Eve of Nativity & Insurrectionists

Coptic church – Evidence of Egypt’s large Coptic Christian population

Today is the eve of the celebration of nativity for many in the East. While the West celebrates December 25th, the East continues its Advent waiting, finally coming together in celebration on the 7th of January. Even as I write this, people in Russia, Ukraine, Egypt, and many other places are at midnight liturgies celebrating the birth of Christ.

We unapologetically celebrate both. For something as lifechanging and miraculous as the Incarnation, God become man, it somehow doesn’t feel like too much. Instead, it feels like we are incredibly fortunate to have these rich traditions to live by.

In our first Christmas Eve, I lamented a pardon that felt particularly unjust, lamented that hard fought justice was overturned. This second Christmas eve or Eve of the Nativity I lament something else. I lament a mob storming the U.S. Capital. Scaling walls, knocking over barriers, vandalizing offices, proudly taking pictures to post on social media. I lament this country’s delusional idea that it shines as a beacon of light in the world.

But if that is not enough, my deepest cry is over Christian leaders applauding this and urging people on. A well known Christian leader who hosts a radio show tweeted a picture of the 21 Coptic men, martyred by ISIS for their faith. The audacity of posting this picture with the caption “What price are you willing to pay for what you believe in?” feels like an assault on all things good, on all things holy. Indeed, it feels like an assault on the faith I hold so close and so dear.

Those of us who did not grow up in this country have often been asked in our adopted countries about the United States. They are envious of many things, among them the fact that we elect leaders and have a peaceful transfer of power. This is unthinkable to many in the world. Elections result in military coups, in forced ousting of leaders, in violence and unrest. Until this time I could be proud of this in our country.

That changed today. Today I’ve read the news with a gasp and cry of anger. The anger has since turned to deep sadness.

And yet… it is the Eve of Nativity. The Eve of remembering an occupation, Roman rule, unrest, and marginalization of a people. The Eve of remembering a baby “born to set thy people free.” The Eve of Nativity, where I look back on the waiting and know it has come to an end.

And as I remember, I’m reminded again that this is my only hope. My hope is not in government. My hope is not in peaceful transfer of power. My hope is not in people “doing the right thing.” My hope is not in the next administration. This does not mean that I will not call out wrong. This does not mean that I will not seek the welfare of the city where I live. This does not mean I will not fight evil, confronting it with discernment and courage.

What it means is that my hope will not shattered when those Christians with influence and a lot of power seem to have lost their way. It means that my hope is in somehting so much greater, wiser, and stronger.

My hope is in the one whose name is called “Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”

Right now it is the only thing I have, and it is enough.


This poem was written after the Coptic Christians were martyred. I post it here, as a reminder of that which is good and true and holy.

Two rows of men walked the shore of the sea,
On a day when the world’s tears would run free,
One a row of assassins, who thought they did right,
The other of innocents, true sons of the light,
One holding knives in hands held high,
The other with hands empty, defenseless and tied,
One row of slits to conceal glaring-dead eyes,
The other with living eyes raised to the skies,
One row stood steady, pall-bearers of death,
The other knelt ready, welcoming heaven’s breath,
One row spewed wretched, contemptible threats,
The other spread God-given peace and rest.
A Question…
Who fears the other?
The row in orange, watching paradise open?
Or the row in black, with minds evil and broken?

“Two Rows by the Sea” ©Bible Society of Egypt

#OnlytheGood – Christmas 2017

It’s Friday and I’m sitting by our Christmas tree. I could sit here all day, just writing, thinking, dreaming, and reading. I know that December 25th is a constructed holiday, that most probably the birth of Christ did not happen in winter, yet I am so grateful that we have this joy to brighten days that could feel too long in their gloom; too sad and cold and lifeless. Instead, for a brief time we get tree lights and the Advent, the anticipation of a birth that changed the world.

I miss my dad this Christmas. It’s the little things – talking to him on the phone, ordering an LL Bean sweater for him, buying him small gifts. He was a wonderful man to buy gifts for – always appreciative, always surprised. I miss his smile and his enthusiasm for life. I miss his presence. Those people who we lose are never too far from us. We can be reminded by the smallest things that they are gone. Tears come unexpectedly, but I am reminded in these thoughts and memories that to love is to hurt.

