"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judæa, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn" (Luke 2:1-7).
People all over the world recognize these verses of scripture as "the Christmas story," and every December 25th Christians celebrate this day as the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. However, at the same time, Christians also bemoan the fact that the real meaning of Christmas is overshadowed and is often totally forgotten in the commercialized hustle and bustle of the season.
Furthermore, many of the things we do at Christmas time seemingly have nothing to do with the worship of the birth of Jesus Christ. We understand the reason for giving gifts because it emulates God's gift to the world of His only begotten Son, and we sing carols to emulate the song the angels sang to the shepherds, but why do we have decorated Christmas trees and holly wreaths? And what about Santa Claus or jolly old St. Nick?
There are many Christian parents who try to instill in their children what Christmas is really all about but they wonder how far do they go in eliminating the other non-religious festivities that the rest of society engages in? There are some faiths who don't celebrate Christmas at all, claiming that such an event is unbiblical and is based on pagan customs. Yet, the children of such parents see all of their friends celebrating but are torn emotionally when they are not allowed to join in the fun that all their peers are having.
For this very reason, the vast majority of Christians tend to allow their children to participate in the frivolity of Christmas so they can enjoy the festivities of this special holiday season like everyone else, while trying to help them understand what Christmas is really all about. To these parents, they see nothing wrong with partaking in both the religious and non-religious aspects of Christmas.
However, there are Christians who feel that to mingle the sacredness of Christ's birth with the secular ways of the world only dilutes and pollutes the true message of Christmas. To them, it is incompatible to tell children that Santa Clause is real and that he's the one who brings presents on Christmas eve while, at the same, teaching them how Christmas day is about celebrating the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Of course, everyone must decide for themselves what course of action to take in this regard but perhaps history can help serve as a guide in making that decision. Therefore, it may be instructive to look at the history of how Christmas came to be.
In the first two centuries after the death of Jesus, the earliest Christians didn't commemorate Christ's birth. To them, it was immaterial when Jesus was born. What was important to them was His atoning death and resurrection. As the apostle Paul put it, "if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain" (I Corinthians 15:13-14). The death and resurrection of Christ was central to the idea of salvation, while the birth of Jesus wasn't. Therefore, during the first two centuries of its existence, the Christian church completely ignored this event.
On the other hand, almost weekly, the followers of Christ met together and solemnly ate bread and drank wine to commemorate the body and blood of Jesus which He offered for our sins. And, at least in the beginning, Christians kept the feast of the Passover, again commemorating the atoning sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. But the idea of celebrating the birth of Jesus was something that was never contemplated, let alone practiced by the church.
However, as the gospel was preached throughout the known world (which was comprised almost entirely of Romans and Greeks), converts to Christianity came primarily from former pagan worshippers. Instead of worshipping a multitude of gods, these converts now worshipped only one God - Jesus Christ. Yet, even so, Christians made up a very small segment of society and the rest of society still engaged in a wide variety of pagan holidays, one of which was the celebration of the winter solstice which was called by the Romans, Saturnalia. And, just like today, the converted pagan Christians of that time saw nothing wrong in joining in with these festivities while still maintaining their belief in Jesus Christ.
The problem this presented for the church leaders was that Saturnalia consisted of wild, raucous, unbridled behavior where almost anything was allowed. Overindulging in food and intoxicating drink was expected and some of the lewdest behavior was openly engaged in with no condemnation. Saturnalia was like a circus carnival where every imagined form of "fun" was done to excess and this revelry went on for two weeks. It could be compared to the America celebration of Mardi Gras on steroids.
Furthermore, Mithra was regarded as the unconquerable sun god, and his birthday was celebrated on December 25th of each year, to coincide with the winter equinox when the days started to get longer again. Thus, as the days got shorter, it was said that Mithra was dying but when the days began to lengthen it was said that he was starting to come back to life again. Hence, he was unconquerable because he could not die.
The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches people to be temperate and moderate in all they do, and the celebration of Saturnalia was anything but temperate. Therefore, the church leaders tried to persuade their followers not to participate in this orgy of hedonism. In 249 A.D the church even declared that celebrating the birth of Mithra was a sin, but their efforts to stop people from participating in these festivities were futile. No matter what they preached, the rank and file members of Christ's church couldn't resist doing what the rest of their society was doing. It was their custom and the Christians wanted to participate in the fun, even if they didn't go to the excesses that the non-Christians did.
