The people who sat in darkness saw a great light, / And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned. Isaiah 9:2 & Matthew 4:16
It is not by accident that Christians celebrate the birth of Christ with lights. Since the moment angels appeared on Bethlehem hills announcing a Son was given to the world, lights piercing darkness have signified peace and joy and hope to a weary world.
The first celebration lights were probably simple oil lamps. We have no trustworthy records, but it is not beyond imagination that before candles or Christmas trees or cards or gift giving or even a day called “Christmas,” some early Christians remembered the birth of our Lord.
These would have been spontaneous, casual celebrations observed by individual families. As they remembered, it would be natural for them to watch a flickering oil lamp and think of the scripture promising when Messiah (Jesus) came, people who sit in darkness will see a great light.
Candles were in more or less common use by 800-900 AD and shortly after we find the first references to nativity scenes being placed in Christian houses of worship. These scenes would have glowed in the light of many candles. And--although the exact roots are lost in antiquity--it may have been roughly this time when Christmas began to be celebrated on a specific day.
Over time, being “Christian” became the socially acceptable norm and Christmas became a cultural event. Decorations were increasingly more common, expensive, complex and light-filled, causing some to feel the holiday had lost all true meaning. When Puritans took control of the English government in the mid 1600’s, lights, decorations and all other forms of celebration were banned. Christmas was to be no more.
Yet the celebration—with all its flaws—endured. When electric lights came on the scene in the late 1800’s they were almost immediately employed as part of Christmas. Lights proliferated until today when city streets and country lanes, windows, yards, rooftops and edges of buildings light up the night with twinkle and glow.
For myself, it would be easy to agree with the Puritans. I watch electronic reindeer nodding from store windows, see the crass commercialism and my heart fills with more sadness than holiday spirit. With the children grown and gone, some years I haven’t even put up a tree.
But this year, I think I have a better idea: I’ll dust off a string of colored lights, attach a little tinsel and a few ornaments to a tree, then turn out the lamps and remember. The light of the world has come. Regardless of how the world has perverted it, Christmas is real. It’s time to celebrate.