‘For to us a Child is born, to us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ Isaiah 9:6
Do you ever feel that, as a Christian, you’ve got Christmas all wrong? It’s so easy to get crushed by that commercial Christmas juggernaut that comes a rolling down the road at this time of year. So easy to get caught up in a spending frenzy that fills you with anxiety and ill will. So much encouragement to eat too much, drink too much. So easy just to give in to a couple of weeks of rockin' around the Christmas tree and jingle bell rock. So let’s recalibrate for a moment, let’s consider how we should celebrate the birth of our Lord.
Is Christmas even a Christian celebration?
There are those out there who think it isn’t. The early Christians in America, the Puritans, banned it because they regarded it as a pagan celebration. So, let’s take a quick look at the origins of Christmas. Nowhere in the Bible is December 25th identified as the birthdate of Jesus. It was Sextus Julius Africanus, an early Christian historian, who first came up with the date in 221. The thing is, in Rome, which at that time was the center of Christianity, the 25th of December had long been a date dedicated to the pagan sun god, Mithra, and was the culmination of the two week festival of Saturnalia. It’s been suggested that since no one can be sure about the date of Christ’s birth, the early Christian church adopted the date with the specific intention of erasing the memory of the pagan festival.
Is the Christmas tree in the bible?
Most of the traditions, which we associate with Christmas, do not have their origins in the Bible. Some have identified these verses from Jeremiah as a reference to Christmas trees:
‘They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple.’ Jeremiah 10:3-4
A few verses later it is made clear that the description does not refer to a Christmas tree:
‘But they are altogether dull hearted and foolish; a wooden idol is a worthless doctrine.’ Jeremiah 10:8
The use of evergreen trees as a symbol of eternal life had long been a part of pagan practice. Germanic pagan tribes decorated evergreen trees with candles and dried fruit, a tradition, which was adopted by the Christian community in the 1500s.
Christmas cards were a commercial initiative dreamt up in 1843 as a way to encourage more people to use the newly established British postal service and it’s clear that the increased importance of gift giving in the 19th century was driven by commercial interests tapping into the spending power of a newly affluent middle class.
And what of Father Christmas? Does he have any link to Christianity? Well, actually, he does. Saint Nicholas was a Christian bishop born in Turkey around 280. The story, which ties him to, our Christmas tradition is as follows. A man had three daughters, but he was too poor to provide them with the dowry with which they could wed and so he was going to sell them into slavery. Hearing of this, Saint Nicholas tossed a bag of gold through the open window of their home. The gold landed in a sock that was drying by the fire. Over time the countries of Europe adopted their own version of Saint Nicholas. In Germany he was known as Sinter Klaas, a name that became Santa Claus when German immigrants brought it to America.
For early Christians, Easter was the most important Christian celebration during the year; it wasn’t until the 9th century that Christmas began to be celebrated with its own liturgy.
So, does all of that mean that I don’t think that Christmas is really a Christian celebration? Of course I don’t, but I do think that we need to strip away some of the tinsel and re-examine the significance of Christmas to the Christian.
The Christmas Story in the Bible
For many of us, brought up in a Christian family, it’s probably one of the first stories we remember and however familiar we are with the narrative, it’s always worth reminding ourselves of its simple beauty.
‘And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a Baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!’ Luke 2:8-14
The New Testament contains two accounts of the Nativity: Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. They differ slightly in the way they tell the story and in the emphasis of different points. What astonishes me is the inclusivity of this story: Jesus is born in conditions of poverty, a manger in a stable and yet he is attended by poor shepherds and wealthy kings. Much as we like to imagine the animals looking on, the Bible makes no mention of them. Any parent can immediately relate to the joy of birth and this most joyous of all births is of course worthy of our celebration.
Is it ok to give gifts at Christmas?
I ask this because I know a lot of Christians feel that the celebration of Christ’s birth gets drowned out by the sound of ripping paper and that it all becomes about bigger, better and more expensive. The giving of gifts is a practice that stretches way back into ancient history: it creates a bond; it’s a sign of goodwill. The Magi bring their precious, symbolic, gifts to the manger and of course God gives us the greatest gift there is, his son. So, yes it’s ok to give gifts at Christmas, just don’t let that be the only thing that Christmas means to you.
What is Advent?
If the observance of Advent isn’t part of your Christian way of life can I suggest that you consider embracing this Christian tradition, which is the best way to prepare yourself, spiritually, for the celebration of Christmas. Advent is celebrated on the four Sundays, which precede Christmas, and the Advent wreath provides a symbolic focus for reflection during this period. The wreath contains four colored candles and a central white candle, they are lit on successive Sundays and represent: hope, peace, love, joy and the purity of Christ.
How do Christians celebrate Christmas?
- We go to church. If you’re too busy to go to church, then you’ve got things all about face.
- We pray and especially we pray for others.
- We read the Bible and we reflect.
- We give, and not just gifts to family and friends. We give our time. We give to charity. We give thanks.
- We sing, and not just ‘All I want for Christmas’, we sing Christian Christmas songs, both old and new.
- We enjoy ourselves. Yes, it’s ok for Christians to enjoy themselves, for this is a joyous celebration of our Lord.