Rev. Janice Ford, Pastor
The Church of the the Reconciliation, Episcopal
Everyone wants a piece of pie—the Christmas “pie,” that is. Even the folks who claim atheism talk about Christmas so often that it might make us wonder if they really want to be part of the action as well. All this begs the question, “Who gets to claim Christmas?” No discussion of the holiday would be complete without first looking at its origins, so with apologies to The History Channel, here is a compact version of how this day of celebration came to be.
As the long, dark days of winter began with the solstice each year, those who lived in the then civilized world long before the birth of Christ chose to honor gods whom they thought would bless them in the coming months. Soldiers and statesmen honored the sun god, Mithras, during the feast of Natalis Solis Invicti. The Romans also celebrated the feast of Saturnalia, the god of agriculture. All of this took place during the month of December, and the feasts were marked with lots of food, wine, and raucous celebration. The main point of the feasts was to celebrate light and birth even during the cold, short days of winter—an attempt to “push back the darkness.” Indeed, the feasts were unrestrained and not exactly for polite society, but they were not bad either.
Along came Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century A.D. Emperor Constantine was not happy with paganism of any type, and in an effort to try and move people away from the winter solstice celebrations, chose to declare December 25th as the date when Christians in the Western world would celebrate the birth of Jesus. The truth is that despite our best efforts to calculate the date correctly, no one knew then, and no one knows now, the actual date of Christ’s birth—neither the day, nor the year. Nonetheless, from the time of Constantine’s decree until this very day, Christians continue to celebrate the sacred memorial of Christ’s birth every December 25th.
Also in the fourth century, a bishop named Nicholas lived in what is now Turkey. Much of his ministry was dedicated to helping the poor and needy. He would give toys and treats to the children in the area, and he was greatly loved by all who knew him. He died on December 6th, and over time, the Christian church honored him every year on that day. One might say he was a kind of “patron saint” of children. Many, many years after his death, in the mid 1800’s, St. Nicholas, with the help of the Scandinavian people, somehow morphed into Santa Claus. As a result, he is forever linked to secular Christmas.
While Christians celebrated the memorial of Christ’s birth, over time, they also began to celebrate in a secular fashion as well. In the 17th century, however, some more dour Christians did not appreciate the rowdiness associated with secular Christmas. In fact, the Puritans who came to the new colonies and settled right here in Massachusetts, actually banned the celebration of Christmas in 1659. They saw the secular celebration as pagan, and the sacred celebration as a concoction of the Roman Catholic Church. As steadfast Protestants, they wanted nothing to do with it. We all know, however, that the ban did not last, and both sacred and secular Christmas is alive and well in the Commonwealth.
By the mid-1700’s European customs—especially those from Germany—were brought to the newly developing America. Although they appreciated the secular celebration of Christmas, the British wanted a more dignified holiday. With a great deal of influence from folks like Charles Dickens, a new kind of secular Christmas was born—one celebrated in the home, rather than out in public houses and the like. It is from that influence that we take the “Currier and Ives” kind of Christmas many people still long for today.
As we moved into the twentieth century, Christmas became more and more commercial, and the emphasis has moved to what the holiday can bring to businesses. In addition, in an effort to maintain political correctness for non-Christians, the sacred side of Christmas has been minimized in the public sector.
As a priest in the Episcopal Church, I am, of course, desirous of a more sacred focus to Christmas, but not for the reasons one might conclude. I do not believe that the secular side of Christmas has overtaken the sacred. In fact, in my world, secular Christmas has little to do with the sacred. They are two separate entities that need not be mingled in any way. Secular celebrations of Christmas are typically good and wholesome. They are a great way to get people—particularly families—together, and to show appreciation to others through the giving of a gift. The season also provides us with a time to reach out to others in need—though it would be even more wonderful if we did so all year long. In essence, most Americans like secular Christmas, and so do I.
Likewise, for non-Christians, be they another religion, atheists or agnostics, I in no way believe that the sacred side of Christmas should be pushed upon them, any more than we would expect another country to celebrate our 4th of July. There is nothing wrong with those who either choose to ignore Christmas—sacred or secular—or to celebrate the pagan version around the winter solstice. Quite frankly, what others choose to do on that front is none of my business. It is true that Christians are asked by God to spread the Gospel of Christ, and we should do so whenever possible, by word and deed. However, God calls to faith whomever God chooses to call. It is not up to us to judge. Non-believers should not be punished because they do not believe, any more than believers should be punished because they do.
Having said all that, non-Christians need to understand that they are fighting against a nearly 2000 year old sacred tradition. People like me have deep emotional and spiritual connections to the holiday. Like it or not, it is highly unlikely that the sacred celebration of Christmas will ever go away, and it is my prayer that it does not.
The sacred celebration of the memorial of Christ’s birth matters to Christians—not just because we like the romantic story of a baby being born in a stable. Rather it matters to us because of what happened later on. The teaching Jesus did during his brief earthly life provides the template of how we should live, as well as an understanding of how much God loves us. Most importantly, Christ’s birth matters because it led to his death and resurrection which provided salvation for all. Jesus’ birth is inextricably linked to his death and resurrection. We cannot think about one without the others.
The sacred memorial of Jesus’ birth is bigger than any manger scene, or church service, or pilgrimage to the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem. The memorial of Christ’s birth is a celebration of our salvation. For me, and for Christians like me, that’s really all that matters. To those who choose to celebrate it differently I say, “God bless us, everyone.”
- Friday, 16 December 2011
- Posted in Categories: : Religion