What is the true meaning of Christmas?

Bitange Ndemo

It is Christmas again. But what is the true meaning of Christmas? Many sources define it as an annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ and a widely observed holiday, celebrated generally on December 25 by millions of people around the world.

A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it closes the Advent season and initiates the 12 days of Christmastide, which ends after the twelfth night.

Christmas is a civil holiday in many of the world’s nations. It is celebrated by an increasing number of non-Christians and is an integral part of the global festive season.

In most parts of the world, it has lost its original meaning. In modern cultures, overt religious references are mostly avoided, and the “true meaning” is taken to be a sort of self-examining and benevolent attitude as opposed to the commercialisation of Christmas that has been bemoaned since mid-19th century.

As early as 1889, The American magazine gave the meaning as “to give up one’s very self — to think only of others — how to bring the greatest happiness to others — that is the true meaning of Christmas”.


This was the spirit that we embraced in the village where I grew up. There were no gifts to exchange but every home cooked the best dish and shared among the villagers. It was the only time of the year that we had chapati and ndazi.

If we were lucky we might share a bottle of Coca-Cola as Christmas gift. When schools opened in January, we could nostalgically joke about how many chapatis we had as we embarked on another countdown to Christmas. People put aside their differences not so much to celebrate the Nativity of Christ, but as an embodiment of Christ’s principle of forgiveness.

But what does the Bible say about celebrating Christmas? Romans 14:5-6 says “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honour of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honour of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honour of the Lord and gives thanks to God”.

It is basically left to individual decision whether to celebrate or not. Whether to eat or not eat. Many have misconstrued what really is good for Christmas. But in my recollection of the past, eating of any kind was to be in moderation.

In homes that had liquor, they drank with much self-control. They dealt with each other temperately. Elders reprimanded anybody who misbehaved. Disputes arising from the festivities were resolved by consensus. The positive atmosphere gave us hope that our community had a better future.

Such optimism today is fading away. Families fight over Christmas gifts. Children have little to hope for in Christmas. It has become a season for extreme waste that is characterised by many road accidents arising from drunken driving in the name of Christ.

In most parts of the world, Christmas shopping has begun to assume economic importance. Whilst the poor go without a meal, the rich are shopping for what they do not need.

Whichever way one celebrates Christmas, let us remember there are millions out there without food, clothing and shelter.

It is our collective responsibility “to give up one’s very self — to think only of others — how to bring the greatest happiness to others.

In our drunken stupors, let us not drive for we may hurt others and our conscience be the guide as what the true meaning of Christmas is.

Dr Ndemo is a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi and a former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication.