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Why Christmas Traditions?

Where did all our traditions come from, anyway? And what do they have to do with the real meaning of Christmas? Find out here.

 

On a cold February morning in 1809, two travelers met on one of the roads of Hardin County, Kentucky. The first spoken greeting between the two was a question, "Any news down t' the village, Ezry?"

Ezry replied, "Well, Squire McLean's gone to Washington t' see Madison swore in, and ol' Spellman tells me this Bonaparte fella has captured most of Spain." Then came Ezry's question of greeting, "What's new out here, neighbor?"

The reply was, "Nuthin' a-tall, nuthin' a-tall, 'cept for a new baby down't Tom Lincoln's. Nuthing ever happens out here."

 

Apocryphal or not, that old, often-repeated story underscores an incredibly important truth—It's all a matter of perspective—it's all a matter of history. It's a matter of history that one of the greatest American presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was born on that cold February morning in 1809... the day it was said, "Nuthing ever happens out here."

If you had been present in Bethlehem at the Inn when Christ was born, you would probably have had a similar response to the question, "Anything significant happen today"?

"Oh no, just a lot of people coming and going, and a baby born in a stable. But nothing significant ever happens in Bethlehem."

Obviously, however, it was the most significant birth ever. It's all a matter of the perspective of history.

 


Today Christ's birth—along with the resurrection—is still history's most significant event, but with all the raucous enthusiasm attached to Christmas today, it has become more and more difficult to focus on the significance of Christ's birth. In which of the events, decorations, and symbols of the season can we find Christian significance, and which should we discard? Let's look at the Christmas event by looking at many of the traditions and see how they might enhance or detract from a genuine celebration of Christ's coming to earth.

When did the Christmas holiday begin?

Christmas as a holiday was not observed until well after the biblical era. The early New Testament church celebrated Jesus' resurrection, but not His birth. In fact, Christmas was given no kind of official recognition by the church until around 354 A.D. In part because so many Christmas customs seem to have their roots in paganism, Christians have often resisted some of its rituals. Early American Puritans, for example, rejected Christmas celebrations altogether, deliberately working on December 25 to show their disdain.

A law passed in England in 1644 reflected a similar Puritan influence; it made Christmas Day an official working day. It was literally illegal to cook plum pudding or mince pie for the holidays in England for a time. (Some think it should be today, too!)

Modern Christians are generally not opposed to celebrating Christmas; observing it is not a question of right or wrong for us. As Paul wrote in Romans 14, 5] One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6] He who observes one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.

Every day, including Christmas, is a celebration for us who know and love Jesus. Most important is how we observe Christmas. Do we observe it for the Lord's sake or for our own sinful self-gratification? Do we even think about why and how we celebrate it? These questions put us at the heart of the matter. Christmas is an opportunity for us to exalt Christ. Because of Rom. 14:5, we can consider Christmas sacred and special. Let's use it to give thanks to God—v. 6.

Where did Christmas trees come from?

The Christmas tree dates back to the 8th century, to a missionary from England named St. Boniface. Boniface went to Germany to teach people the Christian faith. One December he encountered a group of people standing beneath an oak tree, ready to sacrifice a child to please their god. Boniface immediately rescued the child and chopped the oak tree down. At the foot of the oak was a small fir tree, which he also cut down and gave to the people as a symbol of life. He called the tree "the Christ-child."

That's the first mention of a tree in connection with Christmas and December. Interestingly, however, the first person to have lighted a Christmas tree may have been Martin Luther, father of the Reformation. He cut a fir tree and took it home in December 1540. The evergreen reminded him that life continued through the winter, when most of nature appeared to have died.

Luther introduced the practice of putting candles on trees to celebrate Christmas, citing Isaiah 60:13 as biblical authority for the practice: "The glory of Lebanon will come to you, the pine, the fir and the cypress together, to adorn the place of my sanctuary; and I will glorify the place of my feet." Some traditions say that the candles on the tree were intended by Luther to express that Christ was welcome at his house.

