Keith Noel, GUEST COLUMNIST
Christmas is the season during which Christians celebrate the birth of Christ. It marks the coming to earth, 'to dwell among men', of God himself. The significance of this is tremendous, and all of the events which surround it are of major consequence to Christians.
We note that he is born of humble parents, not to royalty or wealth. His parents belonged to a downtrodden race, conquered and colonised by Rome. To make matters worse, His mother was forced by circumstances to give birth to Him in the lowest possible situation - in a stable, possibly among the animals.
The first persons to be informed of His arrival on earth were humble shepherds who kept watch over their herd that night. However, some wise men from the East, through their study of astrology, had concluded that He was to be born, and travelled many miles bearing gifts for Him.
Christmas, according to the traditional churches, ends with the Epiphany, the day when the first non-Jews, the three wise men, arrived with their gifts.
One would, therefore, expect that the central symbols of our celebration of this event would be the humble parents of the God and King, the manger, the angels, and the wise men who had learnt of his arrival through scientific study.
But this is not so. The central symbols of Christmas are Santa Claus, decorated fir trees, carol singing, twinkling lights, elaborately wrapped gifts, and feasting - with ham being an important part of the menu. None of these have the remotest connection to the event that we celebrate, but they all are part of the festivity.
Interestingly, most of these things which mark the Christmas season can be linked directly to non-Christian celebrations. The Christmas tree comes from a pagan belief. It was believed by pagan Europeans that bringing branches from the evergreen tree into their houses would guard them against evil spirits, as winter time marked the period when the sun god was at his weakest.
Carolling was a practice that predated Christianity, and the early Church banned the singing of carols. Oliver Cromwell, famed Christian leader, preached sermons condemning it as a heathen practice.
The exchange of gifts at this time of year is also a tradition that had its origins in a secular tradition. So, too, is the feasting.
For these and other reasons, there are Christian sects that do not celebrate Christmas, some preaching openly against it. They believe that celebrating in a manner and with symbols, the origins of which can be traced back to pagan practice, is wrong.
On the other hand, there are many Christians who accept the pagan origins of many aspects of the celebration and still practise them. So you may even see a gaily decorated Christmas tree in a church next week.
Christians buy expensive 'Christmas' gifts for those we love and place them under beautifully decorated Christmas trees; repaint and decorate our houses; prepare elaborate Christmas dinners; give Christmas bonuses to employees, go to staff Christmas parties. Finally, during the season, we visit our relatives in the country and often entertain those relatives who have flown in 'from foreign' to visit.
None of these activities can be remotely connected to the birth of the Saviour, born in the humblest circumstances to a carpenter's betrothed. One who never owned a chariot or lived in a palace.
But how does one condemn these 'pagan' practices? Practices like the exchange of gifts with our loved ones? Sitting together with friends and family over a well-prepared meal? Having a relaxing session with your colleagues at work? Visiting distant relatives and sharing time with them?
And it is at Christmas time that we are encouraged to show love for the less fortunate, when philanthropic groups are able to get many of us to contribute to their feeding of the poor, when we visit indigents and institutionalised persons to bring them cheer.
And children have such a good time! We are loath to rob them of this.
In Trinidad, I would be practising a serenal for the parang. But more of that later.
So, whatever the origins, Christmas is a wonderful time.
Keith Noel is an educator. Email feedback to email@example.com.