Christmas: Please Celebrate!
By Rev. Richard Baird – Head of Church and Culture at dia-LOGOS
Christmas is a Christian holiday. I’m celebrating Christmas because I am a Christian who believes the miracle of the Incarnation is truly worth celebrating. I’m celebrating Christmas because Scripture celebrates it. From Old Testament prophecies which reveal excitement at the coming Messiah (Isaiah 9:6-7 is pregnant with joy at the prospect of the coming child), through to foetal John the Baptist leaping with joy when he encounters his cousin (Luke 1:41), the Magnificat of Mary, the angels praising God in the presence of the shepherds, through to the Wise Men bringing expensive gifts to the toddler Jesus: all of this reveals a celebration of the Incarnation and subsequently a reason to celebrate.
Every year at Christmas you also hear of Christians who declare they won’t be celebrating Christmas because it is a pagan festival. The argument goes that Christmas was originally a winter solstice festival (Saturnalia), and that in 274 the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. It is understood that Christmas is really just an adaptation of these pagan festivals in which Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christianity and Christmas throughout the Roman world.[i]
If that is the case, they did a good job. Why do I say that? Simply because if this is true, then Christians engaged in good missional practice by seizing a gospel opportunity and were so successful that in our culture today Christmas is not associated with pagan origins, but Christianity. For example, if you click on the latest Google Doodle, it will lead you to an article on the various holidays celebrated over the Christmas period. Take note of how Christmas is described:
“For most of the world, Christmas takes place on December 25, serving for Christians as a celebration of Jesus’s birth, while many others take it as an opportunity to give gifts of appreciation to friends and family. Interestingly, in some traditions around the globe, Christmas is not a December holiday, but actually falls on January 6, 7, or even as late as January 19.”
If you type into the Google search engine “What is Christmas,” you will see Wikipedia come up and define it as follows:
Christmas (or the Feast of the Nativity) is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed primarily on December 25[a] as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world. A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it is preceded by the season of Advent or the Nativity Fast and initiates the season of Christmastide, which historically in the West lasts twelve days and culminates on Twelfth Night; in some traditions, Christmastide includes an octave. Christmas Day is a public holiday in many of the world’s nations, is celebrated religiously by a majority of Christians, as well as culturally by many non-Christians, and forms an integral part of the holiday season centered around it.[ii]
In our day, I think it would be more accurate to describe Christmas not as a festival with pagan origins, but a Christian festival which has been heavily secularised – in fact, one could legitimately speak of two Christmas celebrations: the Christian one which focuses on the miracle of the incarnation, and the secular one which leaves Christ out, but ironically still celebrates the Christian virtue of love through giving focus to family, friends, and generosity. My personal theory as to why Christmas is so popular is because it’s the one time God seems manageable…after all He is a baby in the manger. Having said that, the secular expressions of Christmas also reveal to us that the world is indeed hungry for meaning, which only Christ can provide. Christmas still remains a marvellous gospel opportunity because you will still find non-Christians willing to attend Christian Christmas services such as a carol by candlelight service. In this vein, you may even want to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas where my favourite scene is Charlie Brown crying out about what is the true meaning of Christmas, and you have Linus reciting Luke 2:8-14 in response!
Let’s deal with the alleged pagan origin of Christmas.
There is no denying that over the years there has been a cross-pollination of sorts in which different ideas and traditions crept into Christian observances. For example, the kissing under the mistletoe tradition has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas in terms of origin (but that isn’t going to stop me putting one in my bedroom – other husbands who want to follow this example can thank me later…). To this end, we need to know why we do what we do, but also understand that as Christians we have a gospel that not only transcends culture but can transform it too. In a sacramental way of life, we do not need to be threatened by how created things have been used, but rather we can take those very traditions and use them as an opportunity to point to the supremacy of Christ over all things: the created points to the Creator. It is interesting to note that the great Reformer himself, Martin Luther, loved Christmas because he loved how all the different elements of it could be used to share and illustrate the gospel. For example to him, the tradition of giving gifts to children on Christmas Eve was an opportunity to educate them on the gift of grace that God had wrapped in a little human baby delivered to – and also in – a manger… just for them.
Not all historians are convinced that 25th December was chosen to celebrate the birth of Christ because of the pagan festival. The first problem that this view of borrowing the date from pagan festivities encounters is that the early church didn’t want anything to do with pagan festivities; neither is there any evidence of this proposed adaptation in ancient Christian writings.
Whilst through the ages there has definitely been re-adaptation of pagan practices to Christian interpretation as part of a Christianization strategy (the Latin term for this being Interpretatio christiana), it may well be that we are actually dealing more with coincidence than actual deliberate adapting. Early church Fathers do note a connection between the solstice and birth of Christ, and seem to interpret it as a providential sign proving the supremacy of Christ. For example, Ambrose (c. 339–397), described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order.
Interest in the birthdate of Christ only emerges in the second century, with the proposal that it was adapted from the Sol Invictus holiday established in 274 AD (or Birthday of the Unconquered Sun aka 25 December) only being suggested in the 12th century (yes, you read that correctly!). Chronologically however the Sol Invictus date of 25th December came after this date had already been proposed as the date for Jesus’s birth.[iii] Andrew McGowan (Dean and President of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale) writes in Biblical Archeology that “the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character[iv].” A number of dates were proposed, but by the fourth century, 25 December and 6 January were the two accepted, with 25 December being most popular. How did this date come about? Another proposal has been put forward: through thinking like a Jew.
Let me explain.
Ancient Jewish belief held that important events happened on the same date. In this vein, the idea developed that the death of Jesus would have been on the same date as His conception, because conception, and not birth, was understood to be the beginning of life. Since Jesus was crucified on 14th Nisan, this would be equivalent to 25 March on the Roman Solar calendar, and 25 March is nine months before 25 December. In the East the same logic was applied, but using the Greek calendar, which came to 6 April, and subsequently 6 January was regarded as Christmas Day. Church Father Augustine was familiar with this association and wrote: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th (On the Trinity c399-419)[v]
Can we confirm that this was the actual date? No. Does it matter? No. A similar scenario exists in England in which the Queen of England’s birthday is on the 21st April but gets celebrated on the second Monday in June.
The date is really not that relevant; what is important is the miracle that the Incarnation actually happened: The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us (John 1:14). That word “Word” is in the Greek logos, and represents a pagan Greek philosophical idea that behind the universe was an impersonal force or principal of reason. John has reinvested it with new meaning (through inspiration of the Holy Spirit) by saying that behind the universe is not an impersonal force or principle of reason, but a God-Person – and that God-Person has come in the flesh! An amazing truth worth celebrating!
What about the origin of some of our Christmas traditions? This is what I found out…
THE CHRISTMAS TREE
The Christmas tree as we know it today appears to have two roots (pun intended). In the Middle Ages, the 24th December was a feast day commemorating Adam and Eve as our first parents. On this day a popular play, called The Paradise Play, would be enacted out which would recount the story of Creation, Adam and Eve and end with the promise of the coming Messiah. Central to this play was the Tree, with apples hanging from it (which over time evolved into our modern day baubles). The Germans also set up this tree in their own home, on which wafers were hung, symbolising the Eucharist, and candles were also sometimes added symbolising Christ as the light of the world. The wafers over time became cookies. In the same room was the “Christmas pyramid,” a triangular construction of wood that had shelves to hold Christmas figurines and was decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star. By the 16th century the Christmas pyramid and the paradise tree had merged, becoming the Christmas tree.
The second root, which Roman Catholics hold to, is a result of the missionary activity of St Boniface in Germany. Boniface knew that in winter the inhabitants of the village of Geismar gathered around a huge old oak tree (known as the “Thunder Oak”) dedicated to the god Thor, where worship centered on sacrificing a human, usually a small child. Boniface’s approach to preaching the gospel here was to destroy the Thunder Oak, which the pagans had previously boasted the God of Boniface could not destroy. On Christmas Eve, when the gathering was happening along with the time of the sacrifice, he went there and said: “Here is the Thunder Oak; and here the cross of Christ shall break the hammer of the false god Thor.” In a show of bold trust in God which to me seems reminiscent of Elijah and Baal, Boniface grabbed an axe and chopped down the Thunder Oak of mighty Thor. This obviously would have taken a while! The Germans were astounded because Thor clearly didn’t retaliate. He preached the Gospel to the people and used a little fir tree that was behind the now felled oak tree as a tool of evangelization. Pointing to it he said: “This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace… It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are ever green. See how it points upward to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child; gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness.”[vi]
Somehow another tradition emerged that Martin Luther introduced the idea of the Christmas tree. The story goes that Martin Luther himself was walking one evening and was so overcome by the beauty of a fir tree against the backdrop of a brilliant starlit sky that words failed him in telling his family – so he went and chopped a tree down and put candles on to represent the stars. We don’t have any historical verification for this though.