In the middle of the 19th century, the Christmas tree was introduced to England by Queen Victoria's husband, German-born Prince Albert. Its popularity increased from then on as part of the celebration of Christmas.

 

How did Santa Claus and gifts originate?

The model for Santa Claus was a fourth-century Christian bishop named Saint Nicholas. Little is known about the real Nicholas, except that he was probably the bishop of Lycia. In the Middle Ages, when it became popular to venerate saints, legends about Nicholas began to flourish. One said he had given three bags of gold to the daughters of a poor man so that the girls would not have to earn their dowries through prostitution. Another claimed he had miraculously restored three little boys to life after they had been cut up for bacon.

Another story about him is that because the bishop was a shy man, he liked to give money anonymously to the needy. One day he climbed the roof of a house and dropped a purse of money down the chimney to the family of needy girls. The purse landed in a stocking which the girls had hung up by the fire (a little far-fetched). Whether or not those stories were true, Nicholas became known as a giver of gifts and the patron saint of children. December 6th is the day set aside to remember him.

Nicholas was particularly popular in Holland, where the customs linking him to Christmas seem to have originated. Dutch children expected the friendly saint to visit them during the night on December 5 or 6, and they developed the custom of placing their wooden shoes by the fireplace to be filled with gifts. Santa Claus is the Americanization of his Dutch name, Sinterklaas. In some countries this tradition of gift-giving has continued on December 5 and 6. In others, it was transferred to December 25, our Christmas Day.

Clement Moore, an American poet, may be more responsible than any other person for popularizing the myth of Santa Claus. He wrote "A Visit from St. Nicholas" in 1822, which begins with the famous line, "'Twas the night before Christmas," and it was published in the Troy New York Sentinel. It was immediately popular and has endured ever since.

Thinking about the Santa myth brings us to the question, what is the purpose of gift giving? I believe Christmas is a good time for giving. After all, we are celebrating the greatest gift ever given—God's Son: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." God's great Gift was first of all a gift of love to an unworthy world. He gave not because He had to, but because He loves us. And our giving should reflect His love. If we can keep that perspective—especially in the minds of our children—this can be one of the most blessed and enjoyable aspects of the holiday. It isn't easy to keep one's perspective so focused, for Christmas has become too crassly materialistic to lend itself easily to teaching any spiritual truth about giving.

Every year at Christmas, the buying frenzy gets worse. Have you ever noticed, for example, how much stuff is sold that no one needs? It doesn't have any practical use. It just sits around people's houses, offices, and cars, collecting dust. Buying "trinkets," however, is the quickest and easiest way to complete an obligatory Christmas list. What meaning is there in that?

Why should we give?

  • We give because we love.
  • We give because He gave to us.
  • We give even if we receive nothing in return. (As a church we try to provide you opportunities during the season to illustrate that kind of giving.)

We need to ask ourselves each year, if our giving reflects the spirit of Him who gave His best for us—just because He loves us.

How about Christmas cards?

Why do we send cards anyway? Where did the idea originate?

The original Christmas card is thought to have been sent by a British army officer named Dobson in 1844. The first commercially produced Christmas cards were sold in England by Sir Henry Cole and J. C. Horsley in 1846, titled "Bringing Cheer." There seems to be some dispute about what was on the card. One source says the card pictured a family celebrating Christmas and giving gifts of clothing and food to the poor. Others say it portrayed a group of people drinking. Whatever it was, it took at least 25 years before Christmas cards were widely used.

Today, Americans alone will spend nearly one billion dollars on Christmas cards, not counting postage. It really isn't a bad idea, because 28 times in the letters of the New Testament we are told to greet one another.

 

What is the origin of Christmas carols?