Finally, the church leaders came to the realization that they couldn't convince their members to refrain from taking part in celebrating Saturnalia or the birthday of the sun god, Mithra, so they decided to take a different approach. Rather than trying to prevent their people from participating in society's customs, they would Christianize it by giving these festivities a religious significance.
Instead of celebrating the unconquerable sun god, Mithra, they told their members to think of this event as celebrating the birth of the eternal Son of God. Just as the birth of Mithra brought more light, thereby chasing away the darkness, so also, Jesus is the light of the world who came to do away with spiritual darkness. Since the birth of a child is always a time of joy and happiness, often attended to with celebration, therefore the festivities of Saturnalia for Christians was to be symbolic of celebrating the birth of our Savior.
From very ancient times, it was the custom of many people of different cultures to bring an evergreen tree into their home because it symbolized that life would go on. Therefore, the church leaders used this tree as a symbol of the everlasting life that Christ offers us. More than this, the evergreen tree is triangular in shape, which the church said represented the trinity. To further enhance the symbolism, apples were hung on the tree, thereby making it symbolize the tree in the garden of Eden that contained the forbidden fruit. This would serve as a reminder that we should not partake of anything that God considers to be sinful.
It was also an ancient custom for people to take holly leaves and fashion them into a wreath. The holly leaf has sharp points on it, so the church leaders said that the holly wreath represented the crown of thorns that was put on Christ's head. It was also the custom for people to light many candles in their homes, which symbolized the anticipation of the days giving us more and more light with each passing day. The Church took this tradition and taught that the lighted candles represented the light of Christ and was a reminder that we should not hide our light but rather let it so shine that others can see our good works and glorify God.
In this way, the members of Christ's church were still able to enjoy the festivities of their society but now it would remind them of Christ rather than of their former pagan gods. Furthermore, it also allowed them to be more temperate in the way they carried out their celebrations without appearing to be shunning them altogether. But these changes didn't take place all at once bur rather they evolved slowly, over decades. It wasn't until 350 A.D. that Pope Julius made it official that Christians would celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th.
As church membership grew so did the influence of the church, and with the coming of Emperor Constantine, the church also grew more powerful politically to the point where Christianity became the official state religion. Under Emperor Theodosius, he decreed that all other religions were banned and the only religion that was allowed to be practiced was that taught by the Catholic Church.
However, the practice of celebrating the birth of Jesus still continued but now it was an exclusively Christian tradition. With Catholic bishops firmly in control of what people could and could not do, because their edicts now had the force of law, this celebration became a much more religious event and was practiced with much more piety.
In the Catholic church they have a worship service known as the mass, which is when the Holy Eucharist or the bread and wine representing Christ's body and blood, is given by the priest to the congregation. In time, because of the significance that the birth of Christ now had in the church, the priests held a special mass on December 25th which they called Christ's mass. This is where the name Christmas comes from.
However, during the dark ages, when poverty was rampant and there was very little to be joyous about, the average person took the occasion of Christ's birth to celebrate with a little more exuberance than was permitted by the church authorities. So it was not uncommon for people to attend Christ's mass in the morning and then go back home to party and get drunk. Since food was scarce, there wasn't much to feast on so they found other ways to let their hair down.
The story is told that one Christmas eve, Martin Luther was returning to his home late at night and the sky was particularly dark, so much so that he had trouble seeing the path he was on. When he got inside his home, he lit a candle to provide light in the dark room and when he saw the evergreen tree standing in the corner of his house, and thinking about how Christ lights the way as we travel through life's dark paths, he put the lighted candle on the top of the tree. The tree symbolized Christ, the giver of eternal life, but now it also took on an extra symbolic meaning of Christ being the light of the world. This then became the tradition for putting lights on the Christmas tree.
But the Protestant reformation started by Martin Luther had another effect on the celebration of Christmas. Because of his stand against the practices of the Catholic Church, it spawned many other faiths who felt free to proclaim their own brand of Christianity. This was especially true in England.
In 1532 King Henry VII started his own religious denomination known as the Church of England. Shortly thereafter, there was a movement to convince the royal crown to make drastic changes to the doctrines, saying that the Church should follow the pure teachings of Christ rather than the ostentatious traditions of the Catholic Church. Those who advocated such a change were mockingly called "puritans" and among one of their demands was to outlaw the celebration of Christ's birth.
Instead, the Church of England outlawed the Puritan movement and tried to eliminate it all together, but it survived, howbeit by going underground where its members met in secret. In 1620 a small group of Puritans, known as Pilgrims, sailed to America and there set up a colony in what is today called the state of Massachusetts. Their laws were based on what they believed the Bible taught and they did not believe it taught that people should celebrate the birth of Christ. In time, the Puritan settlers established the town of Boston and a law was passed there that imposed a fine on anyone caught celebrating Christmas.
At the same time, the English established a colony in Jamestown, Virginia where the Christmas tradition was practiced, and by the early 1700s even the inhabitants of New England, who came from Puritan stock, were relenting in their objection to Christmas. But then came a religious revival that swept through all thirteen British colonies in America, primarily brought about by the teachings of George Whitfield. About this same time the relationship between England and its America colonies began to deteriorate, and with this deterioration came a loathing by the colonists for anything British and this included the celebrating of Christmas.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, Americans were no longer honoring the birth of Jesus. In fact, on the evening of December 24, 1776, while the Hessian soldiers stationed in Trenton New Jersey where keeping the tradition of celebrating Christmas by wild partying and getting drunk, General George Washington's army, who did not celebrate Christmas, crossed the frozen Delaware river and were able to successfully defeat the Hessian soldiers, primarily because of their carousing the night before.
Even after the Revolutionary War, Americans continued to shun the practice of Christmas. In fact, the very first year that the newly created American Congress under the Constitution of the United States met, they were in session, conducting business on December 25, 1789 and they annually were in session each December 25th for nearly seven decades.
Meanwhile, in Britain, Alexandria Victoria became the Queen of England in 1837 at the age of eighteen, and she set about instituting a set of reforms that dramatically changed the culture of her country's society. Under the reign of Queen Victoria, any behavior of an intemperate nature, especially if it had any kind of sexual overtones, was frowned upon. As such, this period in British history became known for its high moral values and was aptly called the Victorian era after its queen. Because Christmas had become associated with wild partying and indecent and immoral behavior, this holiday was no longer celebrated in England under the reign of Queen Victoria.
It was during this era when a celebrated author by the name of Charles Dickens penned a story about Christmas which he entitled, "A Christmas Carol." In his story, instead of presenting Christmas as a time of wild partying, he portrayed it as a time of people spending time together remembering the birth of Christ. Even when Scrooge is taken back to view his past, the office party scene is quite subdued compared to the way Christmas was normally celebrated in England. And the reason for this is because the religious and moral themes of this story reflected the attitude of the Victorian era in which it was written.
This story by Charles Dickens became hugely popular, both in England and in America, and, as a result, it had a profound influence on how people viewed Christmas. Instead of thinking of it as a time for raucous revelry, people began to view Christmas as a time when people did good deeds for others, such as donating money for the poor. And the gifts that Scrooge brought to the family of Bob Cratchet at the end of the story put the idea of gift giving into the Christmas tradition.
In America, the culture of its society also reflected a Victorian attitude, In 1822 an Episcopal minister by the name of Clement Clark Moore wrote a whimsical poem for his children which he titled, "A Visit from St. Nicholas." The poem began by saying, "T'was the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse." Reverend Moore's children loved the poem so much that they shared it with their friends. When a friend of Reverend Moore saw the poem he showed it to a newspaper in Troy, New York, who published it without revealing the name of the author. The poem became so popular that soon it was being printed in other newspaper all around the country.
Although the story of St. Nicholas riding through the sky on a sled pulled by eight reindeer and delivering gifts to each home by coming down through a chimney was fictional, it was meant to entertain and delight children by appealing to their sense of fantasy. However, the story of a saint named Nicholas who delivered gifts anonymously is real.
