The people who sat in darkness saw a great light, / And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned. Isaiah 9:2 & Matthew 4:16
It is not by accident that Christians celebrate the birth of Christ with lights. Since the moment angels appeared on Bethlehem hillsides announcing a Son was given to the world, light piercing darkness has signified peace and joy and hope to a weary world.
The first lights of celebration were probably simple oil lamps. It is not beyond imagination that before candles or Christmas trees or cards or gift giving or even a day called “Christmas,” early Christians occasionally remembered the birth of our Lord. These “would have been spontaneous, casual celebrations” observed by individual families. And, as they remembered, it would be natural for them to watch the lamp and think of the scripture promising that when Messiah (Jesus) comes those who sit in darkness will see a great light.
Candles came into more or less common use around 800-900 AD and shortly after we find the first references to nativity scenes being placed in Christian houses of worship. Also--although the exact roots are lost in antiquity--it may have been roughly this time when what we now call “Christmas” began to be celebrated on a specific day.
Over time, being “Christian” became the socially acceptable norm and Christian holiday, including Christmas, were more culturally bound. Decorations became increasingly more common place, expensive, complex and light-filled, causing some devote individuals to feel the holiday had lost all meaning and to doubt the celebration’s worth. When Puritans took control of the English government in the mid 1600’s, lights, decorations and all other forms of celebration were banned. Christmas was to be no more.
Yet the celebration of Christmas—with all its flaws—has endured and when electric light bulbs came on the scene in the late 1800’s they were almost immediately employed as part of the Christmas celebration. They proliferated until today in city streets and country lanes, windows, yards, rooftops and buildings edges twinkle and glimmer. A blow-up Grinch is just down the road from my house and one neighbor has a brightly lit model T displayed complete with Mr. Claus at the wheel and Mrs. Claus riding shot-gun.
For myself, would be easy to agree with the Puritans and declare that the holiday has lost all meaning. In fact, for several years I have not put up decorations, but this year I think I have a better idea: I’ll dig out the 3’ tall, plastic tree that has served the family so well, dust off a string of colored lights, attach a little tinsel and a few ornaments, then turn out the lamps and enjoy. After all, He really is the light of the world and it’s nice to be reminded of that fact. Especially at Christmas.