Christmas – Joyful and Complex 25 Dec 2013

Christmas today is a complex blend of ancient pagan beliefs and Christian dogma. Holly for luck and divine blessings, mistletoe for kisses, lighted evergreen trees symbolizing eternal life. Tinsel and sleigh bells, Santa and elves, Yule logs, turkey and dressing, all blend into our hybrid holiday season.

But, through it all, my childhood reverie and nostalgic recollections of Christmas past still control my thoughts and emotions.

I visualize awe-struck shepherds quietly watching their flocks by night in the hills near Bethlehem as an angel suddenly appears to them and announces,

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord… And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

How peaceful indeed would have been that star-studded night those shepherds experienced near ancient Bethlehem. So bright would the starlight have been that you could have seen just by the stars' gleaming light.

I think of wise men following a brilliant star who asked “…Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” And they brought priceless offerings of gold, frankincense, the aromatic resin of Boswelia trees found in Arabia and Somalia and worth more than its weight in gold, and myrrh, a fragrant resin from East Africa and Arabia.

Today life is challenging and often painful, but we have a choice. We can focus on the unpleasant times, or not.

My parents died when I was a young teenager and an only child. Since then Christmas has been a season of mixed emotions for me. But during the time I had my parents, Christmas was a sacred, warm, exciting, magic time. My memories of those years are still strong and happy and continue to color my Christmases. Still, I often struggle a bit during this season. And, I’m obviously not alone. The stresses of life bear heavily on many of us, especially at this time of the year.

But it’s Christmastime again, and winter always brings us the brightest and most spectacular constellations in heavens; Orion, the Pleiades, the Hyades, Gemini and lastly, Sirius, our brightest star in Canis Major. Like scattered, shattered fields of diamonds they spread brilliance as they rise in the eastern night sky bringing me feelings of stability, tranquility, and peace of mind.

This Christmas, Jupiter is a brilliant addition to the celestial show as it rises in the east. Visible after darkness it will rise higher in the sky each night in the constellation Gemini with the bright stars Castor and Pollux to its left. Venus has been the evening star, but it has disappeared in the west.

Jupiter is a fitting Christmas addition. The largest planet in our solar system, the ancient Romans named it after the king of the gods. Its other Roman name is Jove, and it was considered the equivalent of the Greek god Zeus. The bright appearance of Jupiter in the eastern sky is symbolic this year of that marvelous ancient occurrence long ago in Bethlehem.

Yet peace on earth seems forever elusive and fleeting. Wars rage around the globe. Hate rather than love seems to be the order of the day. Poverty, hunger, starvation, and illness ravage millions of people.

At Christmas 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, already depressed by his wife’s sudden death from burns two years earlier, learned that his son had been seriously injured in a Civil War battle. Overwhelmed by his emotions, he wrote Bells on Christmas Day, that was later to become a favorite hymn entitled I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play.
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how as the day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then his sadness overwhelmed him as he wrote:

And in despair, I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said.
“For hate is strong and mocks the song,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Finally Longfellow’s dark mood appears to have given way to hope as he penned the final verses of his poem:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.

Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

This year, look to the east as Jupiter rises, and rejoice. Perhaps we can each subdue the stress and tension that is so much a part of our lives and carry Christmas with us in our hearts and actions throughout the year. I wish you a merry, fruitful, spiritually uplifting and thoughtful Christmas. May “peace on earth; good will toward men” become a living reality here and around the world.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.