It is not just for historians that this is the time of year for remembering. And it is not just for Baptists that Christmas is a time for comfort and joy. The end of the year causes all the world to take stock, to think about the failures and the successes of the past, and perhaps even to make preliminary plans for the New Year. Christians and secular observers of Christmas alike also remember at this time in December the celebrations of Christmases past, those joyous times of families gathered around tables laden with sumptuous food and around decorated, lighted trees to open presents, to laugh, to share stories, and to bask in the glow of love and security and care.
We remember just such a Christmas. Perhaps we are anticipating another one just like it. Others, however, have burdens to bear, burdens that seem especially heavy this time of the year. My mother’s dear mother, my grandmother, died on Christmas Day. I only came to understand my mother’s bout of melancholy each Christmas once I had grown to manhood, finally able to take in exactly what having a loved one’s death on Christmas Day must have meant. Christmas would have never been the same.
Of course, for thousands of others living far below the poverty line, Christmas only heightens the struggle for the basic necessities of life. Homeless men and women roaming city streets, taking in the Christmas decorations in store windows, realizing they will never be able to enjoy the riches within. Their only compensation, perhaps, might be the temporary spirit of good will that causes Christmas shoppers to hand out dollar bills, instead of quarters and dimes, to the sick and the dirty unfortunate individuals they encounter as they duck into the downtown shoppes.
Think of the poor and the hungry and the unhealthy mothers and fathers, the brothers and sisters, the grandmothers and grandfathers, the rest of the extended families and friends, as they sit around living rooms—if they have living rooms—on December 25 this year all around Kentucky, all around the United States, all around the world.
What of the 50,000 exiled Christians attempting to return to Qaraqosh in Iraq after being forced out by ISIS in June 2014? These Christians in Qaraqosh, having worshipped in Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ since the 4th century, only now are trickling back to their ancient city. What comfort will they find? What solace will the Christmas Story bring to them?
The heart of the matter is that if we read the Christmas Story without the usual accoutrements of traditions of tree and lights and wrapping paper and eggnog and all of the mass and crass commercialism that we have made synonymous with the Yuletide Season, the central characters in this most important Story relate much more readily to the individuals I described above who live below the poverty line, to the homeless people unable to find a place to sleep at night, to the hungry, the tired, the dispossessed, the dirty, the distraught.
Back in Jerusalem, when Herod heard that the Christ was born he decreed that all newborn baby boys be killed immediately upon their birth. Of course, it is no comfort now, but the grieving parents of the United States and the world, if remembering Christmas at all, should remember that the Christ child was born in a holocaust under conditions of poverty.
It was for those of us who have been brought up in peace and comfort and security that the Christ child came. But He also came for those who were more like His earthly family, poor and dispossessed from a small town, having traveled a long way before that day, having come into Bethlehem tired, dirty, tattered, taking shelter in a stable or cave.
And so it was that the Christ child came into the world. It was Mary and Joseph who represented the underclass. That is why we all can take comfort at this time of year, whether we are celebrating a life of joy and peace, or suffering, devastation, and death in a world of woe. Whatever our condition, we can “go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.”
Duane Bolin teaches in the Department of History at Murray State University. Contact Duane at firstname.lastname@example.org