An historical study of the various features that have become a part of the religious and cultural celebration of Christmas.
©1998 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.
The historical and theological considerations of Christmas gave rise to the celebration of Christmas among Christian peoples. It is valid to question whether God ever intended that the birth of Jesus should be celebrated by Christians, for it is not scripturally ordained as are the ordinances of baptism and Lord's Supper, nor referred to in the Bible as is the weekly Lord's Day observance (Acts 20:7; I Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10) on Sunday, the first day of each week. Our considerations of the celebration of Christmas are, therefore, not scripturally derived.
There is little evidence of the celebration of the nativity or the incarnation prior to the fourth century A.D. Irenaeus (c. 130-200 A.D.) and Tertullian (c. 170-220 A.D.) both omit any reference to the celebration of the birth of Christ from their lists of Christian feasts. Origen (c. 185-254) noted that Christians celebrated only the weekly Sunday observance and the yearly Easter and Pentecostal feasts, going on to explain that Christians should not celebrate birthdays of saints and martyrs, including Jesus, only the date of their death. "Sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday," Origen said.
During the fourth century many things changed as the church became linked with the Roman empire after the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 323 A.D. Constantine's mother, St. Helena, went to Palestine in the mid-fourth century and claimed to have discovered the site of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, whereupon a church building was constructed, remaining to this day as the oldest continuous church site in Christian history. In the Eastern orthodox church they began to celebrate Epiphany (meaning "manifestation" or "showing forth") on January 6, celebrating the birth of Jesus, the baptism of Jesus, and the arrival of the Magi combined in one festival. The Western Roman church chose December 25 as its primary celebration of the birth of Christ, as documented by the decree of Pope Liberius in 354 A.D. Gradually the Eastern and Western sections of the Church began to merge their celebrations. In a sermon preached in 386 A.D., Chrysostom urged the Eastern church to celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25 as other portions of the church had so observed it for at least ten years. The Western church of Rome accepted January 6 as the celebration of Epiphany, celebrating the arrival of the Magi on that date. The celebration on December 25 was called Nativitas Domini, the Birth of the Lord, though Gregory of Nazianzen sought to change the name to Theophany (the manifestation of God) to correlate with Epiphany. The twelve days between December 25 and January 6 eventually became the "twelve days of Christmas," declared as such by the Second Council of Tours in 566 A.D.. Roman Emperor Theodosius was the first to declare Nativitas Domini as an official state holiday in 438 A.D. We observe, therefore, that the birth of Jesus has been celebrated by Christian people for over sixteen hundred years now.
In the fifth century, Perpetuus of Tours extended the celebration of Nativitas Domini to include an Advent preparation. Advent is derived from the Latin word adventus, meaning "to come." The advent season was a time of liturgical worship in the four weeks preceding the celebration of Jesus' birth, wherein Christians were urged to remember the prophetic promises of the Messiah's coming, the preparation for such by John the Baptist, and the announcement of such by Zacharias. It was a time when Christians were urged to repent from drunkenness and promiscuity, to fast on Fridays, and to give generously. Advent season also recognized the expectation of the second advent of Jesus and the judgment of God.
The designation of the celebration of the birth of Jesus as "Christmas" is derived from the Old English words Cristes Maesse (first known reference in 1038 A.D.) or Cristes-messe (first known reference in 1131). The meaning of both is "Christ Mass," referring to the three masses that the Catholic Church celebrated on December 25 to honor the birth of Jesus.
Nativity scenes with representations of Joseph, Mary and Jesus at the crèche (crib or cradle) were first employed by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 as part of the midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Dramatic presentations and reenactments of the nativity then became common in the religious celebration of Christmas.
