The Meaning of Christmas

It is that time of year for lights and shopping and multiple reruns of “A Christmas Story”. It is also that time of year when we hear various critics say “We have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas.” So I found myself thinking this morning “What IS the true meaning of Christmas?”

For many, it is a time of reminders of painful moments. Soldiers with memories of combat during Christmastime. Traumatized persons recalling times of family violence in the midst of alcohol abuse. One woman, for example, recalls her father in a drunken rage losing his balance, knocking over the Christmas tree, then blaming everyone else for the disaster. Many veterans recall C-rations for Christmas dinner. For me, Christmastime includes the reminders that both parents and one sister died during December.

Christians attach great meaning to the birth of Jesus and indeed it is a wonderful story with great drama. I always was intrigued by the Three Wise Men and would look forward to the annual television presentation of “Amahl and the Night Visitors”. But I continue to struggle with the notion of Redemption that, for many, provides the answer to the meaning of Christmas. Oh, I understand what it means to be redeemed as do most of us who are recovering alcoholics and addicts. But how this relates to the birth of Jesus eludes me. I do, however, get it that somehow something about His birth has to do with hope. And just as the movie Shawshank Redemption says “Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.” Lord knows we all need hope these days.

Christmas, too, seems to be about giving. The meaning of Christmas surely can’t be found in “stuff”. But this points me toward a story that reflects my own understanding of the meaning of Christmas. It’s a story I’ve told before but good stories are worth retelling, right?

My mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer on December 7. Ironically it was my father’s birthday. She was 81 years old and elected not to pursue chemotherapy. As such, I went back to Pennsylvania to spend some time with her.

One day, a week before Christmas, I walked into her hospital room and she said “What are you still doing here?” I explained I wasn’t leaving until the next day and she asked “Isn’t today Christmas?” I clarified for her that it was still a week away. That’s when I got the clue. “Mom, are you trying to stay alive through Christmas?” “Of course I am!” she said. “I don’t want to spoil everyone’s Christmas.” This was consistent with the manner in which she had lived her life for others. I tried to tell her that she didn’t have to do that, that I didn’t want to see her suffer, and so on. But my mother was as stubborn as they come.

My mother slipped into a coma the day before Christmas but was still with us. So on Christmas night, I called the hospital and asked the nurse to thank my mother and tell her we’d had a good Christmas, hoping that, even in a coma, she’d hear those words. She died on December 28.

Can we choose our time of death? I don’t know but I do know stories of persons who kept going until something had been accomplished. So my mother, in dialogue with her Lord, had been given that option and kept herself going so my family could enjoy Christmas. That final act of loving captures for me the true meaning of Christmas.

Merry Christmas to you all and may you have insight into your own meaning of Christmas.