And yet at its heart Christmas is about poverty and simplicity. It remembers the birth of a baby, born away from home, in poor circumstances and forced into exile because of the hostility of the authorities. It’s not really possible to celebrate Christmas in a religious way and not be conscious of those less fortunate than ourselves, of our brothers and sisters who are deprived and of those areas of the world torn apart by conflict and violence. This is what moves many Christians to simplify their celebrations – cutting back on the amount of money spent on cards and gifts, sharing a meal with a stranger, giving money to charity, organising dinners for the homeless. It in no way diminishes the joy of celebration or the expression of love for dear ones. What it does do is remind us of the true meaning of Christmas.
For many people Christmas doesn’t have any religious significance at all. It’s cultural – still a family time to brighten up the cold, dark winter days, a time to send cards and contact friends, a time to exchange gifts and share a family meal, a time of joy and celebration. The externals are the same but the motivation and meaning behind it all quite different. While in many city centres there are nativity scenes, it’s not the centre of the cultural celebrations and in some instances group or staff Christmas dinners and celebrations are now called festive dinners, winter festivals or whatever. In my experience it’s not usually people of faith who ask for this change. They’re usually happy to call this festival Christmas and remember it’s Christian origins but it’s those with no religious affiliation or feel there should be no public display of religion who object. Sometimes it can be local authorities who feel that in this secular age they have to be neutral and show no partisanship to any one religion. It’s a sign that Christendom has broken down even if the celebrations are a remnant left over from it.
Christianity is not the only faith celebrating at this time. For the past week the Jewish community has been celebrating Hanukkah. It’s an eight day festival which remembers a time of religious oppression when the Maccabees liberated the Jewish people from the domination of the Syrian king Antiochus and purified the Temple in Jerusalem. Wanting to light the menorah to celebrate the rededication of the Temple they found enough oil for only one day but miraculously it burned for eight days until the oil could be replenished. Hanukkah celebrates this miracle by burning candles each night for eight days – one candle on day 1, two candles on day 2 and so on until eight candles are burning on day 8. It’s also a time of gift giving and eating traditional foods like latkes and doughnuts cooked in oil.
It’s important that the Hanukkah candlestick or menorah is placed in a window or public place and there are now many large menorahs set up in cities around the world with one in the Scottish Parliament. These menorahs with their lighted candles celebrate the miracle of the oil in the Jerusalem Temple but they also celebrate religious freedom, are a protest against religious discrimination and oppression and a reminder of the importance of recognising and accepting difference – lessons for all of us and not just for the Jewish community.
The Sikhs too are celebrating this week. It’s not a festival as such but friends from Scotland are joining a party of UK Sikhs going to India for the last of the year- long festivities marking the 350th anniversary of the birth of their tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh who founded the Sikh community and ordained that on his death the Sacred Scripture of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib was to be the only source of authority for the community. The 250 people travelling to Patna will be responsible for feeding those attending the events – and this means something like 10,000 people each day. A friend showed me photographs of the pits being dug to accommodate the fires needed for cooking. It will be an amazing achievement but these Sikhs are no strangers to providing food for thousands of peoples. They did it at the 2004 Parliament of World Religions in Barcelona and do it happily and cheerfully in the spirit of service which is at the heart of Sikhism. Guru Gobind Singh was born in Patna in India and we have a village of that same name here in Scotland. It was established in 1802 by William Fullerton to provide housing for workers on his estate. He called it Patna after the city of Patna in India where he was born when his father worked for the British East India Company – an interesting Scottish-Indian connection.
So as we celebrate Christmas at the beginning of next week we can do so against a backdrop of these other celebrations which have an important message for all of us and those brothers and sisters who are less fortunate than we are and suffer from poverty, loneliness and grief as well as war and persecution. We can hold all of them in our hearts.