Rethinking the True Meaning of Christmas

Dec 20, 2023

Reading time: 6 Minutes

Looking in on the manger where Jesus was born

There are so many different voices clamoring to tell us the meaning of Christmas.

“The meaning of Christmas is being kind to one another.” 

“No, it is that it is better to give than to receive.” 


“It is a time to tell those you care about how you feel.” 

“No, it is a season to spend time with loved ones.”


“It is about God coming to save us.”

“It is about remembering the sacrifice Jesus made.”


It is no wonder that the meaning of Christmas remains an elusive idea in a church that wants to celebrate different aspects of the story. Not to mention, the world looks for easy commercial themes in a holiday that would have more universal appeal if you took Christianity out of it. 


For believers, we have the advantage of knowing the ultimate place to look for meaning: in the Bible.


When reading over the Christmas story in Matthew and Luke, it is striking how much strife and conflict there is surrounding the birth of Jesus.


The genealogy tells a story of troubled, sinful people from a troubled, sinful nation (Matt. 1:1-17), a marriage that begins under unbelievably difficult circumstances, a young woman with a tarnished reputation (Matt. 1:18), a conflicted husband (Matt. 1:19), and the intervention of frightening supernatural beings (Luke 1:13; Matt. 1:20).


On top of this there is an arduous journey forced by an oppressive nation (Luke 2:1-4), a dangerous and difficult situation for the birth (Luke 2:7), and an escape from murderous rulers early in the life of Jesus (Matt. 2:13-15).


God did not just choose for the Savior of the world to be born as a helpless child, but to be born into traumatic circumstances to traumatized parents.


rustic wooden manger filled with straw and cloth


This is an important part of the meaning of Christmas.


As we learn more about trauma, we are learning how pervasive it is. The thought is no longer that ‘shell-shocked’ soldiers are the only ones that experience trauma, but that all of us experience varying degrees depending on our history.


God did not just send his only son to die on a cross for us, but sent him as a child. Jesus is a high priest that understands our challenges and suffering, that understands trauma- having a difficult history, and a not quite cookie-cutter family.


Easter is the celebration of the resurrection; Christmas is a celebration of the incarnation and that humans are special beings to God. Humans are so special that God became a human, that we might have life and a new relationship with him. 


If Christmas is about the incarnation (not about presents or being nice) and the one true God entering into our experiences, then how do we focus on that during this season? How do we help our families to move past the commercialism and see what God has done and is doing during this holiday?


Emphasize the Difficulty in the Christmas Story


When we retell the Christmas Story, it is often told with an emphasis on cute. It usually involves some version of Jesus being born in a quaint manger surrounded by friendly animals and generous wise men. When we do this, we forget about the sacrifice and longsuffering needed to endure the early challenges. Joseph and Mary were scared, young parents! Jesus was raised as a son of immigrants in the middle of lots of transitions.


When we retell the story this way, we forget that Jesus not only conquered death, but suffering! He entered into our suffering to show us the way to have joy no matter what is happening around us.


This is a powerful Christmas message that we can often overlook and fail to pass on to others.


As we recount the story with our families, it is important to emphasize that it was hard for the people involved. But in the midst of the difficulty, they had joy, because their hope was not in their circumstances, but in God. 


Remember Thankfulness in Receiving Gifts


When I was young, the meaning of Christmas to me was presents. I could not wait to open all my gifts, playing with the ones I was excited about and pushing the rest to the side. Thankfulness did not come into the equation.


But thankfulness is such an important part of the meaning of Christmas. Gratitude for what Jesus has done. Gratitude for the fact that he was sent to us by a God of grace. Gratitude for all the blessings we have, and gratitude that we do not get what our sin deserves.


parents giving gift to child


Just like my experience, though, gratefulness can get tossed to the side in favor of shinier things about the holiday.


With our families, we can take a moment after each present to be thankful, to be thankful that we have a gift at all, to be thankful for the person that gave the gift, to be thankful that God gives us gifts all the time that we do not notice.


We personally let our kids open gifts for a few days before and after Christmas so that they can appreciate and be thankful for each one at a time.


Model Grace and Forgiveness


We all want to see more forgiveness and grace in the world. While Christmas time encourages us to be nicer to one another than we normally are, it falls short on providing action steps for us to do more than just stuff down negative emotions for a few weeks. 


The path that Jesus carved out for us to find joy in all circumstances is paved with forgiveness and grace.


The miracle of Jesus’ life was that he made a way for us to receive the grace of God. So when we celebrate Christmas, we can celebrate that God has grace for us and that we internalize that grace more when we forgive others.


These are things that we struggle with modeling to our family, as it can be easier to keep our mistakes and need for forgiveness to ourselves. But one of the best ways to celebrate the meaning of Christmas is to share these things with others. 


I try to share these things with my kids as often as I feel up to it. I try to let them when I have been unkind to someone and how thankful I am for God’s grace.


I try to share with them when I am struggling to forgive or am angry at someone. Then I let them know that I can release that debt because God released all of my debts.


These things can be important to share on Christmas because it helps people to make a connection between the holiday and the grace we are given, and futhermore, a connection between the grace we were given and the grace we give others. 




Christmas is a blessed time of year, but the meaning of it can get lost in the midst of all the busyness.


If we focus on the meaning of Christmas this year, on what God has done for us and what he is doing in us even now, we will receive more than just presents. We will be taking another step along the path Jesus made for us, to find joy and peace in the midst of any circumstances, on the way to eternal life.


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