At this time of year malls and lawns are filled with a plethora of symbols are claiming to have something to do with “Christmas.”
How do we sort out which of them might be helpful, and which aren’t, for celebrating what is supposedly the point of the season–the birth of Christ?
First, question to ask is, why do we celebrate it on December 25?
Christians started to express interest in celebrating the birth of Christ on a fixed date each year around the year 200. Lots of different dates were proposed, including dates in March and April, as well as December 25 and January 6.
December 25 was the winter solstice, celebrated by pagans as the birth of Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun. Was the choice of this date a concession to paganism? For some people, perhaps. Other Christians thought it would be a slap in the face of paganism—your sun is not unconquered—only the sun of righteousness is. Christ is the true light shining in the darkness, that the darkness can not over come (John 1). He is “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2). Why not celebrate his birth on that day when the seasons turn and the days begin to grow longer again?
December 25 became the celebration of the birth of Jesus, even though the solstice has crept forward, usually coming now on December 21 or 22.
January 6 was kept as the Epiphany, a celebration of the coming of the three kings from the east, following the star.
The days in between were the 12 days of Christmas.
It was first known as Dies Natalis, the day of the Nativity, from the Latin, nativus, to be born—we still see that reflected in the Spanish name, La Navidad, and in Italian, Il Natale, in French, la Noël. Around the year 1000 it became known in Old English as Cristes Maesse, Christ’s Mass, the mass celebrated in honor of the Birth of Christ.
And that was the focus of the celebration in the Middle Ages—the celebration of the Lord’s supper, which came to be called “mass” (because the last phrase people heard was, “Ite, missa est”—Go, you’re dismissed). The first mass was at midnight on Christmas eve, with additional masses at dawn and noon, and every day thereafter.
But the mass was in Latin, which fewer people spoke as the centuries went by, because the Latin they spoke degenerated into distinct local languages like French, Italian, Spanish. The mass began to be seen as a sacrifice offered by the priest, something he did up at the altar—the people were just observers. They wanted to join in the celebration, though, and so they created their own rituals. They created carols that they could sing in church, while the priest was saying the mass, or outside of church. They loved the dramatic elements of the ritual, like the lighting of candles, and so they lit those at home, or made bonfires in the open air.
In Italy, in the year 1223, Francis of Assisi felt that people were losing sight of the point of the celebration. Where many in the Middle Ages saw Christ as far exalted above us, as reigning in majesty and awe and far removed from our experience, Francis was in awe of the humility that Christ showed by becoming a baby, and by suffering the shame of the cross. He said to someone, “I want to do something that will recall the memory of that child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.” Thomas of Celano, writing in the year 1250 said,
With glad hearts, the men and women of that place prepared, according to their means, candles and torches to light up that night which has illuminated all the days and years with its glittering star. Finally the holy man of God arrived and, finding everything prepared, saw it and rejoiced.
The manger is ready, hay is brought, the ox and ass are led in. Simplicity is honored there, poverty is exalted, humility is commended and a new Bethlehem, as it were, is made from Greccio. Night is illuminated like the day, delighting men and beasts. The people come and joyfully celebrate the new mystery.
That was the origin of the Christmas crèche.
With mass something the priest did, and Jesus seemingly far removed from the experience of the people, devotion to the saints also grew. People saw them as easier to relate to. Each saint had a festival on the calendar, on the date that they died, and those in December were caught up in the festival atmosphere surrounding Christmas.
December 6 was the feast of St. Nicholas—bishop of a town in what is now Turkey, who died in the mid 300s. He is said to have suffered much in the last great persecutions under pagan Rome. He was kind and generous, giving gifts to the poor. Traditions developed in many places that on his feast day he would return, bringing gifts to good children. The Dutch called him Sinterklaas, and he came to America through their colony, New Netherlands, which became New York in 1664. In 1808 Washington Irving wrote a history of New York in which he depicted St. Nicholas as flying in a horsedrawn wagon, putting presents in children’s stockings, smoking a longstem pipe, and returning to his wagon by “laying his finger beside his nose.” In 1823 Clement Moore wrote, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” portraying him as fat, with rosy cheeks, coming down chimneys, and traveling in a flying sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer. “St. Nicholas” or “Sinterklaas” became “Santa Claus.” Cartoonists began to draw him, but it was Thomas Nast who gave us the image we recognize, starting in 1863. Coca-cola ads in the 1930s completed the picture.