Objection to the religious celebration of Christmas by Christians has been voiced on several occasions and by various groups in Protestantism. In seventeenth century England during the time of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), the celebration of Christmas was banned. By an Act of Parliament in 1644 Christmas celebration was forbidden, shops were compelled to remain open, and plum puddings or mince pies were condemned as heathen. "Yuletide is fooltide" was one of their mottoes. The resulting conflict led to many deaths in Canterbury. This attitude was carried over to the settlements of the new country also, with Connecticut and Massachusetts forbidding the celebration of Christmas.
with Seasonal and Cultural Celebration
Throughout the history of mankind, people have celebrated mid-winter festivals, and these were often scheduled around the winter solstice (the standing still of the sun before it began to rise and create longer days of sunlight). These were often times of feasting and revelry celebrating the year's harvest. Germanic tribes had mid-winter feasts celebrating the cold season when animals could be slaughtered and the meat would remain frozen, coinciding with sufficient time for their drinks to be fermented. The mid-winter celebration of julblot by the Scandinavians may be the origin of the Teutonic Yule feasts.
When the birth of Jesus first began to be celebrated in the fourth century the Romans had their own mid-winter festivals. Roman religion was an amalgam of Greek mythology, animistic worship of the sun, and emperor worship. The feast of Saturnalia was a raucous celebration from December 17 through 24. Roman emperor Aurelian, in 247 A.D., had established December 25 as the feast of sol invicti (invincible sun), also referred to as natalis invicti (birth of the unconquerable) or sol novus (new sun), to celebrate when the sun began to conquer the long nights. The Roman calendar had not been adjusted, so the winter solstice occurred on December 25.
The Christians' calculation of the birth of Jesus on December 25 created a convenient opportunity for Constantine to replace and transfer the celebration of sol invicti or natalis invicti to Nativitas Domini, the celebration of the birth of the Lord. Transference of images could even be made emphasizing Jesus as the victory of light overcoming the darkness of evil. The sol novus (new sun) was easily converted into celebration of the "sun of righteousness". As the Feast of the Sun became the Feast of the Son, church leaders emphasized that the naturalism of the solar cult was being replaced by the celebration of the supernaturalism of God sending His Son, Jesus.
Some Christians have been bothered by the realization of the transference of pagan rituals and their evolution into celebrations of the Christian religion. Study of human history reveals the inevitability of eclecticism and syncretism in the enculturation process of cultures and religions. Peoples from different places and different backgrounds will tend to blend and integrate their ideas and customs over time. Without a doubt there has been amalgamation as secular and non-Christian practices have been adapted into our Christmas celebrations.
When we objectively observe the traditions of our Christmas celebration in North America, it becomes obvious that there has been a merging of religious and cultural celebrations within our eclectic society. Many of what we might identify as cultural factors of Christmas celebration in North America have their origins in prior religious celebration. Some of our religious celebration is permeated with prior secular customs (ex. Santa Claus and Christmas trees). In fact, the origins of many of our Christmas customs and traditions are shrouded in speculative legends and fanciful interpretations.
What was the origin of Christmas carols, for example? Some would indicate that the first "carols" were the songs of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds near Bethlehem. A "carol" originally referred to a group dance accompanied by joyful song, and then gradually evolved into reference to the song itself. Some of our Christmas carols were derived from folk songs or traditional drinking songs, and early "caroling" festivities were performed by bands of men and boys going house to house demanding money or drink. Other carols were originally hymns of the church, some written by such great composers as Handel ("Joy to the World"), Bach ("How Brightly Beams the Morning Star") and Mendelssohn ("Hark, the Herald Angels Sing").
A carol that appears to be rather non-religious, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," is alleged by some to have been an underground catechism in the Catholic Church during the days when Christmas celebration was banned in England. Not only does it relate to the twelve days of Christmas from December 25 to December 6, but some have interpreted hidden meanings as follows: The gifts of the "true love" are gifts from God to "me," every Christian. A partridge in a pear tree represents Jesus who died on the tree of the cross. Two turtle doves represent the Old and New Testaments. Three French hens represent faith hope and love. Four calling birds refer to the four gospels. Five gold rings are symbolic of the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch. Six geese a-laying indicate the six days of creation. Seven swans a-swimming refer to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Eight maids a-milking represent the eight beatitudes. Nine ladies dancing refer to the nine fruit of the Spirit. Ten lords a-leaping indicate the ten commandments. Eleven pipers piping represent the eleven faithful disciples. And twelve drummers drumming are reputed to illustrate the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed. There is no known documentation to verify this interpretation.
