It's that time of year again when cries arise that there is a war on Christmas and how "they" are trying to take Christ out of Christmas. "They" are usually stores which use "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" to include all of the different holiday celebrations, government buildings that do not allow a nativity scene without symbols of other faith's religious celebrations or non-Christians who don't celebrate Christmas. Many of the sentiments floating around on social networks this year also include "I am a proud U.S. Citizen and if you don't like our customs then feel free to leave the US" and "I will be celebrating CHRISTmas by my CHRISTmas tree." Often boycotts are waged against retailers who use the greeting "Happy Holidays."
I'm always confused by this outrage since the United States of America is not a theocracy and our constitution guarantees there shall be no establishment of religion. "Our customs" that these people talk about are not customs of the United States, but customs that have origins in a number of different places.
The birth of Jesus Christ was not on December 25th. Most biblical scholars agree that it was more likely in the fall months. So where did December 25th come from? For the church's first three centuries, Christmas wasn't in December—or on the calendar at all.
According to Christianity Today, "the eventual choice of December 25, made perhaps as early as 273, reflects a convergence of Origen's concern about pagan gods and the church's identification of God's son with the celestial sun. December 25 already hosted two other related festivals: natalis solis invicti (the Roman "birth of the unconquered sun"), and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian "Sun of Righteousness" whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers. The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell just a few days earlier. Seeing that pagans were already exalting deities with some parallels to the true deity, church leaders decided to commandeer the date and introduce a new festival.
Western Christians first celebrated Christmas on December 25 in 336, after Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity the empire's favored religion. Eastern churches, however, held on to January 6 as the date for Christ's birth and his baptism. Most easterners eventually adopted December 25, celebrating Christ's birth on the earlier date and his baptism on the latter, but the Armenian church celebrates his birth on January 6. Incidentally, the Western church does celebrate Epiphany on January 6, but as the arrival date of the Magi rather than as the date of Christ's baptism.
Another wrinkle was added in the sixteenth century when Pope Gregory devised a new calendar, which was unevenly adopted. The Eastern Orthodox and some Protestants retained the Julian calendar, which meant they celebrated Christmas 13 days later than their Gregorian counterparts. Most—but not all—of the Christian world now agrees on the Gregorian calendar and the December 25 date.
The pagan origins of the Christmas date, as well as pagan origins for many Christmas customs (gift-giving and merrymaking from Roman Saturnalia; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year; Yule logs and various foods from Teutonic feasts), have always fueled arguments against the holiday. "It's just paganism wrapped with a Christian bow," naysayers argue. But while kowtowing to worldliness must always be a concern for Christians, the church has generally viewed efforts to reshape culture—including holidays—positively. As a theologian asserted in 320, "We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it."
According to the History channel- "Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. In Northern Europe the mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder."
And what of that Christmas tree? - "Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.
Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.
It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The pilgrims's second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out "pagan mockery" of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated "that sacred event." In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy.
In 1846, the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived."
The word Christmas itself does not really apply to all Christians. The word "Christmas" is a combination of the words "Christ" and "Mass." The word for Christmas in late Old English is Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ, first found in 1038. In short, Christmas is strictly a Roman Catholic word.
And then there is Santa Claus. According to The History of Santa Claus and Father Christmas- "The American Santa Claus is generally considered to have been the invention of Washington Irving and other early nineteenth-century New Yorkers, who wished to create a benign figure that might help calm down riotous Christmas celebrations and refocus them on the family. This new Santa Claus seems to have been largely inspired by the Dutch tradition of a gift-giving Sinterklaas, but it always was divergent from this tradition and was increasingly so over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So, the American Santa is a largely secular visitor who arrives at Christmas, not the 6 December; who dresses in furs rather than a version of bishop's robes; who is rotund rather than thin; and who has a team of flying reindeer rather than a flying horse. At first his image was somewhat variable, but Thomas Nast's illustrations for Harper's Illustrated Weekly (1863-6) helped establish a figure who looks fairly close to the modern Santa. This figure was taken up by various advertisers, including Coca-Cola, with the result that he is now the 'standard' version of the Christmas visitor and has largely replaced the traditional Father Christmas in England."
"Our customs" come from many origins and have changed over the years. So why all the outrage over a simple, inclusive "Happy Holidays!" greeting that would apply to whatever celebration for each person? Each person still has the right to practice their own religion, display religious symbols in or on their homes, as well as wish others "Merry Christmas" in any personal interactions.
Even more confusing to me is the hatred behind the outrage that someone, somewhere might not celebrate Christmas and should be recognized in the holiday season, excluded from celebrating anything but Christmas, and must conform to the majority. Does that sound like Christ to you?
Instead of getting upset over innocent greetings and department store marketing campaigns because we want to keep Christ in Christmas, maybe we can do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. You know, maybe we can BE Christ this Christmas.