While pastoring at Three Lakes Bible Church, on Wednesday evenings we used to pick up some neighbor kids and take them to our AWANA program for children and youth. At this time of year, when decorations have gone up for Christmas, one little girl used to comment on the way home about all the “pretty lights” and would then ask, “Do you like pretty lights?” On one occasion we passed a patrolman who had a car pulled over beside the road, and again, “Look at the pretty lights.” (They probably weren’t “pretty” to the occupants of the car that was stopped!)
One thing our family has always enjoyed is driving around on Christmas Eve to see all the “pretty lights.” Some folks go all out with outdoor decorations. Sometimes a neighborhood will have decoration contests and people try to outdo each other with their light displays. One residential area in our community often puts out luminaries all along the roads in their neighborhood on Christmas Eve, knowing that many people will be driving through to look at lights.
Use of the Christmas tree was part of the Christian Christmas celebration in the 16th century in Germany, spreading to most of Europe by the 18th century. According to tradition, it was Martin Luther in Germany who popularized trees as a Christmas symbol of the new life we have in Christ. He also apparently had the idea of putting candles on the tree to represent how “in Him (Christ) was life, and the life was the light of men” (Jn. 1:4). Jesus said, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12).
In England, Prince Albert introduced the Christmas tree to the royal palace and in the United States, our 14th president, Franklin Pierce, was the first president to set up a Christmas tree in the White House.
While candles are what really made a tree a “Christmas tree,” the flickering flames, though festive, were also a fire hazard. So, along came Thomas Edison and Edward Johnson. Johnson hired the 24-year old Edison as a consultant for his telegraph company on 36th street in New York City. Johnson took many of Edison’s brainstorms—like the phonograph— and tuned them into cash. In 1880, Edison patented the light bulb and Johnson and others invested $35,000 to form “The Edison Lamp Co.” to market the bulbs. Then Johnson saw the opportunity to use light bulbs in place of candles on Christmas trees. He set up a tree by the street-side window of his parlor and hand-wired 80 red, white and blue bulbs, strung them around the tree and placed the trunk in a revolving pedestal, all powered by a generator. The lighted tree drew large crowds that stopped by to gaze at the glowing marvel. He continued to add more bulbs each year. Soon bulbs were being mass produced and by 1900 you could buy a string of 16 flame-shaped bulbs sitting in brass sockets the size of shot glasses for $12 (about $350 in today’s money) . In 1894, President Cleveland put electric lights on the White House tree.
Today an estimated 150 million light sets are sold in America each year. Christmas lights consume 65% of the nation’s electric load in December! It all started with Johnson’s “miracle on 36th street!”
But, long before the celebration of Christmas with all its light displays, there was an event mentioned in Scripture and recorded by Jewish historians. Jewish people had returned from exile in Babylon, rebuilt the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and were living, worshiping, and working in the land. But then along came Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) who forbade the Jewish people to keep the Sabbath or to observe their religious practices. Many were forced to bow and sacrifice to pagan gods and thousands more were slain. The Holy Temple was invaded, defiled and robbed. Things seemed hopeless for the Jews until one godly man, Mattityahu, a priest, stepped forward and, backed by his five sons, attacked the army of Antiochus, tore down the idols, and slew the idol-worshippers. Other faithful Jews then joined him as they fled to the hills. Yehuda Maccabee, one of Mattityahu’s sons, led the small guerilla army to a series of victories. With God on their side, they liberated Jerusalem and won the Temple back on the 25th of the month Kislev, 165 B.C. (which was also our December 25th that year!).
Overjoyed and thankful, the people cleared the Temple of idols and rebuilt the altar. According to tradition, they looked for holy oil to light the menorah and rededicate the sanctuary, but only one cruse remained undefiled. In faith, they lighted the lamp, and the oil which should have lasted just one day, lasted eight. Jews began an annual celebration to honor that great miracle and bravery and faith in God. It commemorates one of the many times God has delivered Israel from the hands of her enemies. It is called “Hanukkah” which comes from the Hebrew verb meaning “to dedicate.” It is also called the “Feast of Dedication,“ and the “Festival of Lights.” It lasts 8 days and on each day one of the candles of the Menorah is lighted from the candle in the middle called “the Servant Candle!” We read in John 10:22,23 that Jesus attended the “Feast of Dedication” (Hanukkah) in Jerusalem in the winter.
The pretty lights of Christmas (and Hanukkah) remind us of when God became a man and the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds near Bethlehem when the angel came, saying: “Don’t be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Lk. 2: 10,11). Light is the basic energy by which all creation functions. God, of course, is the source. In fact, “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (I Jn. 1:5). And, that light came into the world in the person of God the Son, Jesus Christ, the God-Man. He came to light the way for us. “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ (Gen. 1:3) is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (II Cor. 4:6).
As you admire all the beautiful lights this Christmas, be reminded of what they represent: The red lights speak of the blood Jesus shed to pay for our sins (I Pet. 1:18,19); the green lights speak of new life and growth, the white lights speak of the holiness of God, and how our sins can be made white as snow through Christ’s blood; the yellow lights speak of the golden streets of heaven and the eternal life that awaits all who have received God’s gift to man–His Son, Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:12). Have you received God’s “Indescribable gift” (II Cor. 9:15)?