We usually have a houseful, but this Christmas it will just be a few of us. These are the times when I’m grateful for good friends to share Christmas Eve, grateful that through the changes life brings, there is a foundation of faith – not in an outcome, but in a God whose very character is consistent. In the words of my sister-in-law, Tami, he is “Utterly faithful and completely unpredictable”.

In this Christmas edition of #Onlythegood, there are a few lovely things to share.

The first is this beautiful piece by One Voice Children’s Choir. My brother Stan shared it and I’ve listened to it several times. I’ve included the words for you to ponder.

Starlight shines, the night is still
Shepherds watch from a hill
I close my eyes, see the night
When love was born
Perfect child gently waits
A mother bends to kiss God’s face
I close my eyes, see the night
When love was born
Angels fill the midnight sky, they sing
Hallelujah, He is Christ, our King
Emmanuel, Prince of peace
Loves come down for you and me
Heaven’s gift, the holy spark
To let the way inside our hearts
Bethlehem, through your small door
Came the hope we’ve waited for
The world was changed forevermore
When love was born
I close my eyes, see the night
When love was born*

A baby born on a Pakistan International Airlines Flight! 

On December 12th, on a flight from Medina, Saudi Arabia to Multan, Pakistan a woman gave birth to a baby girl. The airline staff handled it beautifully and all is well. The baby girl will fly free for the rest of her life!


My friend Rachel has a book deal! She will be writing the story of Annalena Tonelli!

Plough Nabs Bio of ‘Somalia’s Mother Teresa’

“Sam Hine, acquisition editor at Plough, took world rights to the first English-language yet-to-be-titled biography of Annalena Tonelli, often referred to as Somalia’s Mother Teresa. An Italian native, Tonelli’s story features her work in East Africa, including tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment campaigns, establishing special schools for deaf, blind, and disabled children, and ultimately, her murder in 2003 which remains unsolved. The book will be written by American expat and journalist Rachel Pieh Jones, and it is expected to be published in fall 2019.”


New York Today: Alone in an Empty City

This is a beautiful essay about New York City when everyone leaves.

“Computer screens gone dark. Unanswered emails. Co-workers hauling luggage to meetings so they can head straight to Grandma’s. And for some of us, the unglamorous response to the question, ‘Where are you going for the holidays?’

Nowhere.

At first, we feel a pang — the kind that sets in as we hug loved ones goodbye at airport security or watch their taxi pull away, only to remember we’re going home alone.

But then we become the lucky ones.

We get to watch the city boil down to its barest form. And, like a candle burning brighter as it melts away the wax, this empty New York becomes more radiant than ever.”

Quote from my friend Jo: 

I thought you might like this quote from a book I’m reading (Crossing Borders) by Sergio Troncoso a Mexican American writer who writes about his two cultures.

“I am in between. Trying to write to be understood by those who matter to me, yet also trying to push my mind with ideas beyond the everyday. It is another borderland I inhabit. Not quite here nor there. On good days I feel I am a bridge. On bad days I just feel alone.”


Lastly, my husband and I went to see the Star Wars movie last night. It is non-stop action, tension, and humor. The best line for me was this one: “You don’t win by fighting what you hate, but by saving what you love” said by a lovely new character – Rose.


And with that I’ll wish you a Merry Christmas. May it be a time of contemplation and joy that is much deeper than happiness. It’s hard to believe that 6 years ago I began writing. Thank you for reading, emailing, sharing, and making this into a space on the interwebz that doesn’t hurt the world.

With love to all of you,

Marilyn ♥️

Song by Bernie Herms / Mark Schultz / Mark Mitchell Schultz / Stephanie Lewis When Love Was Born lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc<<<<<<<<<<
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The Eclectic Nativity Set

I’ve been a little lazy about Christmas this year. I did most of my shopping on the Internet (something I’ve sworn off of in the past). I delegated all the wrapping to our oldest daughter who seemed to actually enjoy it. I let the girls do most of the decorating this year too. We’re leaving for Ontario to celebrate with my family and it just seemed like too much work to put up a tree, let alone, to ‘deck the halls’. I’ve been rather ambivalent about the whole thing. (That’s the gentle way of saying I’ve really been a party-pooper and a grouchy Grinch.)

