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Should a Christian celebrate and attribute religious significance to the Christmas holiday?
by Robert Randle
12/21/2010 / Devotionals
ORIGIN OF CHRISTMAS- (compiled from the booklet "Holidays or Holy Days: Does it Matter which Days we observe?" by United Church of God, 2008)
Christmas initially started as the festival of Bacchanalia by the Greeks in the 2nd century B.C. and spread to Rome. The Roman Senate suppressed its observance in 186 B.C. The Romans, however, along with Bacchanalia, celebrated "Saturnalia" in honor of Saturn [the god of Time], which began on December 17th and continued for seven days. Saturn was another agricultural god-king parallel to the Carthaginian god Baal (A Book of Christmas, William Sansom, 1968, p. 44). Interestingly, people exchanged gifts called 'strenae' from the vegetation goddess Strenia, whom it was important to honor at midwinter. These holidays were observed at the Winter Solstice, the day of the year with the shortest period of daylight. When the Julian calendar was proclaimed in 46 C.E. [A.D.] it established as law that the Winter Solstice commenced on December 25 (The Trouble with Christmas, Tom Flynn, 1993, p. 42). The Sun, as the 'giver' of life on this planet Earth was at its lowest ebb, and so in the mythology of ancient people, it was a time when the forces of darkness and chaos stood against and was triumphing over the forces [or gods] of light and life.
According to Gerard and Patricia Del Re, Saturnalia and Kalends [New Moon in January] were celebrations most familiar to the early Christians [Jewish or Gentile??] during December 17-24 and January 1-3. The tradition of December 25 as the birthday of the Son of God [Yeshua/Jesus] comes from Persia [Iran] and the god 'Mithras' who was born on this day, and was thought of as the "embodiment" of the sun. And since the Sun was thought of as a god, then Mithras would be considered as the son of the Sun [son of God]. The emperor Constantine who made Christianity the religion of the Empire was involved in Mithraism until his conversion into the new "faith" and he most likely facilitated the incorporation of the festival into the Christian celebratory elements (The Christmas Almanac, 1979, p. 17). There are no records of Christmas, at least in its primitive state, to have been observed in Rome until about three centuries after Christ's death and resurrection.
Another pagan celebration which greatly influenced Christianity as it is practiced today was the Teutonic feast of "Yule." It was known as "The Twelve Nights" and was celebrated from December 25 to January 6. This represented the mythological warfare between the 'forces of nature' in the form of winter [ice giant representing Death] vs. the sun god [representing Life] wherein the Winter Solstice signifies the turning point. The ice giant was at the zenith of his power but the sun god will slowly began to gain strength and prevail with the approaching spring time to come afterwards. As Christianity spread to Eastern Europe it met with another pagan festival held in December, the Yule-feast of the Norsemen which also lasted for twelve days. The familiar log-fires were lit to assist in the revival of the sun and shrines and other sacred places were decorated with greenery such as holly, ivy, and bay. The Druids among the priestly caste of the Celts of Ancient France, Britain, and Ireland used to decorate their temples with mistletoe, the sacred fruit of the oak tree. Among the Germans, the oak tree was sacred to Odin, their god of war, and of which they continued to offer sacrifice until the reign of Boniface in the eighth century who persuaded them to exchange the oak tree for a young fir tree [The Christmas tree] adorned in honor of the Christ child. It was these German immigrants who brought this custom to America (The Christian Calendar, L.W. Cowie and John Selwyn Gummer, 1974, p. 22).
Many of the modern trappings of Christmas are carryovers from ancient celebrations. "Santa Claus" is a corruption of the Dutch form of 'San Nicholaas' (Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition, Vol. 19. p.649). St. Nicholas was a real person and Bishop of Myra in southern Asia Minor [Turkey], who was honored by both Greeks and the Latin people on December 6. Santa Claus with fur-trimmed clothing, sleigh and reindeer reveal an origin from the cold far regions of the Northern Hemisphere and their [Scandinavian] gods Wotan [Odin] and Thor. Some people literally believe that Santa and the North Pole are located in Finland or Greenland; depending on who you ask about it. On the Roman New Year (January 1), houses were decorated with greenery and lights, and gifts were given to children and the poor. To these observances were added the German and Celtic Yule rites of food, drinking, good fellowship, Yule logs (fires), Yule cakes, greenery and fir trees [decorated?], gifts, and greetings. In the snows of winter, the "evergreen" was a symbol of the life that would return in the spring and in midwinter, the idea of rebirth and fertility was very important and fires and lights, symbols of warmth and lasting life have always been associated with the winter festivals, among pagans and Christians alike (Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia, Vol. 2. p. 903, "Christmas").
