The ‘Now’, the ‘Then’ and the ‘Before’ of Christmas

by Lois Donahue

As I glanced through the three inch stack of November-dated, brightly colored, Sunday paper inserts advertising everything from musical angels and plastic Nativity Scenes to quilted tree skirts and Rock ‘n Roll Santas, a question crept into my mind – “How long have we had Christmas?” 

For me the logical answer was “Ever since Jesus was born.” As is so often the case, I was wrong. After doing some ‘here and there’ reading I learned that for the first three centuries no specific recognition was given to the birth of Our Lord. In fact the event was pretty much no more than a kind of taken-for-granted part of the Feast of the Epiphany.

It was in the fourth century, whether in response to the wishes of the faithful or for some other reason, that the Church designated December 25th as the day to be set apart for giving special honor to the birth of Christ. Thus began what today is the ‘then’ of Christmas.

In the centuries that followed, this great Holy Day of the Church became more and more popular and people brought to it their ways of devotion and celebration – their tastes and their talents and, unfortunately, often their purely money-making abilities.

So it is that we have, for better or worse, things like “Jingle Bells”, reindeer, greenery wreaths, ornaments, greeting cards, Yule logs and fruit cakes. It is the accumulation of all such things that has become for us the ‘now’ of Christmas.

Having touched very briefly on both the ‘now’ and the ‘then’ of Christmas, let us, in closing, think back to long ‘before’ this great Feast came into existence. Today, as we are all engulfed in our own ‘busyness’ of preparation for this illustrious Holiday perhaps we can take a moment or two to think of Mary and the ‘happenings’ in her life during that special piece of time which we have all come to know as ‘the first Christmas’.

To begin with, we can be quite sure Mary, unlike many of us, would not have been caught up in shopping, wrapping or baking cookies. There would have been no tree with flickering lights – no talking dolls – no hanging mistletoe. She would certainly not have been subjected to the annoyances we endure each Christmas. 

She would not have been pushed and shoved by crowds of – understandably but still annoying – impatient, self-absorbed people. She would not have known the frustration of time running out and no place to park. She wouldn’t have had to cope with the inconvenience and apprehension of travel during a busy time.

She wouldn’t have encountered Christmas Eve exhaustion, long lines, short tempers, standing room only or stress pain in random body parts – to say nothing of high-volume, ever-present people noise SHE WOULDN’T HAVE?? – ARE YOU SURE? Think about it…..

In the last month of her pregnancy, she had just traveled the sixty miles from Nazareth on poor roads winding through robber-infested territory without benefit of wheels, wings or pedals. Can we truly imagine there were NOT stand-and-wait lines in that census-packed town or that she would NOT have been ‘pushed and shoved’ by people exhausted and angry? Do we really believe human beings in general have changed that dramatically?

Oh yes, and since we all know what a headache people-noise can be as we Christmas shop, just think how a goodly number of braying, barking and snorting animals would have increased the decibel intensity for Mary to say nothing of how much lower back pain or cramping would have raised her anxiety level. So much for recalling the negatives.

Now, in all fairness, let us admit that, in spite of it all, there does come that delightful ‘Christmas moment’ when, somewhere in quiet, we can drop into a spot of comfort, kick off our shoes and be thankful for no more than that. I think Mary would have had her moment when she entered the quiet and fairly secure stable – made herself reasonably comfortable on a straw-strewn floor – smiled lovingly at Joseph – and, of course, kicked off her sandals.

But even more rewarding, comes that for which we all wait and hope and pray – the ‘knowing’ that it was all worthwhile. For Mary, on that special night, I have the feeling her ‘knowing’ must have come when she first held her newborn child. This had to have been for her the fulfillment of promises and the reward of faith – for the “lowly handmaid of the lord”, the culmination of words and incidents she never questioned in doubt but which she still did not fully understand.

What better way to end our speculations about the ‘before’ of Christmas than by returning to Bethlehem and picturing Mary completely absorbed in thoughts about the tiny baby boy she held lovingly in her arms and by thinking to ourselves something like–

The night wore silence reverently God’s star shown from above As Mary viewed her newborn child With wonderment and love.

Flesh of her flesh and yet divine Redeemer sent for all So powerful yet so helpless He Majestic yet so small.

She kissed His feet – He was her God Her Lord’s hands one by one But when she kissed his baby cheek She knew he was – before all else – her son.

— With love and prayers I wish for each and every one of you a most Holy and Happy Holiday Season and ask that you join me in praying that we and the generations that follow us never lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas.