Daily Archives: December 2, 2011

Day 2: A Brief History of Christmas and the Reason We Have Hope

When we ask our children ‘What do you want for Christmas?,” we are asking a question that breed selfishness. In order to develop selflessness, we should be asking ‘What are you going to give?’ Christmas is the celebration of God’s greatest gift giving – For God so loved the world that He gave… – Robert Flatt

Over the next several days and weeks, I will be exploring the characters of Christmas, some of my favorite Christmas carols (yours too, I would imagine), and what Christmas means to me, individually. Shall we start with the history of Christmas?

There are very few people in the world today who do not know what the Christmas holiday is all about. In all my research, I have discovered the Christmas wasn’t always the holiday we see it as today (or even celebrated the way it is today). There wasn’t magic that seemed to permeate the air nor was the giving of one’s time seen as a real gift (as it is today). People didn’t go out of their way to give to the less fortunate or donate money to some charitable cause. Take a look:

Christmas, as we know it today, is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, which happened over 2000 years ago. The word Christmas translates to “Mass of Christ.”  But the Christmas holiday we see today did not start with the birth of Christ.

It’s no mystery that Christmas has its roots in religious celebration and festivities. While many recognize Christmas as a time to reflect on the birth of Jesus in the Christian tradition, in an ever-increasingly secular world, the meaning of Christmas has taken on a new meaning. Most Americans celebrate Christmas with a Christmas tree, but probably not using it the way it was used by pagans thousands of years ago to honor the winter solstice time, but more as a symbol of togetherness, family and tradition. Many have even found ways to marry their Christian faith to the more secular traditions of Christmas with great success and without any conflicting feelings about the process.

Christmas is a time where we are asked to pause and remember “the reason for the season.” More and more people are taking this to mean many things, even though that phrase is closely associated with birth of Jesus. For many, Christmas now means the return of distant family members, the carrying out of traditions that some may think they are too old for but do anyway because it’s fun or just part of what the family does. Some just enjoy listening to Christmas carols with their loved ones while they open their presents and sharing a special meal on Christmas Day. For many, it’s the joy of watching children open up their presents from Santa Claus, another figure that has his origins in the roots of Europe and its rich traditions.

The traditions that we enjoy were invented by blending customs from many different countries into what is considered our national holiday and many began well before the time of Jesus Christ. The 12 days of Christmas, bright fires, gift-giving, carnivals and parades, carolers, holiday feasts, church processions. decorating the tree, and burning of the Yule log were all winter traditions that began thousands of years before the birth of Jesus.

Over 4000 years ago, the Mesopotamians celebrated each new year with a 12-day festival called Zagmuth. They held this festival in support of their chief god (although they had many), Marduk, because they believed he battled monsters at the beginning of each winter. It is from this festival that the 12 Days of Christmas probably originated.

Ancient Romans held a celebration each year to honor their god, Saturn. The festival (called Saturnalia), began in the middle of December and lasted until the first of January. Homes were decorated with garlands and trees from which candles hung.

During the winters in Scandinavia, there would be a certain amount of time during which the sun didn’t shine (still is to this day). Upon the return of the sun, the people would hold a festival called Yuletide when they would burn a Yule log and feast until the fire went out.

In the western world, the birthday of Jesus Christ has been celebrated on December 25 since AD 354 and was created to replace the pagan worship that was commonplace at that time.  In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday and the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. The Bible does not mention the date of his birth, but some evidence points to a probable birth in the spring. Pope Julius I chose December 25 and it is commonly believed that this date was chosen to absorb the traditions of other common festivals that occurred at this time. By holding Christmas at the same time as other popular winter solstice festivals, many believed this increased the chances that Christmas would be properly embraced and in turn gave up the ability to dictate how the holiday would be celebrated. Christmas was first called the Feast of the Nativity and the custom spread to Egypt by 432 A.D., on to England by the end of the 6th century and Scandinavia by the end of the 8th century.

By the middle ages, Christianity had replaced pagan religion. On Christmas, believers would attend church and then would party it up (much like today’s Mardi Gras celebrations).

As Christianity continued to spread, many were alarmed by the continuing celebration of pagan customs among their converts. And when things got out of hand, many puritans outlawed the holiday.

In the early 17th century, a puritan, Oliver Cromwell, and his followers cancelled Christmas in order to rid England of decadence. However, when Charles II was restored to the throne, the holiday returned with him. When the pilgrims came to early America, they were more orthodox than their Puritan counterpart and, as a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings.  In the 1600s, the Puritans made it illegal to celebrate Christmas. People were not allowed to exchange gifts, light a candle, or sing Christmas carols. After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor and this included Christmas. In fact, Congress was in session during our nation’s first Christmas (December 25, 1789). Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.

In the 19th century, Americans truly began to embrace Christmas. We changed it from the raucous carnival holiday it had been in early Europe into a family centered day of peace and nostalgia. In the early 19th century, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season. In 1828, the NYC council instituted the city’s first police force in response to a Christmas riot. This, in turn, opened the doors for America’s upper class citizens to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America.

It was also during this time that best-selling author, Washington Irving, wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent, which was a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house, featuring a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday and the two groups mingled effortlessly. Irving introduced Christmas as a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday that brought groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Yet, Irving’s account of Christmas was not based on an actual event that he had attended. Many historians believe that Irving’s account invented tradition by implying that it described the true customs of the season.

And our beloved Charles Dickens…Personally, I loved his writing. He created A Christmas Carole, one of today’s most classic holiday tales. The story’s message is about the importance of charity and good will towards all humankind. This struck a chord with the masses of Americans and Europeans, showing them the benefits of celebrating the holiday. More to come on this little topic later.

Did you know that before the Civil War, the North and South were not only divided on the ideas of slavery, but also on the idea of Christmas? Many northerners saw sin in the celebration of Christmas and they saw Thanksgiving as a more fitting holiday. But in the South, Christmas was an important part of the social season. The first three states to make Christmas a legal holiday were actually in the south: Alabama (1836), Louisiana and Arkansas (1838).

And after? Christmas traditions spread across the country.

By the end of the 19th century, America eagerly decorated Christmas trees, went caroling, baked, and shopped for the Christmas season. Since then, materialism, media, advertising, and mass marketing has made Christmas in our country what it is today.

Did you know that the Bible doesn’t say that we should remember the birth of Christ? It only says that we should remember his life and the fact that He gave it all up to set us free from the bondage of sin. We are to remember His death through communion.  And yet, Christmas remains a favorite holiday among Christians. Probably because we as humans naturally do not want to think about death and yet the statistics on it are outstanding…100% of us die.

I read last night from a book of Christmas stories that I picked up a while back that Christmas for the Christian is more the focus on the incarnation rather than the birth of Christ; that this should be a believer’s focus come Christmas.

I firmly believe that due to the lack of focus, we struggle with a whole serious of issues: drama with the family, depression in droves, and more. The great joy found in Christmas is intricately woven into the very fabric of Christ’s incarnate birth; God came in human form. I often find my heart warming to the scene in which Joseph holds Jesus for the first time in The Nativity Story. The awe and wonder on his face in turn fills me with awe. Besides Mary, he got the chance to cradle God in his arms. Can you imagine that?

I can and I find it hard to breathe, think or even write about it. There are no words to describe it and, due to my humanity, I hardly feel that I am worth being given that chance. Yet, He has given it to each of us because of His love for us.

Life is too short to continually focus on what we can get for ourselves out of Christmas. Life is too short muddle through the motions of traditions that come with each Christmas holiday. Life is too short to continuously focus on the drama in our families. Instead, focus on God incarnate and why He came, allow Him to put meaning and depth to your actions, and pray that He will reveal how He would have you meet the needs within your family and the people whose lives you touch on a daily basis.

I challenge you to focus on that this Christmas. That God gave Himself in human form for you. He came so that we could be set free; so that we would understand that He knows what we go through on a daily basis. Again, I reiterate, He gave Himself because of His love for the world. His creation. Let the joy and awe of that realization fill you with peace as we step forward into this holiday season. Think of ways that you can give of yourself to others, especially to those less fortunate.

Further reading: