Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Everyone knows that. Do you know the entire story of his birth?
Let me narrate it in brief. Over 2000 ago, Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. So everyone went to his or her hometowns to register. A carpenter called Joseph, who was in Nazareth in Galilee in the Middle East (which was also part of the empire), went to nearby Bethlehem. He went there with Mary, who was to be married to him and was expecting a child.
While they were there, Mary gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped the baby in clothes and placed him in a manger or stable, because there was no room for them in the town inn.
Meanwhile, a few shepherds in the fields nearby were keeping watch over their flocks at night when they were suddenly visited by an angel. The angel informed them that Mary’s baby was in fact Christ the Lord and had been born to be their saviour.
So the shepherds, called the Magi, followed a bright star that led them to Bethlehem. They went with gifts and pronounced the baby as the Lord. The baby grew up to be Jesus Christ, founder of Christianity.
A typical fairy tale, huh? Like fairy tales, the original Christmas story too is full of divine and miraculous elements: the promise to a virgin that she will have a baby, angelic choirs in the skies announcing the birth and the subsequent arrival of mysterious strangers bearing gifts fit for a king.
But unlike fairytales, this one is firmly rooted in the context in which it is set. The story is set in a political context of oppression that is as chillingly familiar in the world today, as it was 20 centuries ago in the country of Judaea, where Joseph and Mary lived. Mary gives birth in a stable because the couple has had to travel from their hometown to Bethlehem, so that they can be registered in the census.
The Roman emperor who issued the census order has a vast empire. Tiny Judaea is one of them. The people of Judaea yearn for freedom, and are subjugated not only by the emperor himself, but also by a puppet king whom the emperor has appointed to rule over them.
The puppet king, Herod the Great, is a cruel and vengeful tyrant. When Herod hears that the gift-bearing strangers are looking for a new king who has just been born he decides to eliminate the potential rivals by ordering a massacre of all newborn male children. Joseph and his family escape by fleeing to another country and not returning until the tyrant is dead.
By depicting the misery of the people under oppressive Roman rule, the story hints that people were in fact ready for something new. That old religions and rulers were suiting them no more. So when the wandering messiah Jesus Christ arrived with his simple and teachings 30 years later, people embraced the teachings wholeheartedly.
The divine and miraculous elements in the Christmas story are not just sugar frosting on the crueller elements. They are there as a hope that oppression may be transformed and overcome. One does not have to share the faith of a Christian to derive a few lessons from the story.