Christmas - a reflection on cultural issues confronting Western Christians
I am sure many adults can look back to their childhood days and recall how exciting Christmas was for them. I know that I always approached Christmas with great anticipation, looking forward to any presents I may receive from “Santa” and family. Interestingly enough, the memory I most treasure was the annual Christmas Day cricket match amongst uncles and other family members, which usually followed the family lunch or evening meal. As I reflect, I can almost feel the same bloated condition that seems to accompany Christmas Day meals and usually resulted in a hasty retreat from the fray of battle on the backyard cricket pitch for a number of the adults.
Many people go to great lengths to celebrate Christ’s birthday. Houses, even whole streets, are decorated with the characters of Christmas and bright flashing lights. It must take months for some folk to create the ‘fantasy land’ effect they achieve in dressing up their houses in this way. The results of their effort is not only visually spectacular, but it also produces a substantial increase in tourist traffic to their area.
As you read this, there are probably a flood of memories coming back to you. For example, you may remember staying up late to listen to the carols sung by Kings College Cambridge Choir on Christmas Eve. Hopefully, the majority of memories will be good ones, but some may not be. In fact, in our society there are a growing number of people for whom Christmas does not produce fond memories. Furthermore, for the Christian there is the added tension of discovering ‘what is the best response?’ to the manner in which Christmas is portrayed in the shopping malls and carol singing events around Australia in the month of December. There is a lot of confusion and marketing induced fantasy surrounding the Christmas tradition.
How did Christmas evolve?
Although speculation about the exact date of the birth of Christ occurred in the 3rd century, widespread celebration of the event did not emerge until the 4th. The earliest mention of the observance being on the 25th December is in the Philocalian calendar which represented Roman practice for the year 336 AD. Because there was considerable uncertainty about the exact date of Christ’s birth, it is not surprising that the Eastern Church chose a different date to the Western. The former settled for 6 January, which is the day when the Feast of Epiphany is celebrated – it is also the day commemorating Jesus’ baptism. By the start of the 5th century East and West had co-ordinated their practice, holding 25 December as the anniversary of Christ’s birth as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. It was also agreed to celebrate 6 January as the anniversary of the visit of the wise men. However, it is interesting to note that some Eastern Orthodox churches still celebrate Christmas on the 6 January.
The reason why these particular dates were chosen probably stemmed from a desire amongst Christian leaders to have a celebration opposing the various pagan summer feasts that occurred around this time of the year – in particular, the Roman feast known as Saturnalia. The Feast of Saturn celebrated the birth of the Sun. Christians honoured Christ as the light of the world instead of the Sun. As these activities were marked by joy and merrymaking, they were easily incorporated into the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth.
For many years Christmas was observed only as a religious festival, but gradually more practices and customs unrelated to the church were incorporated into it. In fact, in England the Middle Ages saw Christmas become the merriest day of the year. Celebrations became so rowdy that the Puritans in England did away with the observance by law in 1643!
Over the centuries, especially in the last 100 years, certain traditions and symbols have become inextricably associated with Christmas. Some have very interesting origins which have often been imported from one country to another. For example, the celebration of Christmas grew dramatically in England during the 19th century through adaptation of German customs and the influence of Charles Dickens’ writings. One such custom was the use of ‘Christmas Trees’.
The custom of exchanging gifts began with the action of the wise men. It was further enhanced by the actions of St. Nicholas who served as the Bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor, in the AD 300’s. He was famous for his generosity and people in the area came to believe that any surprise gift came from him. In time the people of the Netherlands chose St. Nicholas as the patron saint of children and his fame gradually spread. Santa Claus, on the other hand, is a distinctly American symbol. Dutch settlers in New York called St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, which soon became Santa Claus. Many of the habits now associated with him come from symbolic characters of other countries. For example, the belief that Santa enters the house through the chimney developed from an old Norse legend. The Norse believed that the goddess ‘Hertha’ appeared in the fireplace and brought good luck to the home.
The Christmas Tree has a number of stories relating to its origin. One legend tells how the first Christmas Tree was shown in a miracle to an English missionary (Boniface) who travelled through Germany about 1,200 years ago. One day he found a group of heathens at an oak tree near Giesmar. They were preparing to sacrifice little Prince Asulf to the god Thor. Boniface stopped the sacrifice and cut down the ‘blood oak’. As the oak fell a young fir tree miraculously appeared. Boniface told the people that the fir was the tree of life, representing Christ.
