I know it seems a little early to write about Christmas, however, as I was looking through a few older sermons on the subject last evening a few interesting thoughts came to me concerning this celebrated day that has been set aside for the symbolic birth of Jesus. Christmas day and the season that surrounds it brings about so much mental imagery of family, friends, parties, gifts, religious issues, retail nightmares, smiling children, and of course, high calorie count food. It also brings to mind rather strong feelings concerning religious hypocrisy that is so prevalent during any of Christianity’s celebratory events.
You know what I mean, don’t you?
Everyone and their mother’s second cousin comes to Christmas Eve worship services or the annual Christmas Day pageant and then you are more than a little blessed (please add here an appropriate sarcastic grin) if you see the same people again in the next six months.
Then I thought about how the retail industry has masterminded the hijacking of one of the Christian church’s most significant modern liturgical events just for their own greedy purposes.
After I grumbled through my frustrations concerning America’s Christmas entrepreneurialism I thought I would attempt to describe how the God that gave us Jesus Christ could cut through all of the nonsense now influencing Christmas and offer a way out of this convoluted mess. Why couldn’t The Divine help to transform what much of America views as a season of “warm and fuzzy” feelings back into an experience pointing to the foundational story of God fulfilling His promise of a blessed Savior in spite of the world’s attempts to cheapen Jesus’ coming.
However, what I feel compelled to share with you as many of you prepare yourselves and others for the coming “warm & fuzzy” season is just a little different.
I want to share with you just a few of the more interesting details concerning the history and development of the cultural particulars surrounding what we have come to know as Christmas. I hope that you will find the following both thought provoking and fun to share with others while you are sipping on the eggnog in just a few weeks from now.
Did you know …
- In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday – The birth of Jesus was not celebrated. It was only in the fourth century that the churches decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The Bible has no mention of the actual birth date of Jesus Christ. Some biblical evidence indicates Jesus was born in the spring, though this remains controversial.
Following the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. On December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America’s new constitution was observed. Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.
- One of the main reasons we have the custom of giving and receiving presents at Christmas is to remind us of the three biblically listed presents; frankincense, gold, and myrrh, which were given to the infant Jesus. Of course, these three specific gifts have much symbolic significance.
* Frankincense, for example, was a perfume used in Jewish worship and, as a gift it showed that people would worship Jesus.
* Gold was associated with kings and Christians believed that Jesus was the king of kings.
* Myrrh was a perfume that was put on dead bodies to make them smell nice and as a gift, it was written into biblical text to testify that Jesus would suffer and die.
- All over the world, families and friends give presents to each other. Most children around the world believe St. Nicholas, Santa Claus or Father Christmas brings them presents, but in Germany they believe that it is the Christkind, in Spain they believe it is the Wise Men, and in Italy they believe it is an old lady called Befana.
- Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, but these were not Christmas carols. They were pagan songs, sung at the winter solstice celebrations as people danced around stone circles. The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, usually December 22. The word “carol” actually means dance or a joyful song of praise. In 129 C.E. (a little less than a century after Christ died) a Roman Bishop said that a song called “Angels Hymn” should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. After another Bishop, named Comas, wrote a Christmas hymn in the year 760 C.E., many music composers all over Europe started to write carols. Carols used to be written and sung during all four seasons, but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas has really survived!
- By the time of the Middle Ages (the 1200’s), most people had lost interest in celebrating Christmas altogether. Around the year 1223, because of the leadership of church leader Saint Francis of Assisi, there was again renewed interest in celebrating Christmas because he sponsored Nativity plays that included praise choruses that were in the languages of the people, so that they could join in and sing along.
- When Oliver Cromwell came to power and removed the English monarchy from authority in 1647, he and a radically conservative religious group called the Puritans stopped all sanctioned celebrations of Christmas completely. The Puritans argued that Christmas was a Catholic relic. They termed it a “foolish day” that was only used as an excuse for public drunkenness and gluttony. In 1660, when the monarchy was restored, the Christmas festivities were enthusiastically revitalized.
- What we now recognize as the Christmas tree has been used to celebrate winter festivals, pagan and Christian, for thousands of years. Pagans used branches to decorate their homes during the winter solstice, as it made them think of the spring to come. The Romans used fir trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia. Christians use the Christmas tree as a sign of everlasting life with God.
The first documented use of an evergreen tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations is in a town square of Riga, the capital of Latvia, in the year 1510. There is a story told that the first person to bring a Christmas tree into a house may have been the 16th century German preacher, Martin Luther. It is told that, one night before Christmas, he was walking through the forest and looked up to see the stars shining through the tree branches. It was so beautiful, that he went home and told his children that it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas.
- Christmas is also sometimes called Xmas. Some people don’t think it’s correct to call Christmas “Xmas,” as that takes the “Christ” (Jesus) out of Christmas. But that is not quite right! In the Greek language and alphabet, the letter that looks like an X is a chi, the first letter of Christos, which means Christ!
- Behind the story of Father Christmas is a real man. St. Nicholas was a bishop who lived in the fourth century of the Common Era (after the birth of Jesus), in a place inside what is now called Turkey (just north of Syria and Iraq). He was a very rich man because his parents died when he was young and left him a lot of money. He was also a very kind man and had a reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to people in need.
In the 16th century in Europe, the stories and traditions about St. Nicholas for any number of reasons became most unpopular. But someone had to deliver presents to children at Christmas, so in the United Kingdom, good ol’ St. Nick became Father Christmas, a character from old children’s stories; In France, he was known as “Pere Noel”; in Germany, he was called Christ Kind, or in the English translation, the Christ child. In the early days of America I his name was Kris Kringle. Later, Dutch settlers in the United States took the old stories of St. Nicholas with them, and Kris Kringle became Sinter Klass – or as we now say, Santa Claus!