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Ever wondered how Christmas is celebrated all around the world? What are some traditions we all have in common, and how do different countries add their own twist to certain customs?
This Christmas, we asked four of our contributors from different countries to share about the special customs and traditions that are part of their Christmas celebrations.
China: The Best Time to Share the Gospel
Written By Kim Cheung
When I was growing up in a small city in China, very few people knew what Christmas is or celebrated it. But in recent years, thanks to the rise of commercialism, it’s becoming trendy to celebrate Christmas. However, it’s merely an opportunity for the merchants to promote their goods, and for young people to date and have fun with friends.
Rather than enjoying family time and having delicious food (which we do on Chinese New Year), we’d take Christmas as a time to do evangelism. We still love Christmas because it’s a time for us to celebrate the best news in the world—the birth of Christ.
For my church, Christmas is a great opportunity to share the gospel with non-Christians. We would usually host an event on Christmas Eve in the church and prepare some performances, including Christmas songs, dances, and live shows.
The whole event normally lasts for two hours and there will be a short sermon on who Jesus is or why we celebrate Christmas after the performances. Preparations for this event often took a month or even longer, but the focus of the whole event is for spreading the gospel.
After that, some of us would head downtown (where many people go) to hand out gospel tracts. Christmas is the best time to do this since people would be more likely to be more open to hearing about the gospel and accepting Jesus as their Savior. These activities take up most of the night, and we’d go home super late on Christmas Eve. So in some ways, Christmas might be the most exhausting time of the year.
This year, crackdowns on Chinese churches have made it harder to host Christmas activities. Therefore, we need to be super cautious when we invite people to our Christmas Eve services and share the gospel on the streets. But no matter how tough the circumstances may be, we should still seize the opportunity to share the Good News. After all, we are doing this to please the Lord and not men.
Nigeria: Sharing in the Spirit of Generosity
Written by Debra Ayis
Growing up in a Christian family in Nigeria introduced me to many traditions associated with Christmas. From as far back as memory can take me, I remember Christmas being my favorite holiday of the year—maybe it was the food, the community, or the fact that I knew I would get a brand new custom-designed dress to mark the celebration.
Christmas was a huge affair. Though separate regions in the country celebrated it differently, it was a time of warmth, family, and friends, and of course celebrating Christ our Savior.
In north Nigeria where I was born, there’s a rich mix of Christian and Muslim households. My favorite tradition out of many was the custom of exchanging food with our Muslim neighbors.
To me, this tradition embodied the Spirit of Christmas—the spirit of generosity. It was normal to find families cooking and preparing delicacies days before Christmas, generous offices would provide an unfortunate cow for slaughter to share amongst its staff members.
Each household would carry their haul of meat to be fried, cooked and integrated into different meals such as jollof rice, fried rice, white rice and stew, pepper soup, meatpies, pumpkin stew called miyan taushe (soup for masa or rice cakes in English). There was also an abundance of drinks and snacks such as the zobo drink made from sorrel or roselle flowers, chin-chin, cakes, biscuits, and buns.
Come Christmas morning, kids would pour out of their houses like soldiers on a mission, bearing baskets and trays stacked with food in their parents’ most expensive ceramic and china serveware.
They would make their way to each non-Christian neighbor’s house and offer them a dish. As expected, the neighbors would receive the meal and hand the kids candy, money, or a present as a Christmas gift. After delivering the food, the kids would head back home, change into their very best clothes in honor of Christmas and proceed to church for the morning service.
Like most families, my family would return home after church service to receive a deluge of visitors or we would head out to visit relatives and friends for the day. To a lot of Nigerians and to me personally, Christmas is a wonderful time to reconnect with family, friends, and neighbors. But more importantly, it is a time to reflect on the year gone by and a time to be thankful for the gift of Christ, life, and community.
Australia: Santa Visits Down Under in Board Shorts and Flip Flops
Written By Madeline Twooney
Christmas time in Australia was a special time of the year for me, especially as it takes place in the summer. Now that l live in Germany, l appreciate having a white Christmas, but l still miss spending Christmas Day relaxing by the pool in my “cozzie” (swimsuit) or making “sandmen” at the beach.
