What Does Christmas Really Mean?

Professor Michael Barber explores this question in a new book.

‘The True Meaning of Christmas’
‘The True Meaning of Christmas’ (photo: Augustine Institute/Ignatius Press)

The True Meaning of Christmas

The Birth of Jesus and the Origins of the Season

By Michael Barber

Ignatius Press/Augustine Institute, 2021

198 pages, $24.95

To order: EWTNRC.com or (800) 854-6316

There has been a flurry of new Christmas books for little children in recent years, including Nissim: The Shepherd of Bethlehem by Patrick O’Hearn (Contemplative Hearts Press) and The Spider Who Saved Christmas by Raymond Arroyo (Sophia Institute Press). There is also an increasing number of Christmas books for older children and grown-ups, including Christmas Blossoms by Priscilla McCaffrey (Sophia Institute Press), Celebrating a Merry Catholic Christmas by Father William Saunders (TAN Books) and Spiritual Steps to Christmas by Msgr. Aloysius Coogan (Mother of Our Savior and Refuge of Sinners Publishing).

Another of the recent Christmas books for older readers comes from Ignatius Press and the Augustine Institute. 

It is called The True Meaning of Christmas: The Birth of Jesus and the Origins of the Season, written by Michael Patrick Barber. 

The father of six and professor of sacred Scripture and theology at the Augustine Institute Graduate School looks into various questions about the Solemnity of the Nativity, otherwise known as Christmas. 

The very word “Christmas” is explored by Barber, as well as the significance of Dec. 25, Santa Claus, gift-giving, decorated trees and other associated topics. 

The reader might be surprised (but not confused) by some of the etymological, liturgical and historical aspects of the book that result in realizations that, for example, Santa Claus might not be so bad after all (i.e., he is based on St. Nicholas and makes specific the general ideal of charity).

Chapters start with the words to familiar Christmas songs such as O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, Silent Night and Angels We Have Heard on High and continue with pithy explanations of various aspects of Christmas. 

Not only do the introductory songs make each chapter easy to slide into, but so do the clearly delineated sections. 

There are multiple headings within chapters that make it clear which topics are being discussed. 

Not surprisingly, Barber’s text is soaked in Scripture, with a nearly equal number of Old and New Testament passages cited. The references to the written word of God (Bible) help to make sense of the Word made flesh (Incarnation). Although certain ideas are favored over others, the book is more of a study than a declaration. In the chapter on St. Joseph, for example, Barber puts forth three main views concerning why the patron of the universal Church thought of quietly leaving the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

Despite weighing various aspects of these views, Barber does not demand the reader pick a winner, but simply says that he leans toward one of them. 

While Barber leaves certain things open to further discussion, he takes a pro-worship stance on Christmas, rather than playing up the notion that this holy season is only about humanitarian efforts.

For example, he laments most adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol removing the part about Ebenezer Scrooge going to church on Christmas morning, as if conversion and charity did not have their beginning and end in God. 

As Barber writes, the most profound meaning of Christmas is that “the one who created the cosmos, the all-powerful Lord of the universe, demonstrates his love for humanity by becoming human.” This can be stated with the distinction that the Nativity is not the beginning of the Incarnation (that is marked by the Solemnity of the Annunciation on March 25), but the continuation of the Incarnation. Despite having been celebrated for two millennia, the Annunciation and Nativity have lost none of their ability to inspire awe at the mysterious yet palpable love of God for man. 

This transcendent yet immanent nature of the Nativity is explored by Barber in his first chapter, and it permeates the rest of the book in a way that is both simple and profound. 

Trent Beattie writes from Seattle. His book Fit for Heaven contains numerous Catholic sports interviews, most of which have appeared in the Register. His latest book is Apostolic Athletes.