The carol is largely a Victorian invention. The traditional picture of Christmas, with snowlined streets and carol singers gathered under a lantern, comes from Charles Dickens and not some medieval or Christian custom. Some of our carols go back hundreds of years, but back then a carol was a form of a dance rather than a Christmas hymn. What's the connection? Well, when we celebrate we dance, so alongside more sophisticated Christmas music there grew up a tradition of simple songs suitable for celebrating the birth of Jesus. Carols were neglected for a long time, but in the last century there was renewed interest in the traditions of the past. Traditional carols were rediscovered, new carols written, and music from many sources pressed into service, although not always with the approval of the composer. Mendelssohn, for instance, complained when one of his tunes was used for "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."

The most famous carol, "Silent Night," is one of the simple songs composed in an evening. The story goes that on Christmas Eve 1818, the organ in the village church of St. Nicholas-in-Obendorf was found to be faulty. The culprit was a hungry mouse that had eaten through the bellows. Curate Joseph Mohr in some desperation brought a poem to the organist to see if he could arrange it for a choir led by a guitar. He could, and he did. When the carol was performed with great success, it was quickly taken up by other churches in Germany.

A World War One battlefield in France provided an illustration of the power of and worldwide love for this carol on December 25, 1914. With the Germans and the Allied armies facing each other, someone began singing "Silent Night." A hush fell over the battlefield. Soldiers on both sides lay down their arms, climbed out of their trenches, and met together. Men who had spent weeks trying to kill one another now embraced, sang, and exchanged souvenirs and cigarettes. Even a football match was organized. Then on December 26, they went back to their trenches to resume the battle. (Sing "Silent Night.")

When was the first Christmas?

The early church did not know the exact date of Jesus' birth, and few annual celebrations of the event took place. (They were sporadic, and dates varied from January to May.) No one really knows when Christ was born. It probably wasn't December 25, because Scripture says there were shepherds in the fields watching over their flocks. That would have been highly unlikely in the middle of winter—shepherd and sheep would have frozen to death.

The first evidence for the celebration of Christ's birth on December 25 is found in a Roman document dated A.D. 336. The date was chosen as a Christian takeover of a oman festival called Saturnalia, which celebrated the unconquerable sun. Saturnalia began December 19 each year, which in the northern hemisphere is when the days start getting longer, and continued with seven days of wild parties and celebrations. Many of our Christmas customs have their origins in Saturnalia, which was marked by feasting, parades, special music, gift giving, lighted candles, and green trees. But as Christianity spread through the Roman empire, the pagan holiday was given Christian connotations.

When an early pope sent St. Augustine to convert Anglo-Saxon tribes in Northern Europe, for instance, he urged his missionary to fit Christian celebrations around local traditions. Missionary Augustine found among the Anglo-Saxon tribes mid-winter parties lasting 12 days. (Yuletide is derived from the Anglo-Saxon god and concerned the rebirth of the sun.) But Augustine told them of the true God becoming man. So as in Rome, instead of worshipping the sun, Christians began to use the festival to celebrate the birthday of Christ and worship the unconquerable Son instead.

In 336 Emperor Constantine declared Christ's birthday an official Roman holiday. Some church leaders rebuked Christians for adopting a pagan holiday. But in A.D. 354 a bishop by the name of Liberius decreed that observances of Christmas would always take place on December 25. In the year A.D. 529, Emperor Justinian declared December 25 a civil holiday on which no work was to be done. Sadly over the years, observances of Christmas became more and more chaotic and less and less focused on Christ's birth. Eventually, as noted above, in the mid-17th century the Puritans officially banned celebrations of Christmas and declared Christmas day a time of fasting.

Finally, as a season of preparation for the celebration of Christmas, Advent was started by Christians seeking to combat pagan practices that were demeaning and destroying the true significance of Christmas. For many years Christians had observed an extended period of preparation prior to the celebration of Easter, so they believed annual celebrations of the birth of the Savior deserved no less attraction and preparation. In A.D. 567 the council of Tours established Advent as a season of fasting prior to Christmas. Some observances were three weeks; others involved as many as seven. In A.D. 581, church officials set aside a 40-day period for Advent; later a decision was made to shorten the season. Advent now begins on the Sunday closest to November 30, and includes no more than four Sundays prior to Christmas day.

