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The Origin of Christmas Customs

*This article was originally published in the December 1964 issue.

The Church of our Lord Jesus Christ rejoices that her Head and Redeemer was born as a babe in Bethlehem almost two thousand years ago.  On December 25?  In the year 1 A.D.?  It seems that neither the month nor the year is correct.  The few historical facts recorded in the gospels gave scholars little to go on.  In the sixth century, a learned monk designated the year 754 after the founding of Rome as the year of Christ’s birth and marked it a 1 A.D. on his new Christian calendar.  Later investigations found that this placed the death of Herod the Great in the year 4 B.C. and the young child Jesus was residing in Egypt with his parents at that time.  But the erroneous dating was too difficult to correct.

While most early Christians believed that it was on the 25th day of the month that Christ was born, the exact month was uncertain.  The early Church did not appear to have much interest in the date of Christ’s birth; the fact of His birth was the important thing and still is.  The attention of the early Church was particularly focused on Christ’s coming again to judge the quick and the dead—a natural reaction to the severe persecutions the Church was undergoing.  In fact, in 245 A.D., Origen, probably in protest of existing pagan festivities, declared it to be sinful to even think of keeping Christ’s birthday.  It was not until controversies arose regarding the divine nature of the Saviour that greater interest in the circumstances of His birth emerged.  A more dominant position was also given at this time to Mary, the mother of Jesus.  In 350 A.D., Julius I, Bishop of Rome, set December25 as the specific date for observing the birthday of Christ.  Many and varied were the celebrations already being observed at this time of the year.  Perhaps the Romish church desired to turn the attention of its newly “converted” members from such pagan festivals as the celebration of the winter solstice or the lavish Roman Saturnalia to a holiday that had sacred significance.

The Church made many attempts to maintain this as a purely spiritual festival concentrated upon the mystery of the Incarnation.  But it was not long before the pagan concomitants had become an integral part of Christmas festivities.  Fires, lighted candles, the use of greenery for decoration, the burning of the Yule log and the exchanging of gifts were some of these secular elements.

Among primitive people sun worship was common.  The Persians also showed reverence for the sun and at the time of the winter solstice would kindle great fires in homage to Mithras, the deity of light.  One of several church fathers who warned against the use of the symbols of sun worship was St. Augustine.  Later, the Romish church invested these symbols with religious significance hoping to direct their use to higher purposes.  Certainly, the church was correct in its interpretation of natural phenomena being symbolic of thing spiritual, such as the material sun being a type of the Sun of Righteousness who was also that true Light that came to lighten the Gentiles.  But when the heathen perceived, through the things that were made, the invisible things of Almighty God, “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator…” (Romans 1:25).   Giving sacred significance to pagan symbols does not sanctify the symbols.

The use of greenery in the home was intended for more than decoration by pagan people.  They revered natural phenomena and evergreens in particular were regarded as an emblem of immortality by northern tribes.  By bringing greenery into their homes, these superstitious people hoped the magic power evidenced in the fact that the greens did not die during the freezing winters would prevent death from striking them also.

The most common of many legends concerning the origin of the fir tree as a symbol of Christmas centers on St. Boniface.  This English missionary is reputed to have rescued a young prince from the hands of the Druids who were accustomed to offering human sacrifices to their god at the sacred oak.  Boniface cut down the oak and in its place a small fir sprang up.  After telling the people the story of Christ’s coming to earth, Boniface asked them to take the fir tree into their homes and to celebrate the birthday of the Christ.  It is claimed that the German people were also the first to use lighted and decorated trees.  A story, not authenticated, is told of Martin Luther’s decorating a fir tree one Christmas Eve with candles to illustrate the beauty of the starry sky.  But years before, the Romans, in their riotous celebration of the Saturnalia—a festival which honored the ancient Roman god of agriculture—trimmed trees with trinkets and toys and sometimes candles.  The Saturnalia was also an occasion for elaborate decoration of homes, temples and statues of gods and goddesses with green boughs, garlands and flowers.  The practice of giving and exchanging presents was almost as common then as it is now at Christmas time.

Manger or crèche scenes have become both popular and competitive today.  It originated with St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 A.D., who is also supposed to have been the first to popularize carols.  Singing of Christmas carols was one of many things discouraged by the Calvinists who preferred instead the metrical psalms.  Puritans in England and America did not allow Christmas caroling at all.  In fact, any special celebration of Christ’s birth or of His death was forbidden by them.  According to a Roman Catholic author, Francis X. Weiser, when Christmas celebration was restored with the return of the monarchy in England, it was a new kind of “Christmas without Christ.  The old traditions of religious observances disappeared, leaving only a worldly shallow feast of amusement and reveling”.  And he could easily have added: “at which Santa Claus is the feted guest”.

To the Church of God this imaginary character represents one of the most repugnant aspects of a worldly observance of a “holy” day.  There was a real St. Nicholas, an early Christian bishop who lived in an ancient town in Asia Minor and who was noted for his generosity to the poor and to the children.  Stories of him were carried by Dutch seamen to Holland and as a result, December 6 was designated as gift day for the children in his honor.  No doubt, the early Dutch settlers of New York took with them this tradition.  But the Santa Claus of today bears no resemblance to this ancient bishop.  The poem of Dr. C. C. Moore probably had much to do with this transformation.  Certainly, the Church does not fear the supplanting of Christ as the central Figure of Christmas by Santa Claus.  And the world never did and never can celebrate Christ’s Day anyway.

The Church of Christ rejoices in the birth of the Savior every day of the year, but it is good to have one special day set aside in which the Church comes together to commemorate this wonderful fact.  How easy it is to be swept along with the rushing world into a shallow observance—to allow oneself to become beguiled by a superficial joy which is intensified by all the outward trivia that seems to be part of the whole “Christmas season”.  And then suddenly everything palls and we are glad that Christmas will soon be over.  For a deep and lasting joy, for a proper celebration of Christmas, it is necessary to separate oneself from all that is not truly God-glorifying in this season.  Take time to read and meditate, alone and within the family, on “The Mystery of Bethlehem”.