What is the origin of the Christmas trees that we use in our Christmas celebrations today? Explanations are many and varied. Some have explained that evergreens were placed over the door during the Roman Saturnalia festival. Others would trace the origin to Druid tree worshipers. One legend indicates that a monk who went to Germany in the seventh century used the triangular shape of the fir tree to represent the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. St. Boniface is identified as the source of this representation in the eighth century. In the eleventh century there is evidence of evergreen trees being decorated with apples and bread to represent the "tree of life" and the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" from Genesis 2 and 3, and called a "Paradise Tree." Evergreen trees were apparently hung upside down from the ceiling during the twelfth century as a symbol of Christianity, the fact that they remained ever green symbolizing eternal life. Early references to evergreen trees being decorated during the Christmas celebration come from Riga in Latvia in 1510 and Strasbourg in France in 1604. Though some have attributed the introduction of Christmas trees to Martin Luther, there is no substantiation of such. General use of Christmas trees seems to go back to the end of the eighteenth century. Only in the middle of the twentieth century were artificial trees introduced. Though some have repudiated the use of Christmas trees based on a passage from Jeremiah 10:3,4 in the King James Version of the Bible, where it reads that "the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest...they deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not..." , this passage seems to deal with idols rather than Christmas trees, and it is obvious that God is not opposed to the use of trees in festivals for He established the Jewish Feast of Booths which utilized trees in religious celebration.
A recent phenomenon is the introduction of Chrismon trees. Chrismon is a combination word meaning "Christ monogram". Chrismon trees use only symbols of Christ as ornaments on the tree. All the ornament symbols, such as star, circle, triangle, cross, fish, butterfly, crown, chi-rho, I.H.S., alpha, omega, etc., are either white or gold, symbolizing the purity and value of Christ. The Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Danville, Virginia initiated this practice.
Other greenery and plants are employed in our Christmas celebrations. Holly, with its pointed leaves said to represent the thorns of Christ's crown, its perennial green said to represent eternal life, and its red berries interpreted to symbolize the blood Jesus shed for mankind. Mistletoe does not seem to have any religious background or symbolism and is attributed to the Celtic Druids who allegedly used it to cast spells, believing that if it was held over a woman's head she would be powerless to resist a man's advances.
The poinsettia, viewed by many as the "Christmas flower," is a relatively recent addition to our Christmas celebration. Joel Robert Poinsett (1799-1851) was a native of South Carolina who was appointed as the first American ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829). While in Mexico he saw a beautiful red flower in the Taxco del Alarcon region of southern Mexico. He brought some plants back to South Carolina and grew them in his greenhouse. It was later discovered that the Aztecs called the plant cuetlaxochitl and had extracted dyes for textiles and cosmetics from its bracts, as well as using the milky white sap, or latex, as a remedy for fevers. Those who wish to apply symbolism to all Christmas objects have explained that the shape of the flower can be seen as symbolic of the star of Bethlehem, the red colored leaves as symbol of the blood of Christ, and the white flowers as representative of purity.
Many of the more liturgical churches have made an annual tradition of "The Hanging of the Greens" as they decorate their places of worship with the various plants and greenery used in contemporary Christmas celebration.
Advent wreaths have long been used by Christians in their celebration of the Advent preparation for Christmas. On a circle of greenery, four candles are placed; usually three purple candles and one pink candle. One candle is lit on each of the four Sundays prior to Christmas. The purple candles are lit on the "Sundays of abstinence" (Sundays 1,2 and 4), and the pink candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday. A white candle is sometimes placed in the center of the wreath to be lit on Christmas Eve, and sometimes on each of the twelve days of Christmas.
