angel choirs instead; Before their light the stars grew dim, And wond’ring hunters heard the hymn: Jesus, your King is born, Jesus is born, In excelsis gloria.
O, harken to the angels’ word, Do not decline To heed the message which you heard: The Child Divine, As they proclaim, has come this morn Of Mary pure. Let us adore. Jesus is born, In excelsis gloria.
Within a lodge of broken bark The tender Babe was found, A ragged robe of rabbit skin Enwrapp’d His beauty ’round; But as the hunter braves drew nigh, The angel song rang loud and high: Jesus, your King is born, Jesus is born, In excelsis gloria.
The earliest moon of wintertime Is not so round and fair As was the ring of glory on The helpless infant there. The chiefs from far before Him knelt With gifts of fox and beaver pelt. Jesus, your King is born, Jesus is born, In excelsis gloria.
O children of the forest free, O sons of Manitou, The Holy Child of earth and heav’n Is born today for you.
Time for making cookies, shopping for gifts, decorating the Christmas tree and all our house inside and out. Time for family gatherings, parties at friends, watching Hallmark Christmas movies. The list goes on and on.
As I listen to people talk about the holiday, it almost seems at times as if it is more of a stressful time for some than a joyous celebration. People wonder if they will get the right gift for that special someone, if their decorations will look as nice as the neighbor’s next door, if they will have enough time for all they need to do to celebrate this holiday.
And I have to ask myself: what are we celebrating?
The Early Church did not celebrate Christmas. For them the important date was the day Jesus arose from the grave. Granted without His birth He could not have grown up and died for us. But for the Early believers, the important thing to celebrate was His resurrection. Two of the Gospels do not even mention the birth of Jesus but all four Gospels give great detail of the last days of His life as He was crucified, buried and rose again. The Aposle Paul shared that this was the heart of the good news.
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Doing some research into church history, I discovered that the first Christmas was celebrated December 25, 336. The Roman emperor Constantine decreed this celebration to take place throughout the Roman Empire and Pope Julus I selected the date of December 25. Bible scholars tell us there is nothing in the Bible or in Early Church history to know the date of the birth of Jesus. Many reason that it was more lately that his birth was in the spring. Would shepherds be out on the hills with their sheep in the middle of winter?
Many pagan societies observed this date as a celebration of the winter solstice. This was the shortest day of the year and would lead to the return of the sun. In ancient Germanic cultures, they would burn a Yule log, light bonfires, tell stories and drank ale. Ancient Romans had a seven-day celebration, Saturnalia, beginning December 17. They would have a sacrifice at the temple of Saturn followed by several days of a carnival atmosphere. oldest winter celebrations in the world.
It is believed by many scholars that the Pope chose December 25 to try to turn people away from the celebration of Saturnalia and begin to follow the Christian way of life.
Whatever the reason for the choice of December 25 it has come down to us as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
But again, I ask: what are we celebrating?
I recently visited a Christmas celebration at a local mall. I wondered what someone who had no knowledge of our customs and came to the celebration would think it was all about. There were all kinds of items with Santa Claus, the elves, the reindeer. But I saw nothing about the stable, the manger, Jesus.
Now – do I sound like Scrooge?
I certainly do not mean to. I love the decorations, the Christmas movies of the Elf on the Shelf and all that goes with our holiday in America. This week I will be busy putting up my tree and decorating my home all in red and gold, looking for that perfect gift for my husband.
But I wonder: What if you were told your friends were going to have a party to celebrate your birthday. You get excited and come to the party expecting greetings from everyone – and maybe some presents. You arrive early because you are so happy your friends want to celebrate this day with you. When you arrive, no one acknowledges your presence. No one offers you a seat at the table. There are no signs saying, “Happy birthday.” Instead, another person is seated at the head of the table. Everyone is talking to him, wanting to have their picture taken with him, toasting him. You are totally ignored.
You might go home wondering: what were they celebrating?
I hope you will enjoy this month and all the food, decorations, shopping, family gathering, parties. But I hope you will truly remember who and what we are celebrating.
I hope you will take time to listen to this song – and ask yourself: what am I celebrating?
Normally on Friday I post a list of ten things I have found interesting in my reading and listening to various speakers. For the month of December, I am going to instead post the history of a beloved Christmas song.
The one today is one I hope you will take time to read – and then pray for the Ukrainian nation.
I have always loved this song. It is so cheerful and full of the holiday spirit at Christmas time.
The song first came to worldwide recognition when the Ukrainian National Chorus conducted by Alexander Koshetz performed at Carnegie Hall in October 1922. Dressed in their traditional embroidered dress the audience responded to their rendition of the song by cheering for encores and throwing flowers on the stage.
