A constituent recently asked me how I greet people at this time of year. Do I say “Merry Christmas”? Or offer a generic “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings.”
Admittedly, my first reaction was, “Is this really the most important issue?” But upon reflection, I realized the significance behind the question. What we name things matters. Names convey origins, history, story.
And the story behind Christmas is as relevant today as when it began more than 2000 years ago.
Christmas day celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Recall the circumstances: pregnant mother Mary, and husband Joseph forced from their home in Nazareth to return to Bethlehem for a census. Caesar Augustus wanted to count all his subjects to ensure everyone paid their taxes. (Some things never change!)
Mary had never been to Bethlehem; Joseph lived in Nazareth. They were strangers and immigrants to this new land, fleeing the violence of the road; homeless. They were at the mercy of the kindness and hospitality of others to open their hearts and offer refuge – the root of the word refugee.
They found refuge in a stable. They made Bethlehem their temporary home.
Some years later, the family was forced to move again. This time, they were fleeing a murderously jealous Herod, King of Judea, who ordered the slaughter of all boys around the age of this Christ child. Like many others, Herod had heard this boy was special, destined to become a “great king.” Herod dispatched three Wise Men, followers of the stars, to find him. The Wise Men did indeed find Jesus, but instead of turning him over to Herod, they brought gifts to honour him, and protected his location and identity.
To escape Herod’s slaughter, the family fled to Egypt. After Herod’s death, they returned home to Nazareth to settle.
The story of Christmas is the story of refugees, and of those who offered them sanctuary and protection.
We celebrate Christmas by exchanging gifts, opening our homes to friends and loved ones, and giving to those in need. Charitable donations increase this time of year. Christmas Day is a national holiday, a time to be together with each other, with members of our community, to put work aside and put each other first.
The story of Christmas speaks to us today in the plight of Syrian refugees forced from their homes as Mary and Joseph were, by violence in service of politics and ideology. Canadians will be asked to open our hearts and homes, just as the innkeeper at Bethlehem did, to offer sanctuary. We will be asked to give gifts, like the Wise Men did, of our time and resources to help these newcomers build a life in freedom.
We will rise to the occasion, as we have since our foundation as a country built by immigrants, many of whom were also fleeing persecution and violence in their places of birth.
We will offer all our citizens freedom to follow the religion, politics & lifestyles of their choosing, within the bounds of peaceful coexistence. New stories and traditions will blend with ours. But in each case, I will call the tradition what it is. Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Eid – not a generic Happy Holidays that sounds like we just decided we needed a break from the office.
If we drop the name of Christmas, or any other tradition, we lose the story and the meaning behind it. You don’t have to believe in the religious elements of the tradition to recognize this would diminish us all.
So in honour of what this holiday is about, and what it means for the crisis facing our world today, I offer you a sincere Merry Christmas.