The practice of using Advent calendars is also relatively recent, dating to the late nineteenth century. Little "doors" are marked for each day of the Advent season, and each "door" is opened on its respective day to reveal a Scripture verse or a picture relating to Christ. The first known published Advent calendar was made available in Germany in 1903.
A predominant feature of our contemporary Christmas celebration in North America is the use of the tradition of Santa Claus. The concept of Santa Claus is definitely an amalgam of many customs and traditions from around the world.
The primary historical and religious link is to St. Nicholas who was bishop of Myra in Asia Minor during the early fourth century. Born in the Lycian city of Patera in approximately 280 A.D., he was orphaned at an early age. He became a priest and bishop who was known for his anonymous deeds of kindness and giving, even begging for food and money to give to the poor. Tradition alleges that a particular nobleman had lost his fortune and did not have money for a dowry for his daughters. St. Nicholas went to the nobleman's house at night and anonymously threw a bag of gold through the window. In fact, he did so for all three daughters. One bag of gold is said to have landed in the girl's stocking which was left to dry (possibly the origin of Christmas stockings). Nicholas was apparently present at the Council of Nicea and died on December 6 which was proclaimed St. Nicholas feast day after Nicholas was sainted by the Roman Catholic Church and a basilica was built over his tomb in 540 A.D. He was regarded as the patron saint of children and gift-giving. In 1087 A.D. Italian merchants stole his body from its tomb and brought it to Bari in Italy, probably wanting to preserve it in their possession during the break between the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches.
The evolution from St. Nicholas to Santa Claus involves the integration of many traditions. The Scandinavian god Odin was thought to visit earth to reward good and punish evil. Later there were legends of tiny creatures called nisse, similar to elves, and one of them, Julenisse, was portrayed with a red suit and long white beard, believed to come after Christmas Eve dinner and bring gifts. The Swedish gnome, Jultomten, was in the same basic tradition. The Germans had a tradition of a figure called "Winterman" who would come down from the mountains dressed in furs heralding winter. The Dutch had a tradition of a character named Sinterklaas who rode across Holland filling children's shoes with food if they had been good, or a birch rod if they had been naughty. The British had a tradition of Father Christmas, which was similar to the French tradition of Péré Noel.
In the melting pot of Christmas tradition these were brought together by Episcopalian minister, Clement Clarke Moore, in 1822 when he published a fifty-six line poem entitled, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," now better known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." The poem was written as an imaginative story to make his children laugh, but its later publication became a primary impetus for the characteristics now ascribed to Santa Claus.
The graphic image of Santa Claus as a rotund, robust, jovial, red-robed, white-bearded figure with a sack of toys is primarily attributable to American artist and political cartoonist, Thomas Nast. He first drew Santa in 1863, dressed in the Stars and Stripes, and sympathetic with General Grant from the North. He continued to draw various illustrations of Santa Claus for over twenty years. Norman Rockwell drew an image of Santa Claus for the Saturday Evening Post in 1931. But the image of Santa Claus that we are most familiar with today is that drawn by Haddon Sundblom, who seems to have drawn Santa in his own image for use as a major promotion of Coca Cola in 1931.
Though some Christians disparage and object to the use of the mythical character of Santa Claus in Christmas celebration, afraid that children will not be able to differentiate the myth of Santa Claus from the fact of Jesus, they fail to recognize that children need to pretend and imagine. That is why most children's literature is full of fictional fantasy and fairy-tales, fueling imagination and creativity. Soon enough the children will have to learn to adapt to the rationalistic objectivity of the adult world. Besides, Santa Claus is not a violent villain like so many children's heroes today. He is a mythical character who brings gifts for the enjoyment of the recipients, and that is consistent with the Christmas celebration.
