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The true meaning of Christmas for Christian communities

Photo: PA

Andy Tilsley from Christchurch London writes about the true meaning of Christmas and explains why the celebration is so special to the Christian community.

Ask anyone to conjure up images of Christmas and most likely the words “family” and “friends” will come up again and again.

I’m sure many of us will be celebrating December 25th with loved ones, exchanging gifts, playing games, huddling round the television or squeezing about a dining table tucking into Christmas lunch.

The first ever Christmas card designed by Henry Cole in 1843 conveyed such a scene, and artistic impressions of the nativity 2,000 years earlier portray a likewise rather saintly throng gathered about a manger.

ChristChurch London hold an annual carol carol service. Credit: ChristChurchLondon

I don’t believe the first Christmas was actually that angelic.

The room where Jesus was born would have been grubbily unhygienic; Mary, Joseph and Jesus would have looked the worse for wear after a night of childbirth without pain relief.

They were not particularly well off (the swaddling clothes in which Jesus was wrapped were used only by the poor). The intimate crowd of onlookers were hardly must-haves on any dinner-party guest list.

Nativity scene of the birth of Jesus. Credit: PA

Shepherds were seen as outcasts, uneducated, smelly, on the bottom rung of the ladder. Wise men from the east weren't highly thought of for very different reasons.

Simply put, though they may have been wealthy (they brought a gift of gold after all), they also hailed from lands that were historically seen as Israel’s enemies. It was a most motley crew.

Credit: PA

Strangely enough, I take perverse encouragement from that each Christmas Day. The house is a mess. There are squabbles over what to watch on TV. The wallet is hurting. Dinner is an organisational Everest. My wife is unhappy that I’ve purchased the wrong sized clothing…again. The kids spend more time making dens with the leftover boxes rather than playing with the toys for which I had to remortgage the house. And it doesn’t take long for a family feud over something or other.

Christian communities often light candles on Advent wreaths in the build up to Christmas. Credit: PA

But the Christmas story reminds me that the most fallible, broken and unlikely people are made to feel welcome at the most significant event in history – the moment around which we centre our entire calendar.

It is a powerful reminder that God’s love transcends all cultural, racial and social barriers: people matter, everyone has inherent value, and if God deems all human beings worthy of care and attention, then we should too.

That message undergirds much of our church’s motivation for community involvement each Christmas.

ChristChurch London's annual Christmas carol service. Credit: ChristchurchLondon

Our Carol Service is our best-attended event each year. Whole families choose to come to church – not just to sing carols, drink mulled wine, eat mince pies, watch the kids perform, and hear a talk about the Christmas story.

More than that, it’s a chance for people to be together.

ChristChurch London encourages people to connect with those around them. Credit: ChristChurchLondon

Over the years we’ve raised money for some of the superb charities across London and beyond serving those in need: Kids Company, the Refugee Support Network, farming projects in Africa.

We also promote hands on engagement with local community needs. Last year some of our twenty-somethings went carol-singing in a local care-home. Others collected food parcels outside supermarkets to redistribute to those accessing our Vauxhall Foodbank.

This video highlights just a few ways in which individuals and groups are seeking to make a positive contribution to their communities.

Still more served the homeless through a brilliant project called ‘Growth’ in Tower Hamlets. We do all we can to offer hospitality to those from overseas who can’t afford to return home for the festive season.

ChristChurch London's 'Growth' project offers hosptality for those from overseas who can't afford to return home for the season. Credit: ChristChurchLondon

More broadly we wholeheartedly encourage people to connect with those around them: Eat together, party, befriend the lonely, enjoy one another’s company, have fun, serve those in need, laugh lots.

Crowds gather at the annual Christmas carol service. Credit: ChristChurchLondon

If God thinks that every person, even imperfect ones like me, have significance, then we think that following his example is a great way to address some of the loneliness and brokenness in a city of eight million people.

The community helps to address some of the loneliness and brokenness in a capital by providing food and shelter in the 'Growth' project. Credit: ChristChurchLondon

And so this Christmas, amidst the inevitable moments of stress, frustration, fatigue, irritation and more, I hope there are people around you who let you know how much you matter.

If not, you’re more than welcome to connect with our imperfect community, and I hope you find a sense of family there too.