The Romans had the custom of exchanging tree branches for good luck on the calends (1st) of January. The English took this custom over for Christmas. An old English rhyme said: “Holly and ivy, box and bay, put it in the church on Christmas Day!” The Germans were probably the first to decorate their Christmas trees. The star is used everywhere as a Christmas symbol and comes from the reference in Matthew 2:1-2 of the Star in the East. Lights are also closely and easily associated with Christmas as Jesus is portrayed in the Scriptures as the “light of the world.” In fact, Martin Luther was probably the first person to use lights on a Christmas Tree. According to popular tradition, Luther put two lights on his tree to represent the glory and beauty of the stars above Bethlehem on the night of Christ’s birth.
Exchanging cards is a relatively recent addition to the round of Christmas acts. The earliest specifically designed card is thought to have been printed by a London company and placed on sale in 1843. By 1862, cards were being produced on a wide scale. Today, of course, millions of cards are exchanged and the post office employs additional staff over the Christmas period to cope with the extra volume of correspondence generated by the giving and receiving of cards.
The word Christmas comes from the early English phrase Christe Masse, which means Christ’s Mass – a service of worship. Many people use the abbreviated form of Xmas. This form of the name originated in the early church. In Greek, X is the first letter of Christ’s name and was frequently used as a holy symbol.
With the above as background, let us turn our attention to evaluating the characteristics of Christmas in the present time.
What dangers, if any, lurk in current Christmas celebrations?
Perhaps the most obvious trap for the unwary is the emphasis upon materialism. Young people in particular are targeted by advertising which infers that without the latest items they are socially unacceptable. The way to feel better is to spend, spend, spend! The message is “If you possess the latest Barbie and Ken dolls then life will be better!” It feeds our need to have, which scripture calls greed. Somehow people fall into worshipping the created, rather than the creator.
This marketing emphasis fails to consider those people who are unable to afford some or all of the products being pushed at them by via the internet, TV, radio, newspapers and letterbox pamphlets. The pressure upon parents to provide expensive gifts for Christmas is enormous and increased by advertising techniques. It is difficult to say ‘no’ to a child with pleading eyes as they turn from the TV advertisement to you and back again. The problem of credit card debt is also compounded around this time of the year. Perhaps the Puritans had hold of a good thing when they banned Christmas.
A Christian family can find it difficult to navigate the tidal wave of consumerism which pounds upon Australian shores every December. In this environment it is difficult assisting children to develop an appreciation of what Christmas is really all about.
It is also a time when the loneliness of marriage failure can be reinforced. The pain of family breakdown affects not only the children and their security, but the parents as well. We do well to also remember those who have remained single in adult life. They too can find the passing of Christmas Day a lonely time. Think also for a moment of those for whom this is the first Christmas since losing a loved one.
On many occasions I have sat observing, even participating in, community singing of Christmas Carols. As this has occurred, I have the distinct impression that the false notion of “she’ll be right mate!” regarding life and death issues that permeates Australian folklore is being re-inforced by the cosy façade surrounding carol singing events. The numbing of the average Australian towards God is, in my opinion, given a fresh injection of anaesthetic at these gatherings. The reality of being lost to God is submerged by a blanket of warm fuzzies amidst the glow of lit candles.
However, it is not all negative, so let us reflect on what benefits emerge from current Christmas celebrations?It is a great opportunity for reflection. There is a break in the usual routine of life which can help us slow down and catch our breath.
The chance to gather with family and friends is another spin-off. Children can develop good memories of Christmas dinner with all the “rellies’ as evidenced by the opening paragraph. Such thoughts can stand them in good stead for years to come.
Christmas also provides the chance for Christians to share their faith on a one to one basis as well as a corporate one. Many people are drawn to Christmas Day and Carol services and with prayerful support the Light of the World may dawn in their lives as they share in a worshipping community. The odd conversation with the neighbours or workmates about what we will be doing over Christmas also opens the door to sharing what it means to us. So too the sending of Christmas cards to friends, especially non-Christian ones.
There are probably many other positives and negatives that you can add to those I have mentioned above. Perhaps you disagree with some of the ones I have referred to. My only hope is that the compilation and distribution of this latest article will enhance the way you approach and experience this Christmas period. If you are a parent, then I encourage you to set limits on the amount you spend on your children and to not overspend. I believe that they can learn to appreciate Christmas in a deeper and healthier sense if we don’t automatically succumb to the spirit of consumption that dominates our age. Sometimes “less is best”.
1. Lion Handbook – “History of Christianity”.
2. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.
3. The World Book Encyclopaedia.
This paper has been composed by Peter Thompson and may be reproduced by anyone who finds it useful to do so.