It's the most wonderful time of the year! Winter is here and New Year's Eve approaches! Ah, the music, the lights, the chill in the air... And, because I live in southern California, I also get to celebrate the rain! It truly is a lovely time of year. But as Christmas approaches, it's time to take a look at this popular holiday. In particular, I'll be examining how the holiday relates to Christians. As with the last time we looked at a holiday, we'll begin by looking at the history. And once again, I've looked around to try to determine the exact origins of the holiday. While nowhere is entirely consistent, there are some things that seem to match across my various sources."If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree."
Many people are aware that Jesus wasn't actually born on December 25th. (In fact, our calendars may even have the wrong year set as zero AD, but that's something else entirely.) While the Bible doesn't mention the specific date of Christ's birth, we are told about shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, which wouldn't have happened in winter. Some sites say that He was likely born in the spring, while others say He was probably born in the fall, but they all agree on one thing: December is out of the question. When we take that into consideration, it seems like almost any other day of the year would be a better choice than December 25th for celebrating the birth of Jesus. So why did we pick this day? To answer that, we go back to the original holidays celebrated during winter.
Saturnalia, the most commonly mentioned holiday when looking at the history of Christmas, was a paganistic ritual in Rome taking place from December 17th to December 25th, or possibly even for an entire month. Through a number of articles, I think I've been able to pin down the basics of the celebration. One source says,
"Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun."Another source claims,
"During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration."This source goes on to describe a tradition in which the Romans would choose one enemy of the Roman people to represent the Lord of Misrule. They would force him to indulge in excessive amounts of food and various other pleasures, before brutally murdering him at the end of the festival, believing that this would cleanse their civilization of evil. During the festival, offerings and gifts would be brought before the god Saturn to win favor with the emperor. (This author also mentions, with citation, several other traditions that I'll not mention here due to their gruesome nature.)
While this seems to be the main holiday that provides a root for Christmas, various other holidays have been mixed in. One holiday involved people bringing trees into their houses, decorating them extravagantly, and worshiping them. And it seems that in Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule beginning on December 21st and lasting up to twelve days.
How is it that these holidays became what we now know as Christmas? Many theorize that the early Catholic Church decided on this date specifically because it coincided with Saturnalia. While they renamed the holiday Christmas (Christ's Mass), the Church did little else to reform the holiday or change its traditions. This gave the members of the early Church an excuse to participate in the paganistic rituals, and at the same time eased the conversion of many pagans, since they didn't have to leave behind their favorite holiday. One change that did seem to take place was that the humiliating, disgusting, and/or fatal roles were now filled by Jews. It seems that during that time, many Jews were abused, murdered, maimed, and raped in the name of Christmas.
Over the years, the traditions surrounding Christmas seem to have died down, and yet, they're still here. We still give gifts, and put up Christmas trees, and celebrate Christmas in general. Most of our traditions come from pagan rituals, and yet we make an effort to "put the Christ back in Christmas," ignoring that December 25th is one of the days least likely to be the actual day of Christ's birth. Many, upon being confronted with this information, answer that "this isn't what it means anymore," or, "that's not what we're celebrating." I respond to this in two layers.
The first layer asks if it is glorifying to God to celebrate Christmas at all. One author makes the rather extreme comparison between Christmas and Hitler's birthday. While the effects of Christmas certainly weren't on the same scale as the holocaust, the point remains. If traditions of joy and happiness arose on Hitler's birthday (or rather, specifically because of his birthday) over the course of many generations, wouldn't it be seen as irreverent at best? If we could travel forward to that time and people brushed off protests with, "that's not what it means anymore," would you really be convinced? In the same way, while the history of Christmas doesn't draw close to the horrors of the holocaust, it still has a disgusting and bloody history. This history is now ignored, but it's still the history of this holiday; it isn't some unrelated thing that happened to be on the same day hundreds of years ago.
The second layer asks, are the traditions that we still have glorifying to Christ? Even if we were to continue to use this day to celebrate the birth of Christ, how does a Christmas tree bring honor to Him? How does mistletoe, or holly, or Santa Claus glorify God? Even if we take these at face value and ignore their history and origins, do they bring about anything good or beneficial? Aren't we called to be set apart? Does a Christmas tree help us witness, or a red bow, or presents, or any of the other modern traditions? I would go so far as to say that Christmas has the potential to even hinder witnessing, as many atheists will look at the history of Christmas and see Christians as idiots for thinking that this is when Jesus was born.
Some places I've found say that the Bible even condemns birthday celebrations in general (though this may be a bit of a stretch). But if we're going to celebrate His birth, why do we celebrate it on one of the days that is least likely to have been His birthday? Because everyone else does it? And because this day has been commonly referred to as the day of His birth, do we ignore that the day was chosen not because they thought it was His birthday, but because a paganistic ritual took place at the same time? And then why do we do nothing to set apart our traditions from theirs, but rather, adopt their traditions as our own? Jesus is the reason for the season because He is the reason for every season, but Christmas always has been, and still is, a pagan holiday with a thin coat of Christian paint.
"I am positive that much that passes for the gospel in our day is very little more than a very mild case of orthodox religion grafted on to a heart that is sold out to the world in its pleasures and tastes and ambitions."