The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?
Like most modern holidays, Christmas reminds me of Frankenstein’s monster. A little endearing, a little bit scary, it’s stitched together from many very different parts, some fairly fresh, some startlingly old.
Also much like Frankenstein’s monster, many people believe that Christmas is something that we as Christians should stay far away from. Putting the most widely celebrated and financially lucrative holiday in the world under the microscope has some pretty startling results.
First of all, Jesus was likely not born in December at all; scholars estimate that he was probably born closer to the end of September. The December 25th date comes from Roman tradition: when the Emperor Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity in 313 AD, he incorporated a lot of pagan traditions into Christian holidays in order to make the transition smoother. A lot of customs from the Winter Solstice festival of Saturnalia, celebrated the week of the 21st of December, were combined with the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Saturnalia was a festival in which the world was turned topsy-turvy while the Romans prayed for the days to get longer again. Masters and servants switched places, people exchanged gifts, and everyone ate and drank at pageants and feasts as the houses and streets blazed with light fighting back the darkness .
As the Roman Empire – and even after its fall - Christianity spread across the world, more and more traditions were incorporated into the annual celebration. From the Germans, we received Christmas trees, symbols of spring and rebirth common during Winter Solstice and New Year’s celebrations. Celtic druids used mistletoe to fend off evil spirits. Christmas ornaments probably started as amulets hung outside homes to represent the famiy deity or other honored gods and make them feel included in festivals.
Amusingly enough, one icon of Christmas is rarely recognized as being decidedly Christian in origin: Santa Claus, whose name so amusingly anagrams to “Satan,” is based on Saint Nicholas, a Turkish Christian from the 3rd century. According to legend, Nicholas overheard three impoverished girls weeping because they couldn’t get married, and so he snuck back at night and dropped money into their stockings drying on the fire to provide them with dowries. Nicholas also notoriously punched another church father at the Council of Nicea because the other man supported the Arian heresy (that Jesus is not fully God). It’s probably for the best that stockings and chimney entrances became a regular part of Christmas and slapping heretics did not.
The modern image of Santa Claus as we know him, however, is distinctly commercial. In fact, he was created by artist Fred Mizen in 1930 for the Coca Cola company. The image of the jolly red-suited man who lives at the North Pole and brings toys to good children stuck, and today countless songs proclaim how “Jolly Old St. Nick” will bring “things, things for you and for me.”
Though we may endlessly proclaim that Jesus is the reason for the season, I see no better symbol of the hybrid nature of Christmas than Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus. On the one hand, Christmas has ancient roots that combine tradition with the story of the son of God come down to earth. On the other hand, Christmas is a highly commercialized holiday: the average American spends $700 on Christmas a year, totaling more than $465 billion in spending nationwide. It’s easy to fall into a spirit of materialism each December, obsessed with outdoing neighbors and receiving the newest shiny gadget then facing disappointment and credit card debt come January.
It’s no wonder that people – Christian and non-Christian alike – often question whether they should be celebrating Christmas at all. After all, Philippians 4:8 instructs us that “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praise worthy – think about such things” (NIV). Is Christmas any of those things?
The first thing that is worth keeping in mind is a logical inconsistency known as the “genetic fallacy.” A genetic fallacy is when a conclusion is based “solely on someone’s or something’s history, origin, or source rather than its current meaning” (Wikipedia quoting Oxford Companion to Philosophy). Paul reflects his readers’ adherence to the genetic fallacy in 1 Corinthians 8, when he discusses whether or not Christians should eat meat that has been sacrificed to pagan idols. The pagan idols have no power, he argues, and so the meat itself can have no effect for good or for evil on people who eat it. The important thing is that believers’ actions don’t cause others to stray from their faith.
Perhaps more relevant is whether celebrating Christmas makes people more loving, more noble, more admirable. You may remember that recently some Christians made a fuss on social media because Starbucks released plain red holiday cups, claiming that they were trying to remove Christ from Christmas - all while the Syrian refugee crisis raged. Every year people die trampling each other to death during Black Friday sales, often while shopping for Christmas gifts. Priorities seem a little skewed here.
It’s no surprise that people get fed up with the whole thing, as wonderfully expressed in Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Resenting the celebrations and decorations of the cheery “Whos down in Whoville,” the miserable creature named "The Grinch" decides to steal all of their festive accouterments, and in doing so stop Christmas from coming. As morning comes, though, the Whos emerge from their houses stripped bare and celebrate anyway.
The Grinch concludes that Christmas will endure as long as people come together in community and share with each other. This idea – that love is the center of Christmas – is shared by former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, who said that “Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.”
By making Christmas about love and togetherness instead of solely about Jesus’ birth, though, are we losing something? Do the pagan and commercial origins of Christmas bother you? Should Christians celebrate Christmas at all, or can it truly be the most wonderful time of the year?
- Some Christians suggest that it may be wiser to celebrate Christmas as an entirely secular holiday, like the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving. Do you agree?
- Does your family have a favorite Christmas movie? What does it say the true meaning of Christmas is? Do you agree? Does it bother you when movies or books present a “true meaning of Christmas” that isn’t the birth of Jesus?
- As Christians, should we push for Christmas to be the focus of holiday celebrations in December, or should we be welcoming to other cultures’ and religions’ holidays as well?
- Do the origins of something necessarily determine its value? Read through 1 Corinthians chapters 8-10, Galatians 4:8-11, and Romans 14. Is there room for differences of practice between Christians on certain issues?