And so in a spirit of half-heartedness and efficiency (‘let’s just get this over with!’) I decided not to set out all the nativity sets I have. Rather I grabbed bits and pieces from each of them and put them together. I set out the wise men from our Ethiopian set, the shepherds from India. There was another lone shepherd with his sheep that I swiped from the Playmobile Nativity, I suspect he was from Europe. Mary and Joseph came from a Bolivian Nativity I’ve had since I was in college and the baby Jesus was hand made by our youngest daughter Bronwynn when she was 6 or 7.

Something happened in my heart as I set out this motley crew of international delegates to the Holy Nativity. I felt a worshipful shift in my spirit. Slowly I lowered the handmade angel off to thimg_5211e side. Balding and heavy bottomed this angel is full of joy. I think I felt a little of the “radiance of the Lord’s glory surround” me. As frightening and disturbing as this year has been I knew the reassurance of the angel’s message: “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior, the Rescuer, the Lord is here!”

With tears in my eyes I stood back from the scene. I shook my head at how silly a Nativity set really is. In no way does the plastic, or clay, or wood capture the chaos of that long ago holy night. It was earthy and bloody and noisy and messy. God became flesh. Grace and Light and Life were embodied and Mary, “wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger.”

It brought me such joy to see representatives from three or four countries and continents surround the manger at this commemoration of the first Advent. The Ethiopians tall and proud, the Indians colourful and exuberant, the Bolivian couple sincere, the lone European shepherd stiffly holding his lantern.

I imagined the glories of the second Advent where people will gather from every corner of the globe. Picture it! Every language will be buzzing, every tribe will have someone there, even the remote places will be represented. Some from every nation and every race will come. People from every background will gather. It will be a huge crazy crowd! And Christ, having long since outgrown his manger bed will be seated on a throne, our crowned and glorious King. We will fall on our faces before him and worship,

Oh, Yes!
The blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving,
The honor and power and strength,
Belong to our God forever and ever and ever!
Oh, Yes!

I pulled the clay figurine of Mary closer to the manger. I scooted the plastic sheep back a little. Maybe it was the light from the tiny plastic lantern, but as I stepped away from my Nativity, things seemed a little brighter and hope seemed a little clearer.

(Scriptures referenced from Luke 2:8-14 and Rev 7:9-12).

A Broken World Meets an Advent Season

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A Pakistan International Airlines flight headed to Islamabad from a remote mountain area crashed on a mountain slope today. Before the plane hit the ground it burst into flames. There are no survivors.

A 6.5 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Indonesia has caused damage and killed over one hundred people. Rescue efforts are underway to search for survivors.

Underneath and surrounding the bright lights of Christmas is the reality that we live in a broken world. Somehow the holidays make it seem worse. We have an expectation that because it’s a holiday, life will work. We will have a short respite from tragedy and heart break. But our expectations are quickly shattered as we face the death of a loved one, the break-up of a marriage, the tragedy of an earthquake or a plane crash.

Tragedy and loss, broken cars and broken kids, hurting and homeless ones do not bend to the will of holiday cheer. A broken world doesn’t stop being broken just because we dress it up in twinkling lights and brilliant red and gold baubles. Broken is still broken.

Into this broken comes Advent. Advent doesn’t present us with false expectations or promises; Advent gives us room to long for all to be made right, to long for peace, to long for broken to be made whole. But Advent does something else – Advent shows us that the broken one is welcomed into the arms of God.

Advent….it’s the longing for the world to be as it was created to be. It’s a spiritual longing for all to be made right, for a broken world to find redemption and with redemption be made whole and complete.  To see a homeless woman with neuropathy and long for her to be made whole and find a home; to hear of earthquakes and long for rescue; to hear of atrocities and long for justice; to hear of plane crashes and long for comfort, to see the world as it was intended, not as it is.

But Advent does something else – Advent shows us that the broken world and the broken one are welcomed into the arms of God.

