So many images of Christmas come to mind, as each city and each group of people react differently to this holiday – which St. John Chrysostom called the “metropolis of feasts.” Marketers have been hard at work brainwashing the masses to reach their consumerist climax ahead of the holiday, while others groups have been advancing their own agenda, skewing the meaning of the Feast of the Nativity into some silly winter festival where everyone is supposed to be happy and merry, but no one is supposed to discuss the reason why.
And yet, just days after the arrival of the winter solstice, as the northern hemisphere is engulfed in darkness and the cold embrace of the freezing temperatures tighten its grip on the people, the warmth and light of the Nativity feast kindles a unique fervor that captivates the human heart.
This warmth and radiance has stood as the inspiration for hymnographers and ecclesiastical orators, whose masterpieces have graced the Orthodox Church and have been heard throughout the centuries, as well as for authors like Alexandros Papadiamantis and Photis Kontoglou, who dedicated some of their best pieces to celebrate this holiday.
Kontoglou writes that “the spiritual joy and heavenly delight that Christians feel on Christmas can in no way be experienced by someone who merely celebrates the holiday out of sentimental habit, and who ties it in to secular joys, the winter season, snow, and a warm fireplace. Only Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas in a spiritual way and experience sacred emotions in their hearts, which are kindled by a mysterious otherworldly warmth – the warmth of the Holy Spirit, body and soul celebrate together, rejoicing with divine exuberance which cannot be experienced by anyone who finds himself far from Christ.
Meanwhile, during these holy days, a Christian’s heart is filled with the sweet fragrance of hymns, a sweet spiritual radiance that covers all creation – the mountains, sea, every boulder, every tree, every rock, every living being. Everything is sanctified, everything celebrates, everyone chants and rejoices, and all of nature is like ‘a fruitful olive tree in the house of God.’”
In the same essay on Christmas, contained in his book Aivali, My Homeland, Kontoglou writes that Christ’s Nativity serves as a great lesson in humility for humanity. He points to Christ’s birth in the manger, so that God’s ineffable condescension might be better experienced and comprehended by the people. “His mother, the Theotokos, found herself far removed from her home, sojourning as a stranger in a strange land, and she gave birth to Him inside a stable.
The baby Jesus was warmed by the breath of the ox and the donkey, while shepherds kept this newborn child company. And the lamb of God who came to save mankind from Adam’s curse was numbered among the sheep on the farm. What person ever entered into this world with more humble beginnings?”
Kontoglou cites an explanation by St. Isaak the Syrian, who remarks that the Divine Logos became man and clothed himself in humility, “coming into contact with us through this humility and taking on a body like ours. And anyone who wears this humility truly becomes like Him who came down from His place of glory and covered the virtue of His grandeur and glory with humility.
And the reason for this was so that creation would not be set ablaze at His mere sight. Because creation could not behold Him if He did not take on a part of it (flesh), and He spoke to it in this manner. He covered His grandeur with flesh and through this He came into contact with us; through the flesh that He took from the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary. That is why, whoever puts on the vestment that the Creator wore (humility), has put on Christ Himself.”
And metaphorically speaking, the manger is a humble heart – the only place where Christ goes and makes His abode. That human manger that beats in each one of us and has the capacity to welcome the Divine Logos serves as the great inspiration for writers like Papadiamantis and Kontoglou, whose many Christmas stories are often situated in the humblest of settings (remote chapels, caves) and include characters who stand out for their unfeigned manner, simplicity, and genuineness.
The setting almost always ends with the traditional Christmas meal, where all the persons present are gathered at the common table celebrating the feast in a spirit of camaraderie, mutual love, and a deep sense of elation over the nobility of the day.
Their literary tradition was lived out by many Greeks even today. The late Giannis Kalamitsis, radio personality and lyricist, recalled his childhood memories last Christmas, noting that “our mother used to wake us up in the early morning hours, dress us up and take our family to church. On our way back, we would find Christmas breakfast waiting for us on the table.
That Christmas breakfast is unforgettable to me. Despite the state of our family finances, that breakfast was so plentiful that we would
just sit and look at it in amazement, instead of digging in. We would make this “extravagant expense” in our home once a year, for Christmas breakfast!.I remember all this and these memories make me ready to face the poverty that has set in and the poverty that will follow.”
In his same essay, Kontoglou offers great solace for our beloved Greek and Cypriot homelands, which are facing such great challenges today: “And so, brethren, let us celebrate Christ’s Nativity ‘in spirit and truth, with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,’ and then the other things ‘will be given to us.’ In other words, the joy of our homes, families, nature, good company, unadulterated entertainment, because everything will be sweetened by the love of Christ and kindled by the warmth of the One who is the giver of life.”