Tertullian, a Catholic writer in the late second or third century, lamented: "By us [Christians] . . . the Saturnalia, the feasts of January, the Brumalia, and Matronalia are now frequented; the gifts are carried to and fro, new year's day presents are made with din (??), and the banquets are celebrated with uproar; oh, how much more faithful are the heathen to their religion, who take special care to adopt no solemnity from the Christians." (Tertullian in De Idolatria, quoted by Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons, 1959. p. 91). As early as A.D. 245 the Church father Origen was proclaiming that it was 'heathenish' to celebrate Christ's birthday as if He were merely a temporal ruler when His spiritual nature should be the main concern. The Encyclopedia Britannica adds: "The [Church] Fathers of the second and third centuries, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Epiphanius, contended that 'Christmas' was a copy of a pagan celebration." (Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia, Vol. 4. p. 499, "Christianity") The Christians of Armenia and Syria accused the Christians in Rome of sun worship for celebrating Christmas on December 25. . .Pope Leo the Great in the fifth century tried to remove certain practices at Christmas which he considered in no way different from sun worship (Robert Myers, Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays, 1972, p. 310).
According to 'Wikipedia': In Colonial America, the Puritans of New England shared radical disapproval of Christmas and its celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. Although the ban was lifted by the English Governor Sir Edmund Andros in 1681, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in Boston. At the same time, Christian residents of VA and NY observed the holiday freely. PA German settlers, preeminently the Moravian settlers of Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Lititz in PA and the Wachovia Moravian settlements in NC, enthusiastically celebrated Christmas. The Moravians from Bethlehem had the first Christmas trees in America as well as the first Nativity scenes. The Pilgrims of MA made it a point of working on Christmas as on any other day. On June 3, 1647, Parliament established punishments [making it illegal] to observe Christmas and certain other holidays [Easter, too??]. The policy was reaffirmed in 1652 (Del Re, p. 20). Even Colonial America considered Christmas more of a raucous revelry than a religious occasion. "So tarnished, in fact, was its reputation in Colonial America that celebrating Christmas was banned in Puritan NE, where noted minister Cotton Mather described yuletide merrymaking as 'an affront to the grace of God' " (Jeffrey Sheler, "In Search of Christmas," U.S. News and World Report, Dec. 23, 1996, p. 56)
Christmas fell out of Favor in the United States after the American Revolution and by the 1820's sectarian tension had eased in Britain and writers, including William Winstanly began to worry that Christmas was dying out. These writers imagined Tudor Christmas as a time of heartfelt celebration, and efforts were made to revive the holiday; most notably by Charles Dickens classic novel, "A Christmas Carol" in 1843. Dickens sought to reconstruct Christmas as a family-centered festival goodwill and generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, which had dwindled during the late 18th and early 19th century. Dickens influenced many aspects of the holiday by superimposing his secular vision as celebrated in the Western/Eastern European culture and American society, especially, to embrace family gatherings, seasonal or holiday food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive and giving generosity of spirit.
Out of the Dickens tale, the greeting, "Merry Christmas" has become commonplace. The revival of the Christmas carol began with William B. Sandys "Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern" in 1833, with the first appearance in print of: The First Noel; I saw Three Ships; Hark the Herald Angels Sing; and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; also popularized in Dickens's "A Christmas Carol." In Britain the Christmas was introduced in the early 19th century and in 1832 a young Queen Victoria wrote about her delight at having a Christmas tree, hung with lights, ornaments, and presents placed around it. By 1841 the custom became more widespread throughout Britain and an image of the royal family with their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle created a worldwide sensation when it was published in the Illustrated London News in 1848. A modified version of this image was published in the United States in 1850 and by the 1870's putting up a Christmas tree had become common in America.