Every year, my mum decorated our house and the garden with wreaths and Christmas trees, as well as shrubs called Christmas Bush and festive lights.
A beloved tradition that really put me in the Christmas spirit, was sitting in front of the telly with my family to watch a live broadcast of a carol concert called Carols by Candlelight. Even though I had yet to give my life to Jesus at that point, we also attended our own carol service in church on Christmas Eve. Australians love to sing Christmas carols!
I love Christmas Eve, as it brings back childhood memories of me believing that Santa, wearing boardshorts and flip-flops, would be delivering my Christmas presents in the night while l slept. I would lay out cookies for him, as well as carrots for his six white “boomers”, or kangaroos, who pulled his sled.
On Christmas Day, our family opened presents in the morning and then we would go to church for a Christmas Day service.
At lunch time, our family and friends would join us for a Christmas meal, which we eat outside in the garden.
My dad would fire up the grill and we would have a “barbie”, with juicy steaks, marinated king prawns, and chargrilled lobster. We would eat them with cold salads and my absolute favorite dessert—the pavlova—which is a meringue-based dessert topped with whipped cream and fresh seasonal fruit.
After lunch and a nap, it’s pool time! We chill, swim, or have pool fights on floaties until the sun goes down around 10pm; it’s the perfect end to a perfect Aussie Christmas!
Now that I have relocated to Germany and also received Christ as my Savior, Christmas is a different affair for me. This coming Christmas, my husband and l are hosting my best friends, who are visiting us from Berlin. This year has been particularly challenging for all of us due to health and other issues, and l look forward to taking this time to share with my friends the love and victory that Christ has given me.
America: A Bright and Festive Celebration for All
Written By Ross Boone
In the US, Christmas is celebrated as a national holiday—so it’s fun and heartwarming to see how the entire nation gets into the spirit of Christmas.
Shopping malls start pumping Christmas music into their stores pretty soon after Thanksgiving. And I love it. Christmas is a time for warm scarves, rosy smiles, being with family, snuggling by a fire, and of course all the presents—and it’s hard not to want to be infected by the spirit of it all.
When I was a child, one of my favorite traditions was when we’d get together with another family and drive around the neighborhoods looking for Christmas lights strung around houses and trees. Whenever we saw a house strung with Christmas lights we’d exclaim, “Ooh la la!”
Sometimes we’d see almost life-size nativity scenes outside of these houses or churches. These days, a lot more families are displaying blow-up Christmas balloons of Santa, reindeers, elves, presents, and even Disney characters in their front yards.
When I spot a block with a series of houses that are disproportionately brighter and more scintillating than the blocks around it, I assume dads are getting competitive!
This time of the year, a lot of people also watch Christmas movies. A couple of the ones my friends and I like are Home Alone (with MacCaulay Culkin) and Elf (with Will Farrell). I just watched The Polar Express with my nephews and nieces, which was based on a book we loved to read when I was their age.
I grew up in Denver, Colorado, which is in the middle of the US, but now I live on the south-eastern corner, in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve celebrated Christmas in non-denominational churches, Presbyterian churches, Episcopal churches, and Anglican churches. And they’re all lovely.
I’ve recently been introduced to a new tradition in my church. It is called “Lessons and Carols”. It is an hour-long presentation of readings and songs. The readings are from the Bible and tradition, and they tell the stories that start with Genesis and leading up to Jesus’ birth. These stories are interspersed with related Christmas carols, and it is such a beautiful way to remind us of the real, and most important reason for the season, and to get excited about celebrating Jesus’ birth.
As you celebrate Christmas this year, may your hearts be warmed by the knowledge that regardless of the way we celebrate our Christmases, Jesus was born so that we may all be part of one big family in Him.