Nicholas was born as the only son of wealthy Greek but Christian parents somewhere near the end of the second century. From a very early age, Nicholas was very religious, but before he turned twelve, both of his parents died in an epidemic and he was then raised by his uncle who was the bishop of Patara. As Nicholas grew to manhood, he was soon ordained a priest and distinguished himself in his zeal for the gospel. Because of his devotion to Christ's church, in 317 A.D. he was ordained to become the bishop of Myra. He was also one of the bishops who attended the Council of Nicea in 325 where he spoke out against the doctrine of Arias and affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity.
As a bishop, he wore a red robe, but instead of spending his time in church, he went about the town ministering to the poor. Using the wealth that he had inherited from his parents, Nicholas would often secretly deliver needed items to those who were suffering. One such story is told of a father with three daughters who fell on hard times. Without any money to give as a dowry for his daughters, they couldn't get married and would likely end up being sold as slaves.
It is said that Bishop Nicholas went by this father's house one day and threw a bag of gold through an opened window and then hurried away. During the next two days he did the same thing, thereby giving each of the daughters a bag of gold that would give them each a handsome dowry. It is also said that one of the bags of gold slid across the floor and ended up inside of a stocking, which later became the tradition of hanging stockings to be filled.
Because Bishop Nicholas didn't want to be seen giving these gifts, he would always hurry away after dropping off the items. If anyone did happen to hear a noise as the gift was being delivered, by the time they ran to the door to see who it was, all they would get was a glimpse of someone wearing a red robe as they vanished around a corner. Hence comes the tradition of St. Nick wearing a red suit.
Years later, as the deeds and miracles of Bishop Nicholas were learned, the Church eventually canonized him as a saint and to this day he is known as the patron saint of the poor. Because he was so popular with the people, after being awarded sainthood, people began to honor him with a feast on December 19th. In celebration of this feast, gold colored balls were hung on the Christmas tree to remind people of the gold that St. Nicholas gave away.
But this celebration was not held just in Greece but all throughout Europe. In Holland they pronounce the name Saint Nicholas as Sinter klaus. When the Dutch came to American, this name was anglicized and became pronounced Santa Claus.
The fanciful poem that Reverend Moore wrote for his children was inspired by the real life person of Saint Nicholas who gave gifts anonymously, and because of the poem's great popularity it had a profound effect on the way people in America began to think about Christmas. Gradually, over the years, the celebration of Christmas returned in America and in England but it was no longer about adults overindulging in excessive riotous behavior. Instead, it became about giving gifts, doing good to others, making children happy, and remembering the birth of Jesus Christ.
However, as time goes on the pendulum seems to be swinging back to where people are becoming more secular in their celebration of Christmas and less religious. Yet, from what we learn in history, this is nothing new. The early Christian church learned the futility of trying to prevent its members from participating in society's celebration, but what they did discover was a way to make that celebration more relevant to our spiritual life.
The giving of gifts, the singing of songs, putting up a Christmas tree with decorations and lights, the coming of Santa Clause, and even feasting on good food with family and friends can all provide symbolic reminders of Christ. If we tend to emphasize those aspects of the Christmas traditions we can turn a secular celebration into a religious experience.
Many years ago, a candy maker wanted to make a special kind of candy for the Christmas season that would serve as a witness to his Christian faith. He wanted to incorporate several symbols for the birth, ministry and death of Jesus. He began with a stick of pure white hard candy. The white symbolized the virgin birth and the sinless life of Jesus. He made the candy hard to symbolize that Jesus is the solid rock and the foundation of the church. The firmness also represents the unfailing promises of God.
The candy maker made the candy in the form of a "J" to represent the name of Jesus, who came to earth as our Savior. He thought it could also represent the staff of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The candy maker then added red stripes. He used three small stripes to show the stripes of the scourging Jesus received, by which we are healed. Then he added a large red stripe to represent the blood shed by Christ on the cross so that we could be forgiven and have the promise of eternal life.
The candy maker also added the flavor of mint to his special candy, whose flavor is similar to hyssop. In Old Testament times, hyssop was associated with purification and sacrifice. It was also used at the cross as they gave Jesus a drink of vinegar before He gave up the Ghost.