And beyond this there lies in the ocean … the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from the other barbarians who occupy the north-western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.
In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas, and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival, guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards, the market-place is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness. …
They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. …
But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. … And in the midst of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.) …
But what Hecatacus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb. —”Xmas and Christmas: Lost Chapter from Herodotus,” C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock
I received a solicitation by email the other day from cheap-xmas-gifts.com. I see a warehouse filled to the ceiling with pallet-loads of Regis Philbin designer neck ties, SpongeBob SquarePants soap-on-a-rope, Paris Hilton dolls (wardrobe not included), and I voted for John Kerry, before I voted against him coffee mugs.
The city of Denver, following the lead of other municipalities worried about offending non-Christians, is planning a Christmas Parade of Lights, no Christian symbols or songs allowed. Perhaps former General Electric chairman Jack Welch will come out of retirement and make a guest appearance dressed as a fat, jolly old 60-watt light bulb.
“…The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of stock-options danced in their heads.”
Some Christians lament the marketing of Christmas, the removal of Christian songs and symbols from schools and other public places, and the renaming of the Christmas season to the bland Happy Holidays. I happen to think it’s a good thing that Xmas and Christmas are finally separate from each other in the public square. Despite Hecatacus claims to the contrary, I agree with Herodotus: To say they are the same is simply not credible.
Christmas was never about Santa Claus and reindeer and fir trees and colored lights and snowmen and gifts. That was another story, one intended to charm and delight children, as well as all those who wish they could be children once again.
Christmas is a very different story, about the unveiling of a glorious plan by the Lord of Heaven. It isn’t a story about elves and sugar plums and other childish ideas. It’s a very adult story, about a world come to grief over the loss of its identity, and the God who comes down to his people to wipe away our tears, to tell us who we are and what we were meant to be, and to show us how to know our Creator.
That Christmas story is way better than the one about the guy who slides down chimneys. Those of us who know the story of the baby in the manger need to tell it wherever we have the opportunity. We need to live it out day by day, so that men and women will want to discover what is responsible for the hope that lives within us.
(At the proper time according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought the baby Jesus to Jerusalem to the temple to present him to God, and to offer a sacrifice.)
In Jerusalem at the time, there was a man, Simeon by name, a good man, a man who lived in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel. And the Holy Spirit was on him. The Holy Spirit had shown him that he would see the messiah of God before he died. Led by the Spirit, he entered the Temple. As the parents of the child Jesus brought him in to carry out the rituals of the Law, Simeon took him into his arms and blessed God:
God, you can now release your servant;
release me in peace as you promised.
With my own eyes I’ve seen your salvation;
it’s now out in the open for everyone to see:
A God-revealing light to the non-Jewish nations,
and of glory for your people Israel.
Jesus’ father and mother were speechless with surprise at these words. —Luke 2:25-33, The Message
Now there’s an event worth celebrating, and a story worth telling again and again! Merry Christmas!