Even today in Weimer you can experience their Christmas market which includes the singing of carols around a huge public Christmas fir tree.[vii]
THE ADVENT CALENDAR
Advent, from the Latin phrase meaning “coming towards” is about the idea of looking forward, the idea of hope and anticipation of Christmas. It is also used with reference to looking forward to the Second Coming of Christ. The advent calendar originates with the Lutherans but the tradition began simply enough when German families in the mid-nineteenth century started counting the days until Christmas by tallying chalk marks on a door or wall. Variations of the countdown included lighting a candle or hanging a religious picture for each day leading up to Christmas Eve. Some families began making homemade Advent calendars to accompany their countdown and by the early 1900s, a few publishing companies and newspapers had produced simple printed calendars.
It’s only appropriate that the gospel would lead to singing…songs about the Incarnation have been around a long time – the earliest one on record dates to 129 AD called “Angels Hymn.” At the time of the Reformation, congregational singing and singing in the common language of the people were both considered heretical acts, but Luther knew they were biblically vital components to sustaining the gospel in the hearts of God’s people. He saw congregational singing not as an innovation, but rather a return to biblical practice. It was around Christmas of 1523 that Luther revealed his desire to write and also find other gifted writers who would skillfully set the gospel to song so that God’s people could joyfully sing it together. He wrote to George Spalatin in December of that year: “Grace and Peace! I am planning, according to the examples of the prophets and the ancient fathers to create vernacular psalms [that is, hymns] for the common folk so that the Word of God remains with the people… also their singing…” The greatest of these hymns would be the carols and Luther wanted people everywhere to sing them together with their congregations and families. Luther himself wrote about the joy of the gospel revealed at Christmas when he composed these words in the hymn ‘From Heaven Above to Earth I Come’: “From heaven above to earth I come / To bear good news to every home / Glad tidings of great joy I bring / Whereof I now will say and sing / To you this night is born a child / Of Mary, chosen virgin mild / This little child, of lowly birth / Shall be the joy of all the earth.”[viii] It was during the 19th century that we saw a proliferation of carols being written and sung.
Candles were lit to signify the light of Jesus, and we’re grateful that we can now light our trees electrically (imagine the fire hazard of candles in the tree!). The first electrical Christmas lights were introduced to the holiday world in 1882 by Edward Johnson, a friend and partner of light-bulb inventor Thomas Edison – and it was 8 bulky pear shaped bulbs, in the colour of red white and blue. We’ve come a long way since then, but the significance remains: we celebrate the Light of the World!
The journey to our modern-day Father Christmas is a bit of a sleigh ride, with different characters merging together to form the modern-day Father Christmas. Father Christmas originally started out as St Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop who was born to wealthy parents and inherited their wealth. We have limited information about him, but from what we do know he was known for being faithful to orthodoxy (apparently a vigorous opponent of the Arian heresy) generous with his wealth (which is where the story developed that he rescued three girls from prostitution by anonymously dropping bags of gold in their house during the night) and faithful under persecution. He was Bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey and died around 6 December 343. Over time the tradition developed of giving gifts to celebrate his life, and for good boys and girls, St. Nicholas would come in his red bishop’s robe and fill boots with gifts on the night of December 5. In Germany, Luther replaced Saint Nicholas’ Day with a different holiday, Christ Child, or Christkindl. Gift giving was moved by Luther to Christmas Eve to associate gift giving with Christ as the gift giver. Ironically, Kriss Kringle which derived from Luther’s Christ Child holiday, has become just another name for St. Nicholas.[ix] The idea of the Christmas tree and presents transferred over to England through the royal marriage of Prince Albert to Victoria. An engraving of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and their children gathering around a Christmas tree, eyeing the presents underneath, published in the Illustrated London News in 1848 was key in spreading the idea of presents under the tree.
The Santa Claus as we know it today comes from the famous Poem “Twas the Night before Christmas” written in 1823 and attributed to Clement Moore. Through this poem St Nick morphed into the Father Christmas as we know it today, reindeer and all. And, if you click here you will find some fascinating info on the role of Coca Cola in the cultural development of Father Christmas.
Apparently if you’ve been naughty you will get a sock full of coal…but for South Africans that is a bonus because we love to braai…
I do love Christmas, because I as a Christian simply love and marvel at what it represents: the incarnation of God, knowing that the purpose of Christmas is in fact Calvary. I believe in the redemptive power of the Gospel to transform cultural traditions, and I believe we need to promote Christmas as a powerful gospel opportunity. Ultimately each child of God must make up their own mind in the spirit of Romans 14. God has accepted the child of God who celebrates it, as well as the child of God who doesn’t.
[iii] Historian Glenn Sunshine on Colson Centre for Christian Worldview podcast: Are Christmas traditions pagan?