Tis the season. The season of what exactly though? This time of year can be a joyous, merry occasion, while for others a loathed, stressful period (I personally enjoy it immensely). Despite my absolute love of the season, it is no secret that it has been robbed of its original intent. While making ornaments with my four year old nephew and attempting to have a discipleship moment with him asking him about the true meaning of Christmas and who Jesus is, the thought hit me for this blog post. When exactly did things get off track? How did the world become the Grinch and steal Christmas? I did some research about the holiday and why we do the things celebrate the way we do.
According to history.com, Christmas is a Christian holiday honoring the birth of Jesus Christ that has evolved over two millennia into a worldwide religious and secular celebration, incorporating many Christian and pagan traditions into festivities and today it is a time for family and friends to gather together and exchange gifts. It became a federal holiday in 1870, but its origins date back to 4th century A.D. Christmas began in Europe and was celebrated during winter because of the end of harvest season, and that was when livestock had just been slaughtered, therefore fresh meat was available. During the 4th century, church officials initiated the birth of Jesus as a holiday celebrated like Easter. Pope Julius I chose December 25th, and the first Christmas as we know it was celebrated then in Rome. It was originally called the Feast of the Nativity. By the Middle Ages, the holiday had been contorted to being celebrated like Mardi Gras, with attending church then partying and partaking in drunkenness. The Reformation changed the holiday. When Cromwell and the Puritans took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence, including Christmas. Protests around this time against this ruling involved decorating with holly and shouting royalist slogans. When King Charles II took the throne, the holiday was restored and the Christmas ban was lifted. Many early Americans were Puritans, so the holiday was not really celebrated stateside until the 1680s, although Christmas was not declared a holiday until June of 1810 due to the disdain for English customs post Revolution. The writing and touring of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” revived the season and popularized “Merry Christmas.”
No doubt religion got in the way of a season meant for celebrating the birth of Christ. The Middle Ages arguably saw the biggest turn away from the true meaning of the celebration of Christmas until more recent times. The act of gift giving has historically distorted the true reason for Christmas as well, especially in America. The original celebration Christmas was based on, the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, began the act of giving gifts. The basis of gift giving was based on Jesus coming into the world, the act of God gifting us with his son (John 3:16), so in turn we give gifts to friends and family. It also originated from following the wise men’s lead in gift giving as they gave gifts to Jesus (Matthew 2:9-12). In the 1820s, newspapers began to advertise items for Christmas presents. In 1860 and 1870, the rise of shopping and gift giving was seen in New York and gift giving became a way to honor family relationships. During the mid-1800s entrepreneurs, like P.T. Barnum and R.H. Macy, seized the opportunity to sell holiday trinkets. The Friday after Thanksgiving was first considered the start of the holiday season since 1924 after the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Christmas and gift giving became a business and commercial venture. It became a show off of the wealthy. Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” encouraged this with at the time portraying being cheap and stingy as being a Scrooge.
The tradition of Santa Clause began with Saint Nicholas in 4th century Myra in Asian Minor. Nicholas was the orphaned son of wealthy parents (basically Batman of 4th century Turkey). With the money left to him, he used it to help the poor and secretly gave gifts to those in need. Legend has it that the act that gave him the title of Saint, was secretly dropping gold down a poor man’s chimney to pay for the man’s three daughter’s dowries for them to be married. During the 16th century, stories about him spread through Europe. Traditionally, Saint Nicholas would visit children and inquire how good they were during the past year and give gifts at Christmas based on their behavior. Stories like this with the children and recounts of his action of dropping gifts down chimneys morphed from the man to the image we know of Santa Clause today. During the Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestants changed the gift bringer of the holiday to Christkindl (Christ Child). The modern image of this evolved from Washington Irving’s writings and Thomas Nast’s drawings. Nast created the image of Santa we know today in the 1880s. Cultures around the world adopted their own Santa images and stories based on Saint Nicholas, with most countries pulling from various legends and images to create their traditions (wassup cultural diffusion). What began as a picture of giving spiraled into a larger than life Christmas character for children.
Smaller Christmas traditions have origins relating back to Christ that we have since forgotten. Legend has it that we put Christmas lights on trees because Martin Luther saw stars shining through an evergreen and it reminded him of Jesus coming to Earth, so he placed candles in his tree at home to recreate the moment for his family. The candy cane is rumored to have been “J-shaped” to represent a shepherd’s crook like at the birth of Christ, or a “J” for Jesus, with the white and red representing purity and Jesus’ blood. Evergreen trees are said to have been chosen versus other trees that survive the winter because they point to heaven and are triangle shaped, representing the Trinity.
Please do not take this post as me bashing Christmas. My apartment is already decorated with a tree, lights, a Santa figure, a nutcracker, stocking, snowman, and other Christmas paraphernalia. I LOVE Christmas. I start it the week of Thanksgiving. I’m that white girl. It just breaks my heart to see what began as a holiday commemorating and remembering the coming of the Savior reduced to a commercial holiday idolizing a red-nosed reindeer and jolly old dude. These traditions are fun and I’m not saying we should stop them and all become Puritans. No. I love me some Rudolph and Bing Crosby as much as the next person, I’m just saying, lets take back our holiday from the world. Along the way, the world took it from us and spun it out of control and contorted a celebration to a commercial driven, meaningless fiasco. Buy gifts for friends and family. Gift giving is service, I support it, its Biblical. Don’t let it consume you though to the point of insane stress or bankruptcy. The meaning behind giving gifts is Biblical, just keep that mindset, base where your spending your time and money on what the Bible says. Santa Clause isn’t all bad either. It is based off Saint Nicholas and the act of giving, just keep that in mind as you hit the stores. (Also, keep in mind the fact that you are a disciple, a follow of Christ. Not to bring back the 1990s and a cheesy statement, but how would Jesus act at the mall…just saying.) Whether the meaning behind candy canes, trees, and lights is iffy and there is not certain information if Biblical references are true, but let’s let them remind us of these anyway.
Let Christmas lights remind you of the light of the world that we’re celebrating. John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:4 says, “In Him was life, and that life was the light of men.” John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” When you see Christmas lights, let them remind you of Christ who made his dwelling among us, who literally changed the world and course of humanity with His birth. He brought light and hope to a world of darkness by just being who He was and by what He did on the cross-the entirety of why He came to Earth. Just as Christmas lights pierce through the cold winter night giving off a little Christmas magic, Christ’s birth pierced through the darkness, bringing a future for all of us. When you partake in Christmas traditions this season, let those trees point you to Christ. Listen a little more closely to the songs we sing and what those lyrics are proclaiming. Let the nativity scene (although not entirely Biblically accurate) remind you of Christ’s birth. Let the red and white candy canes remind you of the gospel. Let the lights be a reminder of who Christ is and how you are a little Christmas light now, shining Jesus into the world. Christmas is powerful. Its not just a time for happy songs and pretty ribbons. Luke 2:11 says, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord.” Matthew 1:21 says, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” Celebrate the coming of your salvation. Celebrate your bounty being paid. Celebrate God being faithful and the Word coming to life this December. Come adore the newborn King!