published Sunday, December 25th, 2011

Merry Christmas, 2011

Scholars -- both religious and secular -- mostly agree that the historical Jesus was born about 4 B.C. There is general agreement, too, that a monk 500 or so years later who was trying to precisely calculate the Roman year of Jesus' birth helped establish the date -- Dec. 25 -- that is now widely celebrated as Christmas.

The displays of greenery and lights that are an integral part of modern-day Christmas have a special history, as well. They and the custom of gift-giving on the holiday are traditions that descend from long-practiced early winter solstice rites that marked the halfway point between the fall harvest and the time for spring planting. Those time-honored practices were folded into the Christ-centered Christmas tradition about 1,500 years ago when Pope Gregory the Great initiated a wide-ranging effort to bring the then still considerable number of nonbelievers -- pagans -- into the church.

That historical information is useful in context, but has little to do with the way observant Christians and others now mark Christmas. For the faithful, the precise calendar date of Jesus' birth is immaterial, as are the antecedents of ancient customs that over the years have become part of the holiday observance. What is important to both those who observe Christmas in the religious sense and to those who embrace the holiday for its venerable tradition of sharing and expressions of love is the sublime message of the day.

This love is manifest in many ways -- when we offer prayers and thanks for all who are dear to us and for all we have to celebrate. It is personified, as well, in the eyes and hearts of our loved ones when they give or receive a gift with special meaning or intent. It is reflected, most joyously, in the gaiety and laughter, particularly from the little ones, that are part of the holiday experience.

For many Christians and others as well, Christmas transcends the ordinary world and the humdrum that marks so many lives. Christmas is the time when many purposefully look for spiritual transformation, for rebirth and to understand the demands of the soul rather than pursue the habits of everyday existence.

While gift-giving, historically, is tied to the pagan celebrations of the solstice, it has come to have a new meaning. It acknowledges the gift of eternal life that Christmas' central event, the birth of Jesus, marks for observant Christians.

That is why that the giving of gifts is more important than receiving them to all but the most self-centered and greedy. The love that prompts the gift is far more important than the gift itself. In that sense, the commercialism that has come to typify Christmas in many places can not erase the real meaning of a traditional family and faith-centered Christmas observance.

Christmas, then, remains at its heart an observance remarkable for its sharing within the bonds of family and with those whose needs can be met with the compassion and understanding that love of one another can engender. Most of us, of course, first and most willingly share our love with those dearest to us, but it is essential, too, that we share our spiritual and secular blessings with those less fortunate -- those who are lonely, poor ill and spiritually bereft. Giving, not receiving, is at the heart of the Christmas message and its practice can restore both body and soul.

For many of us, Christmas Day and the days preceding and following it are an especially joyful time that has more meaning when it is shared with loved ones, family and friends. For those without strong personal connections and spiritual and material blessings, it is a period when assistance and comfort often are most welcome. In that spirit, we wish you, and each of our readers, a peaceful, loving, merry and most blessed Christmas.

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