Cover artwork by Abigail Jeyaraj (@handsxpens)
Written By Paul Wong
Paul is the campus pastor at Singapore Management University’s Christian Fellowship (SMUCF). Prior to that, he was a ministry trainee at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, London, where he spent two years in full-time ministry training, having previously worked as a corporate lawyer in the City of London. In his free time he enjoys photography, reading popular history, and spending time with his family. He is presently thinking about exercising more.
Jesus doesn’t really make life better
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. (Philippians 3:8-9, ESV)
The man who penned those words wrote them from a cold, lonely prison cell in about AD 60, chained 24/7 to a Roman guard. As he writes the letter, his reputation and good name are being dragged through the mud by rivals, jealous of his influence over the churches in Asia and Macedonia. Indeed those very same churches he planted, including the one at Philippi to whom he’s presently writing, are under the threat of persecution or apostasy. In short, much of what this man has labored for, and achieved, in the last decades of his life is under attack and at risk of being destroyed.
So, what difference does believing in Jesus make to Paul of Tarsus (c.5–c.64/67)? Well, in one sense you could say: quite a lot. But not in a good way.
When Paul writes that he has suffered the loss of all things, he really means it. Status, security—all of it gone. And all because he has spent much of his adult life in the single-minded proclamation of salvation through faith in Jesus.
So the big, gaping question for us has got to be: How could he consider that “gaining Christ” was of “surpassing worth” when compared to the loss of literally everything? Why does he describe his previous comfortable life as “dung” (as the old King James Version translates it), when he now languishes in jail? Those are extraordinary things to write.
I think Paul would have said that it has all to do with his deep assurance of the love that God has for him, and how that love was ultimately displayed when Jesus showed up. Paul knows something which, for him, changes everything. ‘Tis the Season, so I’ll try and explain it in Christmassy terms.
Christmas I: Forgiveness and relationship
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea (today’s West Bank) that first Christmas, He came for a reason. The events surrounding His miraculous birth attest this. One eyewitness record of His life tells us that He is named Jesus (meaning “God saves”) “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). That means that His singular purpose on earth was to rescue men and women from the punishment that we deserve for our rejection of God.
I wonder what you think of that. Perhaps the concept of a creator is so alien to you that you think this is all hogwash (in which case I’d encourage you to read some of the other articles in this series). Perhaps you think you’re a good person at heart—so this idea of punishment for “sins” is just ridiculous.
But Paul of Tarsus would look you in the eye and ask you to be honest with yourself: are you truly “good”? Who gets to decide anyway? Paul would say to us that in virtually everyone’s books he was a good person—blameless under his understanding of the Jewish laws (Philippians 3:4-6)—and yet a total failure in the eyes of a holy and righteous God.
Here’s why: God doesn’t merely view “sin” as the bad stuff you and I do wrong every day. What he says is far more offensive. He says that we are living in darkness and in rebellion to Him. Humanity is living in His world (trashing it even), using His stuff and breathing His air, all without any reference or deference to Him. And that’s a problem because if God is holy and just and good, and if I’m living as if He’s a nobody, then that kind of behavior deserves judgment—just ask any parent.
But God, in His deep love for His creation and His desire for a relationship with His people, administers the antidote Himself by sending Jesus. God provides forgiveness and a way out from our otherwise inevitable judgment. And the way that happens is by Jesus dying on a Roman cross, taking on our behalf the punishment that we deserve for living in God’s world as if he didn’t exist. Jesus’ sacrifice secures our forgiveness. He stands in our place—condemned as a sinner so that we might be pardoned. Christmas happened for Easter, as my old pastor puts it.
Trusting in that sacrifice means that God now sees us as He sees Jesus. The Bible describes Christians as being “hidden with Christ”. Incredibly, God no longer sees our sin, but the righteous perfection of His Son instead. Crucially, repentance (turning from our rebellion) and faith (trusting Jesus) bring us into relationship with God. As a Christian I can listen to Him speak in His Word, the Bible, and speak back to Him, knowing He hears me because I trust in Jesus.
This is the knowledge that changes everything.
Because he is a Christian, Paul of Tarsus can be sure that he need not fear the judgment of God. He is certain of the forgiveness won on his behalf at the cross. So even as he sits in a dirty jail cell, incredibly, he cannot help but rejoice at the receipt of this free gift. He might die condemned as a criminal, but ultimately he knows that he has been made right with his maker.
