A timely reflection from Mbird friend Russ Masterson:
The tug is relentless this time of year – look at things, buy things, think about things. In December materialism is like breathing, at least it is for me. In the Christmas season we tend to overshop and overeat – an admittedly weird way to celebrate the birth of Jesus, a man who modeled simplicity and moderation. Of course, Santa Claus has become as much the key person in the holiday as Christ. You probably know the story: Saint Nicholas was a fourth century saint, the bishop of Myra (present day Turkey) who became renowned for loving God and people, and most especially needy children. He used his wealth to better the lives of the poor, and even after his death, people in the region continued to anonymously give to the poor; such gifts were always “from” St. Nicholas.
St. Nicholas Day was celebrated each year on the day of his death, December 6th. In the 1100’s French nuns began to give gifts to children on St. Nicholas Day, and in the 1700’s the Dutch brought the legend of Saint Nicholas to America and their name for him, Sinterklaas, which was Americanized into “Santa Claus.” The practice of giving gifts continued to grow and eventually the celebration of St. Nicholas merged with the celebration of the birth of Christ.
Many of the physical characteristics we attribute to Santa Claus came from the famous and revered poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” which was published anonymously in 1823 in a New York newspaper (being attributed later to writer Clement Clark Moore). It provided all the details needed to birth the mythical figure we know today as Santa Claus. Then in 1931 Coca-Cola began an advertising campaign which firmed up the image of Santa as we know him today. So over the years we’ve refined the image of the man but lost what he stood for. He was not a promoter of stuff. The fat red-suited man at the mall is not the same man from history.
The Christmas our country knew in those early days was marked by spirituality and gratitude, and, yes, Jesus. As Christmas has become more secular and less spiritual, the complaints from the American church have begun to mount up with the most popular being, You can’t take Christ out of Christmas. It makes for a good bumper sticker. Something for people to rally behind. And for years I joined in. That is, until I learned that he was never really in it, that the date of December 25th has little to do with Jesus.
No one is exactly sure what day the birth of Christ occurred, but the most educated guesses by early second century churchmen are January 6, April 18, April 19, and May 20. But in the early third century Hippolytus, one of the most prolific writers in the early Church, claimed the date was December 25th, and that date eventually became the official date of Christmas, not because it’s accurate, but because the date coincided with the pagan festivals of Saturnalia and the winter solstice, making it easier for an outlawed celebration like Christmas to go unnoticed. Still, after the Council of Nicea ended the mass persecution of Christians in 325 AD, the church continued with this practice. The thought was that the Church would offer people another way to celebrate. I suppose simply not celebrating the pagan festivals wouldn’t suffice – it’s difficult to stay at home when everyone else is going to the ball. In this pragmatic compromise the church began to reframe pagan symbols into the celebration of Christmas. A few of the major customs of the pagan winter solstice were holly, mistletoe, log fires, and a tree. So, not only do we celebrate on a fuzzy date, but also, much of the Christmas imagery has nothing to do with Christ.
The optimist in me believes that no matter what history says, Christmas is still a celebration of Jesus. I tell myself, it’s what I make of it. I can hold on to all this, all the imagery, because I don’t connect it with paganism. But I wonder, are we really holding on to the truth of God’s rescue of humanity or to pagan traditions repackaged? And if the answer is the former then why do we still love the pagan imagery? While all this isn’t necessarily disastrous, it does force us to confront a question we’d probably rather avoid: Will we live by convenience or truth? But it doesn’t end there. More practical questions arrive. Can I still give my child a gift on Christmas morning or attend the yearly family Christmas dinner that evening? If I quit putting up a tree am I going to be the weird fundamentalist Christian on the block?
I’m not sure of the answers. My friend, Jim, pretty much quit celebrating Christmas, as America knows it, all together. I’m not sure I’m ready for that. I know my wife would have a hissy if she couldn’t decorate for Christmas. This past year I told her I didn’t care whether we put up a Christmas tree – a week later I was lying on the dining room floor screwing the red and green plastic stand into the base of a tall tree. I do know I want to shop less and live more. I want to live and breathe and laugh rather than sit frustrated in mall traffic. I certainly don’t want Christmas to become an excuse to let my materialistic urges run wild, as if they’ll actually find some lasting satisfaction in it.
Honoring the birth of Jesus shouldn’t just be a December celebration. This historical reality can set us free and it should be celebrated daily, hourly, even moment by moment. Christ may have never been in Christmas but he most certainly is worthy of celebration that day, plus the 364 others.