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The Painful Side of Christmas

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men” (Matthew 2:16 ESV).

Imagine what it would have been like to be one of the mothers living in Bethlehem at the time of King Herod. One day you are happily raising your newborn son and the next you are witnessing his murder at the hands of a heartless king. No words can adequately describe the depth of their sorrow. For these mothers, this was the worst day of their lives.

Incredibly, this gruesome account appears right in the middle of the Christmas story. Shortly after the wise men offered their gifts to Jesus, King Herod slaughtered every boy in Bethlehem under the age of two. As far as Herod was concerned, there could be only one king of the Jews.

For obvious reasons, this event does not feature prominently in most Christmas pageants, which invariably focus on the happy parts of the narrative. Usually, we see a beaming Mary and Joseph looking down on their baby while shepherds and wise men kneel to honour the newborn king. Christmas is presented as a joyous occasion where everyone celebrates the birth of the Messiah.

However, we need to remember that for many people, Christmas brings more sadness than joy. For those who have lost loved ones, experienced financial loss, or become estranged from their families, Christmas is often the hardest time of year. As one of the unnamed characters in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol put it, “It is at Christmas time that want is most keenly felt.”

For those in the midst of suffering, Christmas is often a time of sorrow rather than a time of joy. The mothers in Bethlehem who lost their young sons to Herod’s soldiers would have found it difficult indeed to celebrate the birth of Jesus, particularly since his birth was the reason Herod issued his murderous decree. Celebrating in the midst of personal pain is one of the hardest things we can ask someone to do.

Fortunately, the true meaning of Christmas is much more than family gatherings, tree decorations, or festive celebrations. When the angels appeared to the shepherds out in the field, they gave the most important message of all. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a saviour, who is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11). The angels didn’t promise personal health and wealth for the shepherds, but they did proclaim the birth of the saviour of the world.

The reality is that the original sin of Adam and Eve brought death and darkness to the entire world. All people, regardless of their personal circumstances or the time in which they live, suffer from the effects of sin (Romans 5:12-13). Fortunately, God promised a Messiah who would break the bondage of sin and set his people free. That is why the Apostle John described Jesus as the light of the world (John 1:1-13).

Regardless of whether Christmas is a painful time or a joyful time for us, we can rejoice in the fact that Jesus came into the world to save us from our sins. The birth of Jesus did not guarantee immediate peace and prosperity to those who came to worship him, but it did break the curse of sin and defeat the forces of evil. For this reason, his birth is worthy of celebration.

About the Author:

Michael Zwaagstra is a high school teacher and a Steinbach city councilor. He can be reached at


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