Rethinking Christmas Traditions

25 12 2012

Rethinking Christmas Traditions logo completed

It’s that time of year again: Christmas lights and trees going up all around us, the bustle of holiday shopping and the excitement of the season.   Most of us celebrate this winter holiday — we all love the family time, gift giving and colorful lights.   But, do we know the reason we celebrate Christmas?  “It is to remember and celebrate the birth of Christ,” most Christians would say.  But, have we taken time to learn the history and origins behind the Christmas holiday and traditions?  I hadn’t until very recently.

What’s the history behind the Christmas tree, gift-giving, yuletide, mistletoe, and the Christmas holiday in general?  I hope to start a conversation, prompting people – especially Christians – to look into what they’re celebrating and why.  There are many resources out there on the web and in print one can use to educate themselves.  I urge you to do your own research, and not just trust my information.

The Christmas holiday has roots within the ancient Roman holiday Saturnalia, which was celebrated between December 17 and December 25.   This eight day period was a time for continual partying, gift-giving and lawlessness.  Much is written about the festival of Saturnalia, so I won’t go into it anymore, for lack of space.  But, the popularity of Saturnalia carried on into the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D., and as Christians began to rule over the Roman Empire, many believe its customs influenced the celebrations around Christmas and the New Year.  “Worship of Christianity was legally allowed in the Roman Empire by Constantine the Great, … A.D. 313.  Now the two focal celebrations of both religions occur on December 25th, Mithra’s sun regeneration and the Christian nativity (Sun of Righteousness). According to St. Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, the “Roman Church purposefully placed the keeping of Christmas between two popular folk festivals, Saturnalia and the Kalends of January, in order to give Christians something to celebrate [undisturbed] (sic) about while others were engaged in secular merrymaking.””[1]

The history of the Christmas tree is quite fascinating and varied.  Many countries hung evergreen branches in various places, believing they would keep ghosts, witches, evil-spirits and illness away.  Numerous ancient peoples celebrated winter solstice – which occurred around December 21 in the Northern Hemisphere – including the Egyptians, Romans, Druids and Vikings.  Whether it was the Egyptians with their god, Ra, or the Vikings with Balder, their sun god, they all believed that the winter solstice was the time at which the sun god would begin to grow stronger, after a period of weakness and sickness.  So, they decorated their homes and temples with green boughs, as a reminder that plants would grow again.  The Roman’s feast, called Saturnalia, honored their god Saturn, and the Northern European Druids used evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life.[2]  Germany was where the Christmas tree tradition started, as we know it.  Sixteenth century devout Christians decorated trees and brought them into their homes.  The first recorded display of one in American, though, wasn’t until the 1830s, by German settlers in Pennsylvania.  But, as late as the 1840s, Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and were not accepted by most Americans.  By the 20th century, nonetheless, Christmas trees became an American tradition, as it remains to this day.[3]

I apologize for not being able to cover more of the other aspects, but trying to wrap up 2000 years’-worth of history in a single less-than-1000-word article is a monumental task.  Please take the time to do your own research on this subject.   I believe it is a conversation American Christians need to have.

In conclusion, I have just recently begun to think of Resurrection Day as the more important holy-day that we as Christians should celebrate.  If Christ never died and rose again, Jesus’ birth is no more crucial than any other person’s birth.[4]  But, the fact that He was born, was murdered on the Cross and, most vitally, resurrected from the dead, that is what we should celebrate.    Thanksgiving is also a good day to celebrate, though I believe, for Christians, every day should be Thanksgiving Day.  But, to set aside a day in which we conscientiously thank God for all of our blessings and spend time with family is wonderful. This year I’m thankful for the fact that Jesus Christ was born, but most decisively, rose again, conquering death forever, providing a way for me to do so also.

A good perspective on this issue is R.C. Sproul, Jr.’s article which can be found here: http://highlandsministriesonline.org/ask-rc/ask-rc-is-it-a-sin-to-celebrate-christmas/.  And this article, as well: http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2012/12/21/christians-celebrating-christmas?utm_source=aigfacebook12212012 christmasfeedback&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=facebook.

Footnotes:


[2] See this website for the full story behind the Christmas tree: http://www.thehistoryofchristmas.com/trivia/trees.htm

[3] There is much more information on the Christmas tree history, of which I did not have room to cover in this article.

[4] And our faith is futile: see 1 Corinthians 15:17.

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