Historians agree Advent was a major factor in renewing Christmas as a primarily religious celebration. For believers, observing Advent—while not commanded—can help keep the holiday in focus.

What is so significant about the timing of Christ's birth?

Even though man is unsure of the time of Christ's birth, it's sure that God knew the right time. The first Christmas was perfectly timed. Galatians 4:4-5 says, "But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, 5] to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons."

What was "the time?" God's sovereign timing. He ordered world events so that everything was ready for Christ's coming and the apostles' subsequent outreach. Looking back at the early church, we are amazed at how quickly the gospel spread in less than a century. The sovereign hand of God is clearly evident. Christ's advent could not have been more timely.

Take note of the timing:

  • Politically, the Roman Empire was at its height. Rome had given the world good roads, a relatively fair system of government and, most important, peace. For the first time in history, people could travel with relative ease almost anywhere in the empire—and the apostles could carry the gospel message to the uttermost parts of the world.
  • Culturally, the world was becoming more unified. More people than ever were being educated, and most knew Greek or Latin. Even the common people usually spoke Koine Greek, the dialect of the New Testament.
  • Spiritually, the world was diverse, but open. Greek and Roman polytheism were gradually being replaced by rational and secular philosophies, or by emperor worship. Among the Jews, a renewed interest in the Scriptures was leading to revival on the one hand (typified by the ministry of John the Baptist) and a strong pharisaic movement on the other. Christ could not have arrived on the scene at a more opportune time. It was the perfect time, sovereignly determined by God—"the time had fully come."

How do the first and second coming of Christ compare?

Next time it will be different!

The first time Jesus came:

  • He came veiled in the form of a child.
  • A star marked His arrival.
  • Wise men brought Him gifts.
  • There was no room for Him.
  • Only a few attended His arrival.
  • He came as a baby.

 

The next time Jesus comes:

  • He will be recognized by all.
  • Heaven will be lit by His glory.
  • He will bring rewards for His own.
  • Every eye shall see Him.
  • He will come as Sovereign King and Lord of all.

 

With those questions and answers in mind, let's conclude by focusing on the best Christmas music ever written: Handel's Messiah, and the "Hallelujah Chorus."

I read recently that immediately after George F. Handel had written the lines of the "Hallelujah Chorus," someone clumsily ventured into his room. As he came into the room, this magnificent musical work was laying before the composer. With tears streaming down his face, Handel said: "I did think I did see all heaven before me and the great God Himself."

Today Handel's musical vision continues to focus our emotions and attention on a fact in history that the Messiah did arrive. Think of how right it was for the composer to respond with a chorus of "Hallelujah!" What else can be said?Anyone who fully realizes the truth of the incarnation that "God is with us, Jesus has come," will respond with a hallelujah or a similar expression.

Handel also knew well the primacy of the word "forever" in relation to all God's promises. Coupling the words "hallelujah" and "forever," he ended the Messiah with a great Chorus.

 

Conclusion:

  • Some say Jesus was just a good teacher, but good teachers don't claim to be God.
  • Some say He was merely a good example, but good examples don't mingle with prostitutes and sinners.
  • Some say He was a madman, but madmen don't speak the way He spoke.
  • Some say He was a crazed fanatic, but crazed fanatics don't draw children to themselves or attract men of intellect like Paul or Luke to be their followers.
  • Some say He was a religious phony, but phonies don't rise from the dead.
  • Some say He was only a phantom, but phantoms can't give their flesh and blood to be crucified.
  • Some say He was only a myth, but myths don't set the calendar for history.

Jesus has been called the ideal man, an example of love; the highest model of Christianity; the foremost pattern of virtue; the greatest of all men; and the finest teacher who ever lived. All of those descriptions capture elements of His character, but all fall short of the full truth. The apostle Thomas expressed it perfectly when he saw Jesus after the resurrection, and exclaimed, "My Lord and My God!" (John 20:28).

That's who He is! That's why we celebrate Christmas, because Jesus is our Lord and our God!