By Drew Coons
Christmas means many things to different people. Family, gifts, vacation, traditions, carols, and food are all part of the holidays. Christians celebrate the birth of Christ. Memories of Christmases past can bring joy and sometimes sadness. For me, Christmas is mainly about hope.
A Need for Hope
I spent most of my childhood in the tropical state of Florida. My younger brother, sister, and I had never seen snow. We knew all about snow though. Literature for children is full of stories involving snow, including enticing pictures. Delicate ice crystals falling from the sky? Snowball fights? Snowmen? Sledding down hills? Snow cream? It all sounded magical to Florida kids. And somehow snow was linked to the perfect Christmas. Even adult stories and movies imply that Christmas just isn’t complete without snow.
But neither snow nor Christmas was on our minds in the late summer of 1960. My mother, brother, sister, and I were waiting for my father to come home from an errand. The whole family was going bowling. Maybe as a 10-year-old, I could make my first spare. But my father was late. To our surprise, a police car stopped in front of the house. The deputy walked slowly to our front door. He told us that my father had been killed in an automobile accident.
Within an instant, my world simply stopped. There would be no more fishing trips. No more playing catch in the yard or good night kisses. What reason was there to continue living? Within a few days we moved away from all we knew to my mother’s home state of Alabama. Everything there seemed different. People talked funny. The other kids played games that I didn’t understand. Life wasn’t death for me, but it didn’t quite seem like living either.
Eventually a joyless December approached. The season just wasn’t the same without my father. And I couldn’t even imagine what Christmas Day would be like. All of our family traditions involved him.
In the late afternoon of Christmas Eve, a cold north wind started to blow. The sky clouded over. And a few beautiful snowflakes started to come down—very unusual for Alabama. No weather report had predicted snow. Even the old timers were surprised. During the evening, the snowfall intensified. Who cared about presents or Santa coming? My brother, sister, and I spent every minute watching the snow from the windows. On Christmas morning, the world outside was covered with six inches of crystal cold purity. And to my eternal joy and amazement, there under the Christmas tree was a brand new sled, the first one I had ever seen. It was a miracle! Either that, or Santa got really lucky.
On Christmas Day we played outside until we were nearly frozen, doing all the things with snow that we ever had heard about. Then I got the strangest new feeling—life was still worth living. The God who was able to make snow would look out for me. The strange feeling was hope. Before my father died, I’d never needed any hope. Now hope said, “Everything will be all right.”
We all seek hope, especially in times of tragedy. But where do turn? People in difficult circumstances are most willing to grasp at some counterfeit hope, but that usually makes their situation worse. One example of this is the lottery. A $2 ticket is harmless for most people. But unfortunately, statistics prove that low-income individuals spend far more proportionally on the lottery than any other group.
The Powerball lottery is a cultural phenomenon. The news shows lines of people waiting to spend their hard-earned money on chances to win hundreds of millions of dollars. Someone has said, “Powerball is a tax on people who are bad in math.” But people aren’t dumb. They know that one chance in 292,201,338 is essentially no chance. Many humorous comparisons give reality to the nearly impossible odds—such as, a person is four times more likely to be killed by an asteroid than to win the Powerball jackpot.
Yet people flock to the lottery in droves. Why? They are purchasing a small whiff of hope. For a brief moment before the numbers are drawn, people can imagine themselves becoming unimaginably wealthy. Maybe they’ll have money for everything they could want. This illustrates the desperate need people have for hope in their lives.
Hope is listed along with faith and love in
1 Corinthians 13:13. Hope is therefore an essential element of a Christian’s life. Those who have spoken another language know that the most meaningful words sometimes do not have a perfect replacement in English. Biblical scholars tell us that the ancient Hebrew and Greek words translated into “hope” imply trust, looking forward to, or expecting as in our “hope of salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:8). This meaning is different from hoping something might happen.
Why is hope so essential? The apostle Paul wrote about “the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven” (Colossians 1:4, 5). Because faith and love spring from hope, I like to think of hope as the good soil in which faith and love can flourish and grow. My wife, Kit, and I worked in marriage ministry for decades and met many struggling couples. Some others might tell the struggling couples that they need to start their restoration to each other with stronger commitment. Our experience was that a struggling couple first needed biblical hope. They needed hope that their relationship could be better. Hope gave the couples the commitment to exercise faith and love, thus making the difficult changes necessary for a better marriage.
Season of Hope
How does God give hope to us? Biblical hope comes from the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13), grace (2 Thessalonians 2:16, 17), and especially Scripture: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). I believe that God can also give hope through miracles, perhaps even the snow that gave me hope. How’s this for a miracle? A baby was born of a virgin. Is that not even more unlikely than a person winning the lottery? The miracle of Jesus’ birth authenticated the hope that he brought to all humankind.
Many have documented that we truly don’t know the date when Jesus was born. Some say it was probably springtime because the shepherds were in the fields. December 25 was selected to celebrate the birth of Christ in the mid-fourth century. Possible reasons could be because slaves had a holiday then, or it may have been an attempt to tame wild pagan festivities honoring the Roman god Saturn.
Others point out that the Norse-Germanic Yule season preexisted Christian Christmas. Historians agree that many symbols of our Christmas—evergreen trees, holly, mistletoe, wreaths, plus a Santa-like figure—all originated among the pagans. But even the ancient Norse-Germanic celebration was about the hope of better days. Winter was hard in those northern climates. Starvation and death by exposure were very real dangers. The Yule season celebrated the beginning of lengthening days, which brought the expectation of spring and new life. Unlike the remote possibility of winning the lottery, they knew spring was coming. In this sense, the Norse-Germanic tradition fit the biblical usage of the word hope.
Regardless, what time could possibly be more appropriate to celebrate the hope brought by Christ’s birth than the darkest days of the year in late December? Interestingly, some Southern Hemisphere cultures, for example New Zealand, have a Christmas celebration in July with evergreen trees and decorations. Those are the darkest, gloomiest days of their year. A midwinter Christmas gives hope for longer and better days ahead.
Why do I love Christmas so much? Certainly I enjoy the lights, traditions, and festivities. But Christmas to me is about the feeling of hope that motivates me to exercise my faith and demonstrate God’s love.
In 1 Timothy 1:1, Paul refers to Jesus as “our hope.” Have you ever seen young parents who weren’t full of hope as they cradled their new baby? Probably not. At Christmas, all of us have a new baby along with Mary and Joseph: the baby Jesus. That baby is God’s gift of hope for each one of us, the essence of Christmas. As I experienced as a young boy, Christmas hope says, “Everything will be all right.”
Drew Coons and his wife, Kit, are retired missionaries living in Paron, Arkansas.