The gift-giving tradition of our Christmas celebration has been traced back to God's so loving the world that He gave His only begotten Son (John 3:16). In addition, the Magi brought gifts to Jesus of gold, frankincense and myrrh, fit for a King. The tradition of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of gift-giving, also provides a precedent for Christmas gift-giving.
Several food items have become part of our Christmas customs. Gingerbread first became available in Europe after the eleventh century when the Crusaders returned from the Middle East bringing a new spice, ginger. Many varieties of gingerbread were made in Europe and particularly for the feasting at Christmas, the practice later being brought to North America. Eggnog is a North American concoction inspired by the French drink, Lait de Poule, which was a mixture of egg yolks, milk and sugar, to which Americans added various liquors, usually rum or brandy.
Christmas candy canes have several theories of origin. The choirmaster of the Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany is said to have bent sticks of white candy into the shape of a cane to represent a shepherd's staff in the seventeeth century. Some date the origin of the candy cane to a Christian confectioner in England during the latter part of the eighteenth century. The most popular explanation seems to trace the candy cane to a confectioner in Indiana near the beginning of the twentieth century. The symbolism of the candy cane is explained by many as the flavor of peppermint which is similar to Hyssop, used in the Old Testament for purification and sacrifice. The white rock candy is said to represent the purity of Jesus Christ, the Rock. The shape of a shepherd's staff can also be turned upside down to form the letter "J" for Jesus. The large red stripe is alleged to illustrate the blood of Jesus, and the three small red stripes are reputed to indicate either the stripes of Jesus' suffering or the Trinity.
The first Christmas cards known to have been published in North America were published by Louis Prang of Boston in 1873. They bore images of Santa Claus.
What we see in these explanations of contemporary Christmas customs is a merging of religious, cultural and seasonal traditions from many countries over many centuries. The seasonal holiday of Christmas celebration in Western society today is a cultural phenomenon that must be accepted as such. It should be obvious that many features of the North American celebration of Christmas are not as meaningful in other cultures. As many of our traditions arise from the northern climes of Western civilization, the images of a "white Christmas," "winter wonderland," sleigh-bells, "jingle bells," and snowmen mean very little to those who celebrate Christmas in the southern hemisphere or in equatorial regions, which comprise a large part of the world's population. The pluralism of our society also demands that we recognize that peoples of other religions may adopt and adapt the cultural features of the Christmas season without accepting the Christian message of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
The mixed amalgamation of our Christmas celebration with traditions derived from pagan and secular sources, does not imply that participation in the seasonal celebration necessarily involves conforming to pagan practices of the past or worshipping pagan gods. Though the celebration of Nativitas Domini in the Roman Church served as a convenient replacement of the Roman celebration of sol invicti on December 25, this was not just a transference of emphasis, and the celebration of Christmas does not owe its origin to the Roman Saturnalia celebration as often alleged. The date of December 25 is not defiled because it was previously used for non-Christian celebrations, for defilement is not attached to days, events or places, but pertains to character contrary to God.
Those who repudiate the celebration of Christmas are often religious purists who attempt to establish their own spirituality and piety by rejecting anything that does not have explicit Biblical mention as unscriptural, worldly and non-Christian. In their sanctimonious and pious separationism they fail to recognize the inconsistency in their utilization of other cultural concepts and technological devices.
Claiming that much of the festivity and commercialization of the season is "not the celebration of Christmas, but the desecration of Christmas," some have urged that people should "remember the reason for the season," and have appealed that we should "not take Christ out of Christmas." Not that Christ could be taken out of Christmas for it is inherent in the name of the holiday, which will not likely be changed to "Winter Gift Day."
While some Christians are repudiating the celebration of Christmas altogether, there are other Christians who are demanding the right to celebrate Christmas in the public display of Christmas symbols that explicitly refer to Jesus Christ. Legal battles have been fought over the civil right to display nativity scenes in public places, and to sing carols that refer to the birth and theology of Jesus in school programs. Little do we recognize the extent of the freedom that has been afforded to Christianity in our culture.