December 13 was the feast of St. Lucy—a young woman who lived in Sicily around the year 300. She was tortured for her faith, her eyes were plucked out, and she was put to death. Sicilians see her as the giver of gifts, accompanied by a flying donkey.
At the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther wanted to get rid of both the focus on the mass and the superstitions of the saints and to focus on Christ. In Lutheran lands, St. Nicholas was no longer the gift-giver—the Christ child was. It was hard to depict a baby giving gifts in a Christmas pageant, though, so the Christ child, or Kristkindl, was sometimes depicted by an angel. In Scandinavia, this later merged with the legends of St. Lucy; on the morning of St. Lucy’s Day the oldest daughter in the family puts on an angelic white robe, and a crown wreath with candles, and takes coffee and saffron buns to all the members of the family.
In America “Kristkindl” merged with Santa Claus, who now became “Kris Kringle.”
It was in Lutheran Germany that the Christmas tree arose in the late 1500s, though it only became common to have one in the home in the 1700s. German Catholics saw it as something Protestant, and so resisted it until the early 1800s. It’s said the first Christmas tree in America was decorated by Hessian soldiers fighting in George Washington’s army. Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, put one up in the palace, and that helped to popularize it in England in the 1840s.
Christmas wasn’t always loved, however. It was outlawed by the Puritans in both England and New England in the 17th century, who saw it as just an occasion for drunkenness. It was only in the mid-1800s that the celebration of Christmas took off in both England and America. Charles Dickens’ book, A Christmas Carol, published in 1843 helped—as did Prince Albert’s popularity. Immigrants brought all the different traditions here, where they blended together in the American melting pot.
Mexicans gave us La Pastorela, a Christmas pageant, and las posadas, nine days of festivity reenacting the search of Mary and Joseph for a place to stay. And lumenarias or farjolitos that light up the way.
The secular world has also contributed much to the modern Christmas. Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created for the Montgomery Ward department store by Robert May in 1939 as an advertising promotion. His brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, turned May’s story into a song, which was recorded by Gene Autry in 1949—a year later, Autry recorded “Frosty the Snowman.” A Jewish songwriter, Irving Berlin, gave us dreams of a “White Christmas” in 1940, and Bing Crosby first performed it on Christmas Day, 1941, inspiring soldiers and sailors with dreams of home.
Today, all of these things are jumbled together in malls and front lawns. Christmas today is partly religious, partly sentimental, partly a combination of all of the above, and a time of excess buying and of selfish expectation.
What are we to do?
I take my cue from the apostle Paul, who said, in Philippians 1: “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. … But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”
The Adventist movement arose at a time when Christmas was being revived and our modern traditions of trees and gift-giving and Santa Claus were taking the form in which we know them.
Though the early Adventists were old Yankees, of Puritan stock, they didn’t go the Puritan route and ban the celebration of Christmas. Instead, they celebrated it with joy, and used it as an opportunity to preach the gospel—and to draw attention to the needs of the poor.
I can’t help but associate memories of Christmases past with Ingathering—it was a time when Adventists would go door to door seeking contributions for global missions. It was started by Jasper Wayne in 1903—he got more tracts in the mail than he expected, so he took them door to door and asked for contributions for missions. When I was a kid, we’d go door to door several nights each week between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We’d put a loudspeaker on top of a car and play Christmas carols, and teams would go down the street. It got cold in northern Illinois, where I lived then, and we were always happy to get back for the hot chocolate or soup that would be waiting; we’d count the money and say, “Well, that’s not the most important thing—we passed out lots of literature.”
Ellen White, in The Adventist Home, lamented that “When the world at large celebrates the day, they show no honor to Christ. They refuse to acknowledge Him as their Saviour, to honor Him by willing obedience to His service. They show preference to the day, but none to the one for whom the day is celebrated, Jesus Christ.”
She acknowledged that we don’t know when Jesus was born—but that didn’t matter to her. She urged Adventists to use it as an opportunity to preach Jesus Christ—and to come together as families.
