by Melody Tan
What is your birthday ritual? Do you take a day off work and pamper yourself with a massage or a hair cut? Maybe you meet up with friends for dinner or share a birthday cake with your family?
Those were all the things I always thought I would do on my birthday as an adult, but every year rolls past and I find myself spending the day like I would any other day. As a child, my parents would always make sure I had a cake resplendent with candles to commemorate the day I was born, but in my adulthood, celebrations would only take place if someone else organised it.
It isn’t because I dislike getting old or am too lazy (alright, perhaps a little bit) to plan something, but I often find it difficult to feel anything special on the day of my birthday. The sun doesn’t shine brighter, the birds don’t sing louder, and the roses don’t smell sweeter. The day is only as exceptional as I—or my husband—cause it to be.
Birthdays, anniversaries, commemorative days . . . as a society, we place a lot of emphasis on celebrating—every year—special days, such as someone being born, a couple getting married, or even the founding of a nation. But what makes those days special? Is it the specific date, or is it the event that happened on that day so many years ago?
Last month, the city of Fremantle in Australia announced it would cancel all Australia Day festivities in favour of a “culturally-inclusive alternative” celebration two days later. Australia Day has been a point of contention for Indigenous Australians who regard the day that marks British sovereignty as the day their country was invaded. Needless to say, there are sensitivities involved when it comes to Australia Day celebrations, which would explain Fremantle’s attempt to circumnavigate the issue.
Shakespeare once argued, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” and I can’t help but wonder if the quote can also be applied to days of celebration: A specific event celebrated on any other day would be as commemorative—or politically and emotionally charged. Celebrating my birthday a week later is still about the fact that I was born; celebrating Australia Day two days later is still about the arrival for British presence in the country in the year 1788. The dates don’t matter; the specific event does.
It’s the time of the year again where shopping malls go into overdrive with tinsels and baubles, where frazzled adults rush around in a last minute gift-buying frenzy, and where sightings of overweight bearded men in a red outfit occur every five minutes. This is one day of birth where one cannot really go through like any other day. This is Jesus’ birthday ritual—on steroids.
Growing up in Singapore as a non-Christian with a Chinese background, Christmas never meant much to me. It was nothing more than a public holiday where gifts are exchanged. Why, I didn’t really know, but I wasn’t going to question a practice that involved me receiving presents.
Despite the crass commercialization of the day and the added confusion of Santa Claus, it was nevertheless my first introduction to the Christian story. The nativity scenes set up in shopping malls, the Christmas carols playing on the radio, and specific Bible verses printed on Christmas cards helped me deduce that the day involved the birth of a very special Person to Christianity. I didn’t understand Jesus the Baby was God in human form, neither did I know why Christians considered Him special, but I knew the story surrounding His birth. Jesus, while not a friend just yet, was at least an acquaintance.
Christmas took on more significance when I accepted Jesus as my personal Saviour. Suddenly, the stories I’ve heard made sense. As a new Christian, I couldn’t quite figure out where Santa fit in the Christmas story, but I appreciated the fact it was a day where we considered the birth of our God in human form. Christmas was no longer about exchanging presents or waiting for a jolly old man to shimmy down a chimney (impossible to do in the high-rise apartment block I lived in). Christmas became a time to consider just what God sacrificed for the sake of humankind.
God our Creator chose to degrade Himself to be born a helpless human baby in a sinful world, filled with suffering and pain. He chose to be born, fully aware that He would die.
God our King chose to be born to an ordinary and unwed teenage girl, ensuring His life on earth would be filled with sideway glances and hushed whispers behind His back. He chose a humble start to life, one where He would need to work doubly hard to earn the respect of others.
God our Saviour chose a smelly, dingy stable as His place of birth, and a manger for His first bed. He chose to be born to poverty, even though He could choose His family.
This year will be the first year I will be experiencing Christmas as a parent. And while I normally view Christmas the way I do about my own birthday—something I ought to celebrate but never really do—I have this feeling this year will be slightly different.
I can better empathise with the difficulty Mary went through traveling to Bethlehem so close to term and the trauma she experienced giving birth to her Son in a stable. But most of all, I am filled with even more gratitude that God would love the world so much, He gave His only Son, so that my only son could have a chance at eternal life. I will be holding my son and husband close, knowing it is because Jesus was born, that I can experience true happiness for all eternity.
Perhaps consumerism has marred the Christmas message somewhat. But in a Western secular society, Christmas can also be the time of the year where many families get together—sometimes for the first time in 12 months—to catch up on each other’s lives. It can be a time where many people consider attending a church service, returning to the family of God—sometimes for the first time in 12 months. And it can be a time where non-Christians meet the acquaintance of Jesus Christ—sometimes for the first time in 12 months.
Seventh-day Adventists often love to point out Jesus wasn’t born on Christmas Day and that celebrations on December 25 are pagan-based. Some even go so far as to condemn their own church for organising anything Christmas-related. But nobody knows when Jesus’ real birthday is, so celebrating on December 25 is probably the best we can do. After all, is it the date or the event that matters more: that December 25 is the Christianization of a pagan Roman festival or that for one day in an unbelieving and largely Christian-hostile world, Jesus is actually acknowledged, accepted, and celebrated?
So this Christmas, perhaps we should stop focusing on what is wrong with the day, and celebrate what is right with it. When it comes to Christmas, it’s not the date that matters, it’s what it commemorates.*
*This is very different from Sabbath observance, where it does matter which day we worship God. Sabbath is day-based; Christmas is event-based. Sabbath celebrations are God-commanded; Christmas celebrations are human-created.
Melody Tan is on maternity leave from her job as an assistant editor at Signs of the Times magazine in Australia. She and her husband are the parents of baby Elliott Bell as of 22 July 2016.