What difference does believing in Jesus make? He offers forgiveness for our rejection of God, and a relationship which begins now and lasts forever. And that is everything.
Christmas II: A different time frame
For Paul though, that’s not the end of the story (though there is plenty to cherish already!). The rest is all to do with the time frame.
Before Jesus died, He promised to return. There are two Christmases if you like, and the second is still to come.
Jesus promised that when He returns, He does so as judge of the world. And for those who trust in Him, there is a promise of eternal life—but not here on this broken world. In a place where the frustrations of this life will be a distant memory. A perfect heaven without sin, suffering, or pain.
Now here’s the thing. Being a Christian doesn’t make your life better now. In fact in all sorts of ways it makes your life more difficult (just ask Paul!). But what being a Christian does is to radically shift your time frame. It stretches this idea of “life” past our short 70-90 years on earth and into eternity.
Crucially what Jesus promises is a relationship with Him that is satisfying and soul-quenching because it is not temporary. It’s a relationship with the God of the universe which begins now but stretches on beyond your death, which means that Christians are those who will eventually be satisfied forever. That is knowledge which changes everything.
That has been my experience. Living life as a committed Christian in the world today isn’t a walk in the park (I doubt it has ever been for any Christian through the ages). The fight against sin brings me to my knees in prayer.
My work as a campus pastor is often very busy, and sometimes stressful and discouraging. Some of my non-Christian family continue to describe my job as useless. There seem to be challenges and discouragements at every turn. I do sometimes wonder how life could be more stable and secure if I had stayed on as a corporate lawyer. In fact, I have no doubt that it would be, humanly speaking!
But these wobbly moments are steadied in the face of the glorious truth that I am already forgiven, and headed for a better, brighter, eternal future with my savior. If the Bible is true (and I encourage you to test its veracity), then the frankly infrequent difficulties of being a Christian are but a blip on God’s eternal timeline.
The words of Paul are comforting: For I consider that the sufferings (if you could even call them that!) of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18, ESV; parenthesis mine)
So, what difference does believing in Jesus make to Paul of Tarsus? Well, in one sense you could say: quite a lot. And in the best way possible. When Paul writes that knowing Jesus is of surpassing worth, he really means it. Forgiveness assured, relationship with God secured, and an eternal happiness to look forward to. And all because of salvation through trust in Jesus.
Can I ask: will you consider putting your trust in Jesus this Christmas?
Editor’s Note: This is the last article in a four-part series on who Jesus is. Read the first article, “Why Do We Even Need A Savior?” here, the second article, “Why Did Jesus Have to Come As A Human?” here, and the third article, “How Was Jesus Both God and Man?” here.
Cover artwork by Abigail Jeyaraj (@handsxpens)
Written By Richard Goetz
Dr Richard Goetz is a professor of theology at TCA College, Singapore. He has a passion for learning and then sharing that knowledge, information and understanding with others. Dr Goetz studies and teaches widely in the areas of theology, ethics, philosophy, and church history, having earned his PhD in theology from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. Dr Goetz and his wife, Tammy, have been married for over 30 years and have two grown daughters.
Christmas is fast approaching. It’s the time of the year when Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I enjoy Christmas a lot, not just because it’s a time when we give and receive gifts, but especially because of the many beautiful Christmas carols we get to hear and sing.
One of my favorites is Charles Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Not only is it easy to sing and remember, the lyrics tell us the entire message of Christmas. The latter part of the second verse goes:
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see;
Hail, th’incarnate Deity:
Pleased, as man, with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel!
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!”
With these words, Wesley describes the Incarnation or the biblical idea that in the person of the baby Jesus, God became human, or as John’s gospel declares “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). But this raises two important questions: how can someone be both God and man at the same time, and why did Jesus need to be both?