“Christmas is coming. May you all have wisdom to make it a precious season. Let the older church members unite, heart and soul, with their children in their innocent amusement and recreation, in devising ways and means to show true respect to Jesus by bringing to Him gifts and offerings.”
She celebrated Christmas in her own home with a tree and the giving of gifts, as did her son, Willie. Her granddaughter, Grace, who was still speaking around the country into the late 1970s, told how the family gathered around the tree and sang carols, then opened their presents. Ellen gave practical gifts to her grandchildren, including books and clothes. It was a joyous family time.
Let it be so with us. If there are traditions that are meaningful to your family, and if Christ is uplifted in them, celebrate them in the freedom that we have as sons and daughters of Christ.
We have a nativity scene on our mantle, handcarved in olive wood by Christians in Bethlehem, given to us by Palestinian Christian friends.
We put up a tree as a reminder to us of the light and life that Christ brings.
We also celebrate the season of Advent—we began it when I was a Lutheran pastor, and our whole family has found it a meaningful way to celebrate Christmas in a countercultural way.
Advent is a season of four weeks before Christmas. It’s celebrated by many Christians as a reflective time of preparation. Hymns for the Advent season focus on expectation and hope. An Advent calendar may count down the days—an Advent wreath may count down the weeks. Both came from German Lutherans.
In our family, we light each new candle each Friday night at sundown. We sing a stanza of one of the best known Advent hymns: “O Come, O Come, Immanuel.”
There are traditional readings for each week—the angel’s message to Mary that she was to give birth to a son; the message of John the Baptist to “prepare the way of the Lord”; the angel’s message to Joseph, “Don’t be afraid.”
But Advent begins each year, in Lutheran and Methodist and Presbyterian and Catholic churches, by remembering the second advent of Christ. By remembering that we live in a time in between his first advent and his second advent, and that we must now be preparing to greet him at his return in glory.
Matthew 24, beginning with the 36th verse:
“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
The message of Advent is this: Christ is coming. Be ready. Don’t be distracted by either revelry or the obligations of life.
At the time of Christ’s first Advent the world was oblivious. Only a handful of shepherds knew—and it took an angel’s song to pull them from their watch. Three wise men knew—but it took a star to bring them from the east.
The world of today is oblivious. Christmas is celebrated as a mish-mash of Christian, pagan, and commercial symbols and sentiments, and the clutter obscures the truth of the season: it’s about Jesus.
Pastor George Vandeman used to tell the story of what happened when the Hope Diamond was donated to the Smithsonian Institution. It was 1958. Harry Winston had bought the 45 carat stone nine years earlier, but he felt all the world should be able to enjoy it. He sent it in the mail, in a plain brown wrapper, paying $2.44 in postage—and $145.29 for a $1 million insurance policy. “Registered mail is the safest way to send gems,” he told a reporter. The instructions were clear: Deliver at 11:45 a.m. on November 10, 1958. A crowd gathered at the Smithsonian for its arrival. The U.S. Postmaster General, Arthur Summerfield, stood on the steps of the Smithsonian waiting for it, along with other dignitaries, including Leonard Carmichael, the head of the Smithsonian. Mailman James Todd was given the job of bringing the envelope the last mile of its journey from the post office, and he brought it unarmed and alone. But he was running late. The crowd grew anxious. When he arrived, it is said that he had to push his way through the crowd, who were a little annoyed at this man with the plain brown envelope. But he made his way to the front and handed it to Summerfield, who passed it Carmichael, who signed for it and then handed it to the Smithsonian’s mineralogy curator, George Switzer, who unwrapped it carefully and then held it up for all to see.
All the rich and wealthy people who were there for the glamour and the glitz almost missed the treasure, because it didn’t come as they expected it to come.
What are you hoping for in this Christmas season–the things the world offers: iPhones or iPods or iMacs?
Or is your hope fixed on Jesus Christ, and his advent?
Will you allow clutter and busyness and the world’s hopes and expectations to occupy your life–or will you open your heart, and receive him?
What symbols you might use in this season is not important. Whether you choose to use none at all is not important.
What is important is that we take advantage of the time—to preach him, to prepare ourselves, to our hearts, and let him come in.