If you are weary this Advent season, if you are face to face with tragedy and death, with the broken bones of a weary world, know that you are welcomed into the arms of God. 

Away in a Manger?

View of Bethlehem, 1898

Away in a Manger…a repost.

Away in a manger,
no crib for a bed. 
The little Lord Jesus lays down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky look down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.

I’ve read many lovely Christmas pieces — how alone Mary and Joseph were during their night-time trip to Bethlehem, her heavy with child and all; how there was no room, and so they were put in the stable; how the cows came and licked the face of Jesus (like any new mom would let that happen….) These pieces are written in beautiful prose and I find myself tearing up a bit.

Cold, alone, dirty stables, animal excrement, mooing, neighing, hay — it’s all there, and for the person who is an artist with their words, it is perfect material.

But the thing is, we’ve got the stable and the manger thing a bit distorted. It’s the limitations of language and translation coupled with our own misconceptions about life in Bethlehem at the time.

I don’t wish to be a cynic or spoiler – those who have written pieces have done a beautiful job in capturing our emotions. But when did we begin to re-write Biblical stories, church traditions through a western pen?

When did the familiar story become so familiar that it became incorrect?

Living in Pakistan and the Middle East helped me to view the scriptures in a different way, to think about the Bible beyond western thought and tradition.

And that is why I appreciate Ken Bailey and his scholarship around Middle Eastern life during the time of Jesus so much. Bailey lived for over 60 years in various countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, and Cyprus. He is an expert in New Testament scholarship.

He wants to set the record straight on the dirty, cold stable and in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, he challenges our western assumptions and guides us to a more complete understanding. He does this so that the stories can, “like a diamond, be restored to their original brilliance.”

So let’s see what a more complete picture looks like:

First off – there was no inn in the sense that the west knows it. There was no commercial space with a fireplace and breakfast in the morning for a price. Instead the word in Greek refers to a guest space, an ‘upper room’ commonly used for hosting guests, relatives of the family. Likely the relatives had others staying with them as the census was being taken “throughout the known world.” Joseph was from a royal line and as such there would have been a space for them to stay. Early Christians when hearing the narrative of the birth of Christ would not have assumed a public inn where there was no space, rather they would assume there was no room in the upper room where guests usually stayed. Instead they were put in more of a ‘family’ room. At one end of this room would be an area a few feet lower where animals were brought inside during the night and led outside first thing in the morning. The family room would also have mangers dug into the ground where animals could feed during the night should they be hungry.

Second giving birth was a big deal, a community event that took place with female members of the family, one of whom would have been a midwife. There is no way Mary gave birth alone and Joseph cut the cord and delivered the placenta. No.Way. That is 21st century thinking right there. Although probably not with her mom, she would have been with Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem. There would have been a clean space, water heated, and women to help. Stop for a moment and imagine you were the midwife at the birth. Can you picture the miracle moment, that moment that happens after every successful delivery, when you realized this one was different? When a chill went up your spine and a ‘Glory to God’ was spontaneously shouted  from your soul? For it wasn’t an emergency birth, rather it was a common birth of an uncommon child.  

Third – He was worshiped by shepherds, the lowest of all in the social strata. And their sign, says Bailey, is indeed the manger. Because they would find him in a manger, they knew he would be in a home of a peasant and the family would not dismiss them as unworthy and unclean, not allowing them to come and offer their worship. The gospel of Luke says that “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” Bailey goes on to say that the word ‘all’ refers to the “quality of hospitality”.

“If they had found a young mother with her first child in the middle of a filthy stable, scared to death with no older women around to help her, the shepherds would have said, ‘This is outrageous! Come home with us! Our women will take care of you!’” Bailey, Open Hearts in Bethlehem

Ken Bailey summarizes it this way:

“To summarize … the holy family traveled to Bethlehem, where
they were received into a private home. The child was born,
wrapped and … ‘put to bed’ … in the living room in the manger
that was either built into the floor or made of wood and moved
into the family living space. … The guest room was already
occupied by other guests. The host family graciously accepted
Mary and Joseph into the family room of their house. … The
village midwife and other women would have assisted at the birth.
After the child was born and wrapped, Mary put her newborn to
bed in a manger filled with fresh straw and covered him with a
blanket.” Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 34–35.

