First Christmases come in many sizes and shapes, and at times in the most unexpected places. There are first Christmases for children, those for American immigrants, first Christmases for new believers, and the very first Christmas in Bethlehem. Different though these firsts may be, they are similar in ways that connect us all.
First Christmases for Children:
Grandma was a big part of my first Christmas memory. She was that rare thing -- an interesting grownup. Grandma could do anything! She made matching voile dresses for me and my new Christmas dolly. And years later, I discovered that it was she who braved the frosty Massachusetts dawn to ring sleigh bells outside my window. Grandma Alice brought joy!
At six months of age, my son taught us about the "cat stage" of human development. Joy for him was not in gifts, but in batting at shiny ornaments on the tree like a frolicking kitten.
Joy can be contagious. We share it when we lift our eyes from our own Christmas stockings to find delight in others'.
Traditionally, Christmas is a time we think of those less fortunate than us. We give money to relief and shoeboxes to poor children. But there is another way that some in America are less fortunate: access to American holiday information.
First Christmases for American Immigrants:
Christmas trees are now part of Western life for many Muslim, Buddhist, and Sikh immigrants. Although they may not know, or may disagree with the religious aspects of holidays, they enjoy the festivities.
But some immigrants want to know more about American holidays. For example, three months ago, two university students newly arrived in Connecticut from China, asked me, "What's the difference between Thanksgiving and Christmas?"
This is not unique. The year previously in a California State University, a Southeast Asian student who came to America as a child asked me, "So what is Easter about? Is it about something besides eggs and bunnies?", and an immigrant Indian child asked me, "Is Christmas about more than Santa and presents?"
Friends, why do people ask questions? Because they want to know the answer.
America prides itself on equal opportunity, yet in trying to be neutral, our schools have inadvertently created an insider information setting -- those of us whose families have been here for generations know about our holidays and their symbolism. We pass it to our children. But unless they go looking, newcomers, aka "foreigners", are often left out in the cold.
Sharing Christmas with newcomers to America is my current source of holiday joy. It could be yours too.
For example, in Saudi Arabia there is no opportunity to attend the ballet. For the past several years, I've been introducing Middle Eastern students to the Nutcracker and other ballets. While I may be enjoying the costumes or criticizing the technique, they are as amazed with it all like children on Christmas morning. Its newness and rarity synergize the blessing for them.
For deeper understanding, at times, I take immigrants to church. An Iranian immigrant friend, a physician and single mom, shared with me her experience of Christmas in America. She was, "delighted with all the people lighting their houses and streets to celebrate Christmas. I joined some of my friends and went to church. The spiritual atmosphere made me cry."
First Christmases for New Believers:
Although Jesus was born in the Middle East, many people from that region know little about the religious leader from Nazareth. In America, immigrants and students are free to learn and believe what they choose. Some become Christians, and their first Christmases fill them with child-like glow.
For example, a Kuwaiti told me with beaming face, "I love Christmas even more now. It has a whole new meaning to me. I'm celebrating and the happiness is coming from my heart!"
This Christmas, a Saudi graduate student told me, "The day Jesus was born, light and hope and joy were born into this dark world. This Christmas will be my second as a believer in the Lord Jesus. I'm so thankful that God saved me from the darkness of Islam to His marvelous light."
First Christmas in Bethlehem:
I do write critical things about religion, especially Islam, but I do not attempt to deconstruct or reconstruct religions. Nor do I generalize that they are all the same. Rather, I encourage people to become informed about religions, especially their original teachings. To learn more than that Islam's Prophet Mohammed taught to please Allah through observance of law, Buddhists work and meditate for a better incarnation in the next life, and Christians celebrate a Savior born at Christmas and resurrected at Easter.
With the current trend in refabbing religions, some folks want to take the Christ child out of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and jumpstart his life in Nazareth, near where his ministry began.
Since there are no birth certificates from 2,000 years ago -- outside of the Bible -- there's scarce proof that the very first Christmas was in Bethlehem, let alone that Jesus was laid in a manger. Lacking such, Muslim author of bestselling Zealot is three-cheered by BAR's* Jewish editor in displacing Christmas from Bethlehem. Might some see a "dog in the manger" here?
In academics and debate, when an argument is made despite a lack of documentation, experts say that they "argue from silence". For a 2,000-year old-birth, this gives a whole new meaning to "Silent Night".
In closing, I share the story of another first Christmas:
A number of years ago in a typical not-too-big and not-too-small American town, a most memorable Christmas came to pass. It was Christmas Eve. In a not-too-big and not-too-small church, faces were lit only by candlelight. Into the crowd walked a man boldly carrying a child in his arms, both with heads held high. Eyes throughout the congregation turned to them in wonder. Could this be the child they had heard of but never seen?
The child warily surveyed the scene with dark, enormous eyes. Disproportionate in a malnourished little frame, her eyes took on fairy tale dimensions. It seemed that Christmas Eve magic had brought a classic sad-eyed doll to life. She had indeed been sad: abandoned, abused, and weighing, but 16 pounds at 18 months. Recently thrust from all she knew in Eastern Europe, she was forced into a foreign place with foreign speech and foreign food.
But her life was about to get better. This was her first Christmas in America and she was now my daughter.
News traveled fast in the not-too-big and not-too-small town. For months after she arrived in America, the sad-eyed doll received welcome after welcome from everyone she met. All hearts were open to her, as if she were not exclusive to our family. They seemed to feel she could have been theirs had only their arms reached across the world and found her first.
Isn't this the enduring appeal of the Nativity? Vulnerable and approachable, a child enters our world from another far away. Believing it could be ours, we welcome it with outstretched arms.
Every First Christmas:
Perhaps each of our births is a type of first Christmas. We arrive as strangers on this planet. We might be unwanted like baby Jesus at the inns of Bethlehem, or the sad-eyed child in her home country. Maybe not. But on this hostile planet we all will have crosses to bear. We are not the Savior, but we can be a savior. We each belong to the family of suffering flesh, yet with the potential to love. And love is what brings peace on earth to every sad-eyed heart.
(*BAR = Biblical Archaeology Review: a popular journal I regularly read but do not consider completely unbiased.)