Each December many a believer enters the Holiday Wars with more energy than it takes to power Clark Griswold’s Christmas lights. “Keep Christ in Christmas” is the battle cry. But Jesus really isn’t the reason for the season. For Christmas, as we celebrate it today, is a rather modern invention.
For the first few centuries of Christian history there was no Christmas at all. Christians celebrating the birth of an alternative King with Caesar still very much in Roman power, was a recipe for extermination. So, early believers co-opted a pagan festival for their celebratory use, a holiday when the Romans and a host of other barbarian nations celebrated the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun.
This festival was just days after December’s winter solstice, with the masses rejoicing that the sun once again would not die, but would continue to shine. They decorated their homes with evergreens and pines (vegetation somehow immune to winter’s death), exchanged gifts, and feasted together for some twelve days.
When Pope Julius I finally declared December 25th as the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ, well, these other elements remained. And why not? They were older than the Nativity story itself. Maybe old Julius should have kept primitive Christianity’s first Christmas date in the spring of the year – the more likely time of Jesus’ birth. If he had, maybe hedonism and commercialism wouldn’t be so intertwined with Advent.
I’m not the only one to come to this conclusion. In 1643, the British Parliament outlawed Christmas because the Bible never commands us to celebrate the birth of Jesus and because of Christmas’ connection to ancient paganism. The Puritans of Massachusetts did the same, levying a fine against anyone caught celebrating it. In fact, it was not until 1836 that the first state, Alabama, legalized Christmas as a holiday in the United States.
It took nearly seventy years for all the other states to follow, but not everyone was happy about it. Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Congregationalists, and other Christian groups kicked and screamed like some of their descendants do today when the barista wishes them a “Happy Holidays.” They saw Christmas as “worldly,” without scriptural basis, overly commercialized, and too intertwined with heathenism.
Now, before you accuse me of being the Grinch, I believe we Christians should celebrate Advent and the Incarnation of Jesus – with enthusiasm. Say “Merry Christmas” to those you meet. Sing the Carols that are overtly about Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and Magi. Read your children the Christmas story from the gospels on Christmas Eve, instead of “The Night before Christmas.”
But a word to my decal and magnet bearing brethren: Relax. So what if municipalities don’t want Nativity scenes on the courthouse lawn. Does that diminish the church’s worship of Christ in the least? Does it matter to the true believer whether or not the proper Christocentric songs are being played over the loudspeakers at the mall? Who cares if the hedonists want their holiday back? It was theirs to begin with.