Devotional # 115. 12/15/14. Christmas, Part 3: Origins of Christmas (as we know it).
This week’s Reading: Luke 2 and Isaiah 53.
Introduction: If you were getting this Devotional last year than you may remember this one. I decided to use it again because it really matters. It was important that we start these Christmas studies with prophesies about Jesus but while we’re looking at origins we should consider the Christmas celebration as we know it. So, as promised last week, we’re going to look at some interesting origins of Christmas traditions.
The Christmas Tree.
The Tree: People talk about many traditions over thousands of years involving trees in winter celebrations and even quote Jeremiah 10:1-4 (about trees cut down and pagan decorations of silver and gold) saying this is where we get the Christmas tree. Personally I don’t believe this is where our current tradition started, and many Christians and even secular historians agree with me. According to the History Channel, “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” (Source 1).
Ornaments: In the Middle Ages plays depicting Bible stories were popular. “The plays celebrating the Nativity were linked to the story of creation—in part because Christmas Eve was also considered the feast day of Adam and Eve. Thus, as part of the play for that day, the Garden of Eden was symbolized by a ‘paradise tree’ hung with fruit” (Source 2). See Genesis 2:8-9 for more.
Lights: We now have electric lights which are attributed to Martin Luther who, while “walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon…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” (Source 1).
Santa Claus & Giving Gifts.
Even secular websites acknowledge that gift giving was modeled after the wise men (Magi) who gave baby Jesus gifts (Source 3) but not many talk about the real man, Nicolas. “St. Nicholas was born in 280 AD, in Patara, a city of Lycia, in Asia Minor. He became the gift giver of Myra. His gifts were given late at night, so that the gift giver’s identity would remain a secret” (Source 4). This was taught by Jesus in Matthew 6:3-4, “But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.” Over time Catholics named him a Saint and by the 1500’s the Dutch pronounced “Saint Nicholas” as “Sinter Klass” which evolved into Santa Klass and eventually Santa Claus. In time the “old bishop’s cloak with mitre [like the big hat the Pope wears], jewelled gloves and crozier [a fancy staff] were soon replaced with his red suit and clothing seen in other modern images” (Source 4).
A story about St. Nicholas claims that there was a poor man with three daughters. Nicholas brought some bags of gold and put them in their socks that had been hung by the fire to dry (Source 4).
Christmas Songs (Carols).
Again, imitating the Scriptures (specifically Luke 2:13-14, where the angels sing to herald the Messiah’s birth), there are records of Christians creating music exclusively for Christmas in 129 AD! In 1223 St. Francis of Assisi started presenting Christmas plays with songs for commoners which were spread by traveling minstrels (Source 5). Early on they were called hymns but by the 1300’s the French word “carole” was used meaning “joyful sound” and “dance in a ring” (Source 6). Because they weren’t in Latin and were usually not directly from the Bible the church ignored or outlawed them over the years (Source 5). But by 1350 and until the 1550’s the Christmas carol enjoyed it’s “golden age” following “the verse-refrain pattern.” Over time carols went in and out of popularity but they became big again in the 1800’s and most of the ones we sing nowadays are from that time period (Source 7).
Many people have taken Christmas very seriously. People that I respect throughout history like William Bradford and Oliver Cromwell wanted to keep Christmas sacred. Cromwell is noted as punishing people who participated in things with pagan roots like “Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression” (Source 1). This makes me think that had I been born a couple hundred years ago I probably would have sided with them. Often we don’t know how the age in which we live molds us and influences us.
Conclusion: I know some Christians who are outraged at those who don’t celebrate Christmas. There have been heated discussions on whether it’s OK to have a Christmas tree or not. People will go to war over singing a song or opening a gift. Most of the time people aren’t being purposefully blasphemous, it may be how they grew up or what they’ve been taught. Now armed with origins of the early church concerning Christmas hopefully you can intelligently and lovingly educate others in the rich history of Christmas.
But the truth is that Christmas is one point in the year where people who never go to church actually go to church. Jesus doesn’t care what the seekers motivation is, just that they come (Matthew 7:7, Deuteronomy 4:29). This year why don’t we put aside those petty differences and remember the true meaning of Christmas? Who cares about traditions when we have the opportunity to show people love and talk about the Savior who came to earth to ultimately die for our sins? We can get wrapped up in “we’ve always done it this way” and “it’s not Christmas without _(blank)__” because we want to emotionally enjoy this time. It can be the one time a year you get to see certain family or meet new people at your spouse’s awkward work party or have to do “Secret Santa” with a stranger. But all of these are opportunities to share the Christmas story with a desperate and lonely world. I encourage you to read the story of Christ’s birth with your family (use Luke 2 or Matthew 1) and even some Old Testament prophesies of His birth. I especially like Isaiah 53 because we hear about His birth but also His sacrifice on the cross. Isaiah 7:13-16 is also great. This is important because we lead our family by example (Joshua 24:15) and this instills the true meaning of Christmas! Merry Christmas!!