This is a copy of a study I am leading in my Wednesday night Bible class. Thought you might enjoy reading it and adding to it! Be warned, it is rather lengthy for a blogpost.
The Christmas holiday that we celebrate in 21st century America is a curious mixture of religion, materialism, family, food, and tradition. For years the religious aspects of this holiday were overshadowed by the more secular traditions of Santa, Rudolph et al. Recently however, the “Christmas wars” have erupted as Christian groups have reacted to this increasing secularism. “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holiday” debates are now common with “Jesus is the reason for the season” being the Christian rallying cry.
But is he? Is December 25th really his birth date? Should we celebrate it? What about all the other traditions that we have so commonly accepted? Where did they come from? And just what does the Bible have to say about all of this? These questions (and more) are what we will attempt to unwrap in this two-part study.
JUST THE BIBLE FACTS
This is where we start. The New Testament gives us two accounts of the “nativity story” in Matthew 1:18-2:23 and Luke 1:26-38 & 2:1-40. From these two texts here is what we know:
· His mother was Mary- a virgin- who was engaged to Joseph, a carpenter from the city of Nazareth, but Christ was not conceived by flesh but by the miracle of the Holy Spirit of God
· Mary was chosen because she had “found favor with God”. She was told by an angel that her child was to be the “Son of God”, the “Immanuel” and that his name would be Jesus for he would “save his people from their sins.”
· Joseph considered quietly divorcing Mary until a visit by an angel revealed God’s plan
· Joseph and Mary had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem- the town of Joseph’s family- to be counted in a census decreed by the Roman Caesar Augustus.
· While in Bethlehem Joseph could not find a room in which to stay and Mary gave birth in some type of barn or stable. She put swaddling clothes upon Jesus and placed him in a “manger” or animal feed trough.
· Nearby shepherds were visited by an angel who announced the birth of Christ and directed them to where the baby was.
· Then a host of angels appeared praising and honoring God
· The Shepherds went to Bethlehem and found Mary, Joseph and Jesus. They then spread word about all they had seen and heard about the Christ-child.
· On the eight day of his life, Jesus- as was the custom of male Jewish infants- was taken to the temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised and consecrated.
· At some point the “Magi” or “wise men” led by a star journeyed from “the east” through Jerusalem to worship and bring gifts to Jesus. They found him in a “house” in Bethlehem and gave him gold, frankincense and myrrh. Being warned not to assist King Herod in his plot to discover and kill the Christ-child they returned home by “another country”
· After that- because of the threat posed by Herod and being warned by an angel- Joseph took his young family to live in Egypt until after Herod’s death when they returned to Nazareth.
From these facts here are some things we know and some things we do not know:
· No mention of a date is given. No mention of a season of the year is given. Many have tried to pinpoint this using the fact of the shepherds being in the fields; the time of this census, etc. Most have concluded that his birth probably occurred in early spring.
· The “Magi” were likely scientists/theologians/astronomers- not kings. No mention is given of their specific country of origin. There is no mention of a number in relation to them except to the number of gifts they brought. We are not told of the timeframe of their arrival, but it was not at the time of his birth as is portrayed in most nativity scenes.
· There is also no other mention of his birth in the rest of the New Testament including any celebration of it.
HOW DECEMBER 25TH BECAME CHRISTMAS
What we recognize today as “Christmas” or the celebration of the day of Christ’s birth on December 25th evolved out of a host of various pagan holidays, customs and traditions.
Some date the beginnings of these traditions as far back as the 5th century BC to a Persian winter celebration of their sun-god, Mithras. His birth was celebrated on December 25th. Later the Roman Empire would absorb this holiday and make it it’s own as the Winter Solstice feast of Saturnalia. This celebration was marked by big, festive meals, visiting family and friends, the exchange of good-luck gifts, decorating with garland and even lighting green trees with candles.
Other pagan influences shaping what we know as Christmas come from the ancient English observance of Yule, the annual birth of the new sun god. It was believed that because the days (of sunshine) were shortened at this time of the year that the Oak King (he was the New Year and the growing sun) was born at Yule.
Other non-Christian traditions folded into our current celebration of Christmas include mistletoe. The Druids actually worshipped this plant because it lacked roots and stayed green all throughout winter. Wassailing (caroling) was originally an important part of a horticultural ritual. In England it focused on the cider-apple orchards (hence the drink- wassail). The purpose was to salute the trees in the dead of winter to insure a good crop for the coming year. Later carolers would sing until they were paid to leave- as a form of charity between feudal lords and their peasants.
As these pagan feasts became increasingly popular the Roman Catholic Church began co-opting some of them ultimately linking them with the celebration of the birth of Christ. While some scholars trace the beginnings of a Christian celebration of Christ’s birthday as far back as 137 AD, it was not until the fourth century that this became official. In 325 Constantine declared December 25th to be an “Immovable Feast” for the whole Roman Empire. The bishop of Rome may have accepted December 25th as the birth date of Christ as early as 320, but historical records provide no evidence for a date earlier than 336. “Christ Mass”- the recognition and celebration of December 25th as the birth date of Christ became official in 350 AD when another bishop of Rome, Julius I accepted the December date.
January 6th also evolved into an important part of the religious celebration of Christmas (Orthodox churches still celebrate this as the day of Christ’s birth). This is the day of Epiphany which honors the visit of the Magi. It is also the twelfth day of Christmas (with Christmas being the first day) and concludes a 12-day holy festival. It is also interesting to note that some aspects of this Epiphany mirror the Jewish Hanukkah celebration of the Festival of Lights.
Eventually as the Catholic Church grew and became more powerful the Winter Solstice pagan celebrations vanished into the similar but religious customs of Christmas. The Protestant movement would also embrace these traditions with some believing Martin Luther to be the first to light a Christmas tree.
While most did embrace December 25th as the day of Christ birth and celebrate the Christ Mass, others did not. Christmas was actually slow to catch on in America. Some settlers like the Puritans would have nothing to do with it and it was even banned by law in Massachusetts.
But this holiday was unstoppable and with the coming of the gilded age of wealth and success in America a major salesman for this holiday would be created out of the legend of an old European “saint”. He would take Christmas to new heights on the back of his sleigh- and ironically enough shift the emphasis of this holiday once again away from the birth of Christ.
Next we will look at more modern traditions and discuss our response to Christmas today.