He goes on to say that understanding the context and the real story makes the story better, richer, and more filled with meaning.

Because the truth about the birth of Christ is this:

That this Jesus laid aside all that was rightfully his, putting aside his glory to become Incarnate. This is the beauty of Advent, the mystery of the Incarnation.

He, a King, was born in a peasant’s home. He, the Lord of all, was reduced to a newborn baby with an umbilical cord that needed to be cut. He, the Saviour, needed breast milk and human warmth to survive.

And if we could wrap our heads around that, we would have no need to make the way he was born harder than it was. 

Note: Rachel Pieh Jones and I both wrote on this topic a couple of years ago. Here is her piece that is more indepth than mine and a great read: Rethinking the Nativity. 

Aunt Gracia and the White House Christmas Ornaments

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Like so many others in the western world, we took down our tree this weekend. While there is much excitement and anticipation as we put it up, there is relief and refreshment as we take it down.

Trees that come into our homes fresh and green, begin to shed needles in abundance, branches hanging heavy like the arms of a tired, old lady. The ornaments no longer look beautiful, but sad and incongruous.

What was once beautiful was now tired and ready to go.

We took off the decorations and carefully wrapped them in crisp, tissue paper, placing them into a colorful Christmas container. Red, gold, and green glass balls were wrapped up as well, showing their colors through the transluscent paper.

The clay angels from our Cairo days, wooden Pakistani camels, small, knit stockings from Christmases gone by — all of that too was taken off shelves and packed up until next year.

And each year as we pack away Christmas I think about my Aunt Gracia and her gifts to us while she was still alive — White House Christmas ornaments.

Yearly the White House Historical Association, whose purpose is to “enhance the understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the White House”offers a Christmas ornament through their museum shop. The association designs the ornament and it is only available through this venue.

For years my Aunt Gracia, my father’s oldest sister, volunteered at the White House. Among other things she would address cards to people for their birthdays or special events (I know you thought that the president himself sent you those special cards but – no, that’s not so. It was my Aunt Gracia.) And often her gifts to her nieces and nephews, of which she had an abundance, were White House Christmas Ornaments.

Delicate and framed in 24 karat gold, the ornaments are beauties.

There is the 1988 ornament – Children of the White House featuring President Jackson’s children. There is 1989 – the Bicentennial of the Presidency. 1994 shows soldiers standing at attention and is called “The Imperial Christmas” while 1995 goes for a patriotic theme with the white house flanked by two American flags. 1996 shows us an eagle on the Presidential Seal and 1997 gives us a larger view of the White House grounds. Others include Dolly Madison with an oval frame surrounding her; Abraham Lincoln in his characteristic “thinking” pose; a 200th anniversary edition in 2000; and a family’s first carriage ride in 2001.

The themes are endless. With their gold filagree and unique designs, these ornaments are works of art, heirlooms to be passed down for generations. 

There are times when it feels strange to me that I am so drawn to these ornaments. As a third culture kid and adult I have divided loyalties between countries, and the White House has never held particular interest to me, despite the decisions made daily in the oval office that affect our world.

But these ornaments? They are special. They are moveable pieces. They tell a story of Aunt Gracia, aunt to many nieces and nephews. Gracia, who lost her father at the awful age of 13, she the oldest in a family of five. Gracia Mae who lived in the nation’s capital for years, who lived alone for many of those years, but died surrounded by family who loved her. The ornaments remind me of my brother and sister-in-law who rearranged their home so that Aunt Gracia could live with them during her last weeks of life. Aunt Gracia, who kept up with all of us, who had an 80th birthday party attended by 75 friends and family where my mom read the poem “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple!” Gracia who chose a perfect gift for her nieces and nephews each year – White House Christmas ornaments.

In more recent years we have occasionally received ornaments from other family members hoping to continue the tradition. 2007 “A President Marries in the White House”; 2008 “A Victorian Christmas Tree”;  2012 where William Taft rides in a green automobile. Each time it was special, a time to reminisce and remember Aunt Gracia, thankful for this beautiful tradition.

