The many versions of Christmas

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Christmas lights and Torii in Sendai, Japan | Photo by ChampagneFight via Wikimedia Commons

There are many versions of Christmas. Because I am Christian and Catholic, I may think there is only one way to look at and understand Christmas. But every time I spend Christmas outside the Philippines, I observe variants in how the local residents celebrate it – if at all. I also was shocked that many non-Christian people do not even know the fundamental story of Jesus Christ beyond the name.

There seems to be a parallel reality about Christmas, though, that may be a more significant number of people around the world, Christians and non-Christians, appear to know better. Because of the super hyperactivity of selling and buying, and all the related businesses involved like manufacturing, shipping, and distribution, online and in-store, Christmas has no economic rival. That is its commerciality, how it has developed to become the most powerful stimulus for economic activity in modern history.

The story of Christmas is familiar because the ascendancy of materialism and commercialism is a universal pattern. Nothing stands in its way, not even the reason why Christians celebrate Christmas. I remember the times the family spent Christmas in the United States, one of the largest Christian nations in the world, and how we became exposed to controversies about the name Christ at Christmas. Ridiculous on the outside, tragic on the inside.

It is not about evangelization or convincing others that one religious feast is greater than another. Worse, it is not about competition between religions. Christmas is one beautiful story. It merits attention and appreciation for showcasing the refinement of one’s humanity and for sharing glimpses of the nobility of the human soul. Beyond that is the concept of God giving Himself in exchange for humans in the clutches of evil.

How much can non-Christians accept and appreciate the story? I do not know, and especially doubtful about God sacrificing Himself. But stories of heroism are universal. At Christmas, the nobility of heroism will not be lost if there is an interest in understanding. At Christmas, too, the economic power unleashed, the income to many, the profit to some, and the gifts to most are universal benefits.

Since my family and I are Christians and now find ourselves in chilly Japan, a non-Christian country, we see signs of Christmas as a celebrated feast. Its main nature, however, is economical, albeit a happy one. Japan has long been exposed to the greater world outside its shores, and the holiday of Christmas has long been welcomed. I can say, though, that its celebration is in no way the same as Filipinos in the Philippines would have it.

I see in many places where the kind of bright lights that are associated with Christmas. Yet, they have a coldness – and I am not talking about the weather. It is the simple detachment of lights to the spirit of Christmas. There is that connection to its commercialism, I must admit. And more importantly, the atmosphere is positive as well. Even if the spiritual aspect of Christmas may not spur non-Christians in Japan, there is an apparent attempt to be festive. I even see some fireworks here and there.

I am told that the newly-opened post-pandemic tourism in Japan has been met with unqualified success. Bookings in flights and hotels are encouraging, clear signs that Japan’s beauty, climate, food, and hospitality are overcoming the fear of contracting Covid-19 here. The number of cases appears to be much higher than in the Philippines, but the total number of deaths is lower. Everybody still wears masks, even in restaurants, except when eating. Covid-19 is not over in Japan, and indeed not in the minds of the Japanese people and government.

“And before I am misunderstood, may I state very clearly that Christmas is about Christ, that there will be no Christmas to me without the Holy Child. I not only respect how others celebrate Christmas, but I am happy that they do.”

It has been three years since I had traveled abroad, even though we had paid reservations in 2020. We had to keep moving the dates until we deemed it safe enough despite the lingering reality of Covid-19. We would have forfeited our advance deposit if we had waited a little more. Also, we moved our destination from the United States to Japan due to the seeming daily mass shootings (more than the daily average). We would have had more relatives to visit in a special season, but Covid-19 seemed a much better choice than gun violence.

But, in truth, Christmas is never apart from home. I would not have even thought of spending Christmas with family members. I know how much of a blessing the celebration of Christmas is with family and friends to greet, hug, and kiss – then eat media noche with. But what crowns the whole celebration is the giving, receiving, and opening gifts. The younger children dominate the fun, of course, and are allowed to be noisy for hours playing with their toys.

And before I am misunderstood, may I state very clearly that Christmas is about Christ, that there will be no Christmas to me without the Holy Child. I not only respect how others celebrate Christmas, but I am happy that they do. Their happiness during Christmas enhances my own. I always hope that the whole world celebrates Christmas as that is what Christmas is all about – the celebration of love, the celebration of generosity, celebration of nobility.

I say a special prayer for those who have no place in the inn. There may be much poorer than rich people, but each one of us, no matter how poor or rich, has an inn inside our hearts. And both the poor and the rich can welcome those in need of warmth on a cold night, sympathy for the lonely, food for hungry stomachs, and clothes to protect the body. Christmas is for them as much as for us.

Christmas has many versions, but it has but one beginning. Let us honor the One who comes to love and bless us.

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