The reason Jesus needed to be both God and man is that God designed humans for relationship with Himself, but ever since Adam’s fall, our sin has corrupted us and broken our relationship with God. Yet, in His infinite love, God still wants a relationship with us; He wants us to be reconciled to Him. But in our sinful condition, that is impossible. We need our sin removed but we are not capable of doing it—it would be like a medical doctor trying to perform open heart surgery on himself.
For that reason, we need someone else to perform the surgery and remove that sin for us, someone who by himself is not corrupted by sin. The only person who meets that condition is God Himself. Thus, Jesus had to be God in order to die on our behalf as a sacrifice for our sins.
But if Jesus were only God then what He accomplished on the cross in paying the penalty for our sins couldn’t be applied to us; He might be the perfect sinless sacrifice but He couldn’t really be our substitute; in order to substitute for us He needed to be like us. Thus, Jesus needed to be man, too, in order to apply the benefits of His death to us and on our behalf, to cover our sin.
It is one thing, though, to confess or to acknowledge that Jesus was simultaneously both God and man, and understand why He needed to be both. But it is another thing entirely to try and understand how Jesus was both God and man at the same time.
God is infinite, man is finite; God is morally perfect, man is morally flawed; God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good, man is limited in power, knowledge, and goodness. Yet, the disciples saw Jesus eat, sleep, walk, talk, laugh, get tired, get hungry, be beaten, bleed, and die as a man. They also witnessed him heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead, calm the seas, walk on water, forgive sins, teach new truth with authority, and rise from the dead, which all testify to His also being God. How are we to explain this?
The definitive early church statement or confession regarding who Jesus was is found in the Chalcedonian Creed. This creed, or confessional statement, crafted by bishops of the church in 451 AD, declares that Jesus was fully (truly) God and fully (truly) man, “like unto God as to his divinity, like unto us as to his humanity”.
When trying to explain difficult concepts, it can be helpful to first explain what it is not. Firstly, Jesus is not half God, half man; he is not alternately God and then man; and he is not a synthesis of God and man combined into something new. He is also not just a man with a superior God-consciousness, or a man with some superior new moral teaching, or a man who happened to have some right ideas about God; He was not a ghost or angel. Jesus is fully God and fully man; in other words, He is both at the same time.
What this means is that Jesus had two natures, not just one; a divine nature and a human one, combined in the same person, Jesus. The divine nature added human nature to itself and the human nature was in submission to the divine. While on earth, the divine nature of Jesus also voluntarily gave up the use or exercise of some of His divine attributes, such as knowing all things and existing everywhere, in order to be in union with His human nature.
How do we know that He was both God and man? Because it is a precise description of Jesus as recorded in Scripture, drawn from biblical data, which is itself based on the eyewitness testimony and accounts of the apostles.
Nineteenth century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard declared the dual nature of Christ to be a paradox, which means something which appears to be contradictory but nonetheless can be true. Because he saw it as a paradox, he concluded that it required a leap of faith to confess or believe.
Kierkegaard would seem to be right; at the very least we would have to conclude that Jesus as simultaneously God and man is a profound mystery. The Apostle Paul declares as much in his letter to the Colossians where he wrote, “in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (Colossians 2:2).
Confessing this mystery, that Jesus is both God and man, by a “leap of faith” is arguably the single most important decision a person can make. I know it has been for me. This “leap of faith” has brought me into a personal relationship with God and given me forgiveness, freedom and hope for both this life and eternity.
In this Christmas season, truthfully, we won’t really be able to fully grasp or understand how Jesus was both God and man at the same time. But not understanding, or not being able to understand, does not mean it is not true; we must simply believe and confess it as true within the limits of our knowledge and understanding. For that is the very nature of faith: putting our trust in a just and loving God.
Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a four-part series on who Jesus is. Read the first article, “Why Do We Even Need A Savior?” here, and the second article, “Why Did Jesus Have to Come As A Human?” here, and the last article “What Difference Does Jesus Make?” here.
YMI (which stands for Why Am I?), is a platform for Christian young people all over the world to ask questions about life and discover their true purpose. We are a community with different talents but the same desire to make sense of God’s life-changing word in our everyday lives.
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