So the ornaments have become one of our moveable pieces, a visual reminder of a beloved Aunt, a tangible, moveable piece to pass on.

So we packed up Christmas, and all the square boxes of different colors that hold these ornaments, grateful for our moveable pieces. They will always be visual reminders of a beloved Aunt; tangible evidence of her life and her love.

On Celebrating Nativity

Icon

Yesterday was Feast of the Nativity – our Orthodox Christmas. As people new to the Orthodox church, we are still learning how to walk between these dates and traditions. Our Protestant families celebrate the 25th of December and we will continue to do this. But along with that is a new celebration on the 7th of January. While December 25th held stockings, gifts, and a special Christmas dinner, January 7th is celebrated completely at the church.  We are celebrating with many others around the world who also celebrate the Nativity on this day.

We began Tuesday evening with a vigil preparing us for the celebration on the 7th. Beautiful troparions reminded us of the importance of this day, along with readings and scripture all pointing to the birth of our Lord.

Wednesday had us up and at the church by nine in the morning for Divine Liturgy. The icon of Mary giving birth, surrounded by angels and midwives was at the front of the church, surrounded by flowers. As I went to the front to venerate the icon I longed to stay longer, standing before that icon, thinking about the birth, remembering and honoring this woman, who all generations will call “blessed.” But the line behind me had grown and it wasn’t the time to stop.

I wish I could describe for you the beauty of these services. The candles casting a golden glow over icons, the hush and expectancy in the air, the choir to the right of the iconostasis, leading us in these words:

How is he contained in a womb, whom nothing can contain? How held in his Mother’s arms, he who is in the Father’s bosom? This is all as he knows, as he wished and as he was well pleased. For being without flesh, willingly he was made flesh; and He Who Is, for our sake has become what he was not; without departing from his own nature he shared in our matter; wishing to fill the world on high, Christ was born in two natures.
-Kathisma from the Orthros of the Nativity of Christ

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angels, with shepherds, glorify Him! The wise men journey with the star! Since for our sake the Eternal God is born as a little child (Kontakion).

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom! For by it, those who worshiped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness and to know Thee, the Orient from on high . O Lord, glory to Thee! (Troparion).

I have often missed the Christmases of my youth; Christmas celebrations that contained so much more corporate worship. We always went to church on Christmas, celebrating with the Pakistani Christian minority, singing carols in Urdu at the top of our lungs accompanied by a harmonium. Miss Mall, a Punjabi woman with lungs as large as her personality would begin the songs when we lived in Larkana, others when we lived in Shikarpur. We were dressed in our very best, and “Barra Din Mubarak ho” was on the lips of everyone.

Our new traditions in the Orthodox church remind me of the community gatherings of my past, gathering to celebrate the birth of Jesus. We gather together in our best. We have been fasting together for six weeks, honoring the struggle as a community. We meet with the words “Christ is Born!” and we respond “Glorify Him!”  Who better to gather with than fellow Christians?

Yet in the west, our church celebrations have been replaced by the all important nuclear family. They become individualized, lacking community focus. It is nuclear families that gather, preferring ‘family’ time. But that leads to all kinds of sad. When nuclear families are struggling, when a teenager is not speaking to their parents, when family members decide against going to mom and dads, when divorce divides a family, it leaves people alone on Christmas. Alone to celebrate an event in history that even those who don’t believe acknowledge through the yearly calendar. For so many it has become a day marked by stress, debt, loneliness, and sadness. The individual has replaced the community and we are the sadder for it.

After Divine Liturgy, we eat a feast fit for a king, or at least a bishop. All the cheese, cream, and meat that we have fasted from in the past weeks is on the table in abundance. We fill our plates so high that half way through we laughingly acknowledge that we over estimated our ability through that age-old idiom “My eyes were bigger than my stomach!”

We left the church in the bitter cold of the day, heading into a world that was busy with the day’s work, business as usual. But despite this, the words of the troparion continued to go through my head – “Thy Nativity O Christ our God, has shown to the world the light of wisdom….” 

This is Nativity. This is the celebration of the birth of our Lord.