May we continue to extend the freedom to every man to worship and celebrate as he chooses. Christians themselves are free to celebrate Christmas or refrain from doing so, for Paul explained that "one man esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind" (Rom. 14:5,6).
Perhaps of greater concern should be the character and attitude displayed by Christians during the Christmas season. Many Christians are fighting their way through crowded department stores, grumbling about the crowds and the prices, fretting about their credit card balances, and are generally "bent out of shape" by the holiday hassles. In so doing they are denying the reality of Christmas by exhibiting character and attitude that is contrary to the character of Christ. If we want people to know "the real meaning of Christmas," then the character of Christ's life must be lived out in our behavior during the Christmas season, as well as every other time of the year.
There is no doubt that some features of our cultural celebration of Christmas have been misused and abused. People drink too much; they eat too much; they spend too much; they give for wrong reasons. But they do that all year long too - and we cannot check-out of life or repudiate our culture. Everything that God has made has been misused and abused - natural resources, sexuality, family relationships, etc. Just because they have been misused and abused does not mean we deny their validity or seek to dispense with them
We may object to the self-indulgent merry-making, revelry and intoxication. We may regret the crass commercialism and greedy materialism. We may be incensed at the orchestrated shortages of particularly popular toys that artificially drive up the prices, extorting and gouging parents whose children desire and request such. But we must not fall prey to Ebenezer Scrooge's attitude of cynicism and criticism, that seeks to throw wet towels of disparagement on the entire celebration of Christmas. "Don't be a Scrooge!"
The gift-giving tradition of the Christmas season can indeed be perverted by social pressures and expectations of reciprocity. But recognizing that "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son" (John 3:16), and that by His grace "He continues to give us all good things" (Rom. 8:32), Christians are to allow the givingness of God's indwelling character to continue to motivate their giving, believing that "it is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35).
Christians can and will seek their own forms and patterns of worship in order to recognize the "worth-ship" of Jesus Christ, whether in December or any other time of the year. Some have sought to remember the birth of Jesus by baking a birthday cake and singing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus. The use of Chrismon trees in some churches emphasizes the theological symbols of the person and work of Jesus Christ. However we choose to remember the meaning of Christmas, we should not reject the seasonal and cultural emphasis.
Christianity does not seek to divorce people from their culture, nor to destroy people's culture. Nor does it seek to escape or insulate itself from culture in the protectionism of a Christian ghetto. Our objective is to introduce Jesus Christ as the meaning to life in the midst of the culture.
We should appreciate the cultural enhancement that is our heritage by way of Christmas celebration. Would we not be the poorer without the enriched treasure of music, art, literature and theatre that creatively express the Christmas reality. For example: Milton's Ode to the Nativity, Dickens' Christmas Carol, Bach's Christmas Oratorio, Handel's Messiah, Raphael's Alba Madonna, Tschaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, etc. Would we want to forfeit Mendelssohn's carol "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" or Grüber's "Silent Night"?
There are so many positive and beautiful features of the cultural celebration of Christmas - the lights, the sounds, the fragrances, the tastes of specially prepared foods. It is a time of family gatherings and reunions, of Christmas parties and banquets, of Christmas bonuses to express gratitude for a job well done, of Christmas specials on television, and Christmas music broadcast throughout the stores and over the air-waves. Is this to be rejected?
Rather, the culture of Christmas provides a platform for explaining the foundational meaning of Christmas in history, theology and experience. In like manner as the people of Israel constructed memorials so that when their children asked, "What do these mean?" they could respond by explaining what God had done (Joshua 4:1-7), so when our children or neighbors see the symbols of the Christmas celebration and ask the same question, "What do these mean?", we can explain what God has done in His Son, Jesus Christ.
It is unfortunate that Christians, in general, have been more concerned with correct belief and ritual than celebrating what God has provided in His Son and providentially arranged in their culture. They have been more admonitory and celebratory. It is time to exercise our Christian freedom and to enjoy and celebrate the Christmas season.