In America, Christmas had been revived in the 1820's by several short stories by Washington Irving and he used the tract Vindication of Christmas (1652) of Old English Christmas traditions that he used in his stories. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem, "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (popularly known by its first line, "T'was the Night Before Christmas") which helped popularize the tradition of exchanging gifts, and seasonal Christmas shopping began to assume economic importance. "The First Christmas in New England" by Harriet Beecher Stowe includes a character who complains that the true meaning of Christmas was lost in a shopping spree. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow detected a "transition state about Christmas here in New England" in 1856. By 1860, fourteen states including several from New England had adopted Christmas as a legal holiday. In 1870, Christmas was formally declared a United States Federal holiday, signed into Law by President Ulysses S. Grant.
It must be noted that Christmas as a secular observance as opposed to a religious one that contributes to its popularity in America, especially in an economic sense when retailers account for up to fifty percent of their 'yuletide' sales and annual profits. The shopping and spending spree during the holiday season pumps an estimated $37B into the national economy-larger than the GDP of Ireland (Jeffery Sheler, "In Search of Christmas," U.S. News and World Report, Dec. 23, 1996, p. 64). The commercialization of Christmas and other holidays is what contributes to their continued survival, and to rescue Christmas from its secular trappings into a more religious observance would in all probability not have the cultural support to maintain its observance the way it currently is being done. Originally, perhaps Christmas was envisioned as a way to ease the transition of the heathen into the new "faith" through some festival practices with which they were somewhat familiar.
In modern times Christmas has been driven more by economic forces. The Encyclopedia Britannica observes that the traditional Christmas holidays have "undergone a process of striking desacralization and especially Christmas- the commercialization of it." The Christological foundation of Christianity [Jesus of Nazareth] has been replaced [or incorporated side-by-side] by the myth of "Santa Claus" (Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia, Vol. 4. p. 499, "Christianity").
Now, one needs to search the Scripture to know what the word of God instructs in a matter such as this either explicitly or implicitly, as in below:
John 17: 14, 16
I have given them [the disciples] Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of this world, just as I am not of this world. "They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world."
Luke 22: 17, 19-20
The He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, "Take this and divide this among yourselves. "And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me." Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant [Brit Hadashah] in My blood, which is shed for you."
1 Corinthians 11: 23-26
For I received from the LORD that which I also delivered unto you: that the LORD Jesus [Yeshua] on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks [the blessing], He brake it and said, "Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me." In the same manner He took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant [Brit Hadashah] in My blood. This do, as often as [when] you drink it, in remembrance of Me." For as often as [when] you eat this bread and drink this cup you do proclaim [celebrate/observe] the LORD'S death until He comes.
Jesus told His disciples before He ascended back to heaven to observe all things that he commanded them (Cp. Matthew 28: 20a) and it is curious that Christian Churches today have special Christmas programs and Nativity plays depicting the Holy Babe, Mary and Joseph when there is no Biblical sanction for such an event; no matter how sincere, passionate, and presumably spiritually enriching the experience might seem to be. Now, it is prudent not to be a demagogue or dogmatic about such things and certain no one wants to condemn anyone for wanting to do good works but to imbue this winter season with a sacredness or holiness in honor of Jesus Christ the Son of God is not sanctioned in the Bible. If one wants to perpetuate the celebration as secular and commercial, of jolly Old Saint Nick, reindeer, elves, the sled filled with gifts for good boys and girls leaving the North Pole and tracked by NORAD, and all the trappings of such a festival with the traditions that comes with it, then that's one thing; but, to promote two entirely 'different' personages at the same time [one the Son of God and the other a false and imaginary character], such is untenable and not worthy of one who has been washed from the pollutions that are in [of] the world.
Romans 12: 2
And be not conformed [again] to the world, but be transformed by the [continued] renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the (1) good and (2) acceptable, and (3) perfect will of God.
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