This traditional Ukrainian song was listed on the playbill as “Shchedryk.” This was actually a pagan folk song that was sung on the New Year and had nothing to do with bells or Christmas. The song tells of a swallow summoning the master of the house to look at the coming spring season and the harvest it will bring. In 1916 composer and teacher, Mykola Leontovych added music to the lyrics. He had worked for several years on his arrangement and orchestration of “Shchedryk.” He sent his arrangement to the director of the National Chorus in August 1916 and several months later it was performed by the choir in Kyiv.
This song is closely associated with Ukraine’s history. When the Romanov dynasty fell in March 1917, the Ukrainian People’s Republic was declared in 1918. Its president, Symon Petilura, wanted the world to know about Ukrainian culture in the hopes it would gain support for his new state. So, the Ukrainian National Chorus began a worldwide tour. On their tour they would pass out brochures with information about their new country.
While the choir was touring Europe and the USA, the Cheka, which later became the KGB, began killing thousands in an effort to bring Ukraine back into Russia which was now ruled by the Bolsheviks. This period became known as the Red Terror.
This terror reached to the composer of this song. On January 23, 1921, the composer was shot by an agent of the Soviets, Afanasy Grishchenko. He had asked for shelter for the night at the composer’s family home. During the night he shot Leontovych with a rifle.
Hearing a performance of the original song, Peter J. Wilhousky copyrighted the music and wrote new lyrics (not based on the Ukrainian folk song) which he published in 1936. The new version became popular in the USA and Canada and became associated with Christmas.
By 1921, the short-lived People’s Republic had fallen. Its terriitories were divided between Russia, Poland, Romanis and Czechoslovakia. It was not until the collapose of the Soviet Union in 1991 that Ukraine became an independent nation once again.
While we enjoy this cheerful song with its cheerful lyrics, let us remember we owe our thanks to the Ukrainian nation for this song. Let us pray for this people who have fought so hard and so long for their own country.
In Christ alone my hope is found, He is my light, my strength, my song; this Cornerstone, this solid Ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm. What heights of love, what depths of peace, when fears are stilled, when strivings cease! My Comforter, my All in All, here in the love of Christ I stand.
In Christ alone! who took on flesh Fulness of God in helpless babe! This gift of love and righteousness Scorned by the ones he came to save: Till on that cross as Jesus died, The wrath of God was satisfied – For every sin on Him was laid; Here in the death of Christ I live.
There in the ground His body lay Light of the world by darkness slain: Then bursting forth in glorious Day Up from the grave he rose again! And as He stands in victory Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me, For I am His and He is mine – Bought with the precious blood of Christ.
No guilt in life, no fear in death, This is the power of Christ in me; From life’s first cry to final breath. Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man, Can ever pluck me from His hand; Till He returns or calls me home, Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand
Today the church remembers the death of Jesus on the cross. As we read the story we often denigrate the Roman soldiers, the Jewish religious leaders, Pilate and even the followers of Jesus.
How could they not know that this was the Son of God we ask? How could they mock Him as He hung on the cross and died?
I recently read an article by Steve Cordle in his book A Jesus-Shaped Life which I would like to share here.
A forty-year-old white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap found a spot next to a garbage can near the entrance of the Washington metro station. He pulled a violin from a small case and placed the open case at his feet. As most huskers do, he threw in a few dollars as seed money and began to play.
He spent the next forty-three minutes playing immortal classics by Mozart and Schubert as a parade of people streamed by. This violinist was no ordinary street musician, however, and he didn’t need the money. His name is Joshua Bell, and he is one of the finest concert violinists in the world. The violin he was playing was a Stradivarius made in 1713 and worth over $3.5 million.
The Washington Post newspaper had arranged for him to play at the metro as an experiment in whether people would recognize greatness and beauty in unlikely places. That day, 1097 people passed by Bells concert. Seven people stopped to listen to him play. Only one person recognized him.
That same week, Bell played to capacity concert hall crowds paying at least $100 per ticket. At the subway Bell collected a total of about $32 from the twenty-seven people who stopped long enough to donate.
It is understandable that most people did not recognize Bell. Even if they were classical music buffs, no one expects to come upon a world-renowned virtuoso playing in the subway.
No one expected that God would appear on earth in the form of a servant either.
But are we any different today? How often do we go about our busy lives – doing our own thing – and take little or no time to communicate with Jesus? How often do we make decisions without even bothering to seek His direction? How often do we fail to see His mercy, His love and His grace all about us? How much of our time is devoted to our own pursuits with little time left over for Him?
As we reflect on His death so long ago, help us to not be guilty of giving Him a few moments this weekend and then go back to our own routines with little or no acknowledgment of Him.