by David Chilton
Through the centuries, many customs have been developed to express the significance of the Incarnation. Setting forth universal truths in the context of local backgrounds and concerns, these practices reflect both the substantial unity and multifaceted diversity of the Christian faith. Christmas traditions tend to cluster around the following six themes:
Giving gifts. Perhaps the first thing that enters our minds about Christmas is the tradition of giving gifts to one another. But we do well to remember that the very first Christmas presents were offered by the Magi to our Lord, as a grateful response to God for His unspeakable gift of salvation. This pattern is still followed in many communities: In Zaire, for example, an early morning Christmas service includes a procession of worshipers to present gifts on or near the Lord’s Table.
Fasting. Christmas is a feast—the Feast of the Incarnation, a glad celebration of thanksgiving for God’s saving grace. But we enter Christmas through the season of Advent. Sometimes called “Christmas Lent,” Advent is in many Christian traditions a time of fasting, of privation, as believers meditate on the brokenness of the world and the emptiness of life before the birth of Christ, the King.
The Advent fast usually means abstaining from meat, eggs, and dairy products. On Christmas Day, Middle Eastern Christians assemble in church at dawn. For them, Holy Communion is the breaking of the fast, literally, the break-fast—the glad beginning of a feast that will last throughout the “12 days of Christmas,” until the Feast of Epiphany on January 6.
Evergreens. Jesus came as the Second Adam, to restore “the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7 nkjv; cf. Rev. 22:1–2). In the bleak midwinter, while most vegetation lies dormant under a blanket of snow, evergreens testify of life. Holly, ivy, and mistletoe are especially beloved at Christmastime. As earthly images of Christ the Tree of Life, they bear fruit in winter. Psalm 1 reminds us that the faithful believer too is a tree of life—a fruit-bearing evergreen “whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper” (Psalm 1:3 nkjv).
Perhaps the clearest reminder of the Tree of Life is the traditional Christmas tree, decorated with lights and real or artificial fruit. By some accounts, this custom was started by St. Boniface, the eighth-century missionary to the Germans, who bravely chopped down the sacred oak of Thor and replaced it with a fir tree dedicated to the Christ Child—teaching his converts what the church father Tertullian had said five centuries earlier in his treatise against idolatry: “You are a light of the world, a tree ever green, if you have renounced the heathen temple.”
Light. Christmas celebrates the coming of the Light of the world—“the Sunrise from on high” (Luke 1:78)—and for that reason it is the season most associated with lights. Across the world, streets, homes, churches, schools, and shopping malls come alive in a jubilant blaze of multicolored brilliance. In part, this tradition stems from the Jewish winter feast of Hanukkah, the “Festival of Lights,” commemorating the cleansing and dedication of the temple under the Maccabees in 165 b.c.
Fire has long been a symbol of Christ. In many Christian homes, the family assembles for a special candle-lighting ceremony around the Advent wreath on the Sundays preceding Christmas. In Ireland, a candle within a holly or laurel wreath burns throughout Christmas Eve. Portuguese Christians keep candles lit in every window of the home from Christmas Eve till New Year’s, as a sign of welcome to all, friends and strangers alike.
In Syria on Christmas Eve, a Christian household gathers to hear the youngest son read the story of the Nativity. The father then lights a bonfire, and the family sings psalms until the fire burns to embers. A few hours later, before sunrise, they will attend worship in church, where another bonfire will burn to the accompaniment of Christian hymns.
Bell-ringing. Bells have been used in Christian worship from at least the fifth century. Since medieval times, church bells have traditionally tolled a solemn, eerie death-knell for the devil just before midnight on Christmas Eve—then, at the stroke of midnight, suddenly changing to a joyous peal of victory, announcing the triumph of the King and the inauguration of His worldwide rule.
Singing. Christmas literally began with singing, as the angelic choir sang “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” to the wondering shepherds outside Bethlehem. Christmas is inseparable from music, and one of the glories of the season is that it is the one time of the year when the world seems to approach sanity—when virtually every office, elevator, and supermarket is suffused with the message of the Gospel presented in glorious song.
And such joyous music! Have you ever heard a somber or morbid Christmas carol? It is unthinkable, for they are all coronation songs, ringing the praises of the King of kings. Carols never suggest that Christ is not yet enthroned; from “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” they all rejoice with the apostolic Gospel that God “has delivered us from the power of darkness and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Col. 1:13 nkjv).
Christmas doesn’t end with the Babe in the manger. It leads us forward to Epiphany, Christ’s saving manifestation of Himself to the nations. The visit of the Magi, commemorated on January 6, was but a foretaste of the stated goal of Christ’s mission: “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:32 nkjv).
Joy to the world! ▲
 Chilton, D. (1993). Christmas around the World. (R. C. Sproul Jr., Ed.)Tabletalk Magazine, December 1993: Marley’s Message to Scrooge, 14–55.