Christmas is undoubtedly my favorite time of the year, and serving as a college minister, I often have the opportunity to introduce international students to how this wonderful holiday is celebrated in America. While many of them have some degree of familiarity with Christmas traditions and customs, nonetheless they are frequently struck by the unique mix of the sacred and the secular that the American Christmas represents. Outside a typical home in December, they may see a Nativity scene sharing space with Santa Claus and reindeer. At a Christmas party, the soundtrack will likely alternate between sacred classics like “Silent Night” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”, and seasonal favorites like “White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells.” Now over the years I’ve become somewhat of a student of the history of Christmas. I’ve accumulated a large number of books about how Christmas is celebrated in many different countries, as well as a diverse array of the literature of the season, and texts that talk about historical Christmas observations and traditions down through the centuries. I always enjoy asking my international students about how Christmas is observed in their home countries. Of course any discussion of Christmas lends itself very well to a discussion of the true significance of the season—the Birth of Christ!! As many of us are aware, people seem to be more open to hearing the Gospel message at Christmas than at almost any other time of the year.
The tension between the sacred and secular aspects of Christmas which I’ve already highlighted is sometimes thought of as a modern phenomenon, the result of the over-commercialization of the holiday. The now annual crush of shoppers on Black Friday seems to be the epitome of the disjointed, contemporary view of Christmas in America. But interestingly enough, this tension between the two sides of Christmas goes back much further than current-day America, all the way to the origins of the holiday. Taking a step back, it’s somewhat curious that Christmas is even the biggest of the Christian holidays. From a theological standpoint at least, the resurrection of Christ is the most significant event we could commemorate, and certainly the single occurrence which, more than any other, was responsible for launching forth the early church. And indeed for early believers it was in fact Easter, rather than Christmas which was the more important observance. And in predominantly Eastern Orthodox nations such as Greece and Russia, Easter arguably retains a greater importance and cultural significance than Christmas to this day. But Christmas came to assume its prominence throughout the Western half of Christendom at least, in part perhaps due to the fact that its celebration, and indeed the very date of December 25th involved the appropriation of preexisting pagan customs and holidays.
Throughout much of northern Europe, the ancient Germanic peoples celebrated a winter holiday known as Yule, a 12-day period of feasting and revelry. Meanwhile further south, the Romans also celebrated a significant holiday in December—the Saturnalia, a time of feasting and gift-giving in honor of the god Saturn. In addition, December 25 was the feast day of the Sol Invictus, the “Unconquered sun” an official sun-god cult promoted by the Emperors, as well as the birthday of Mithras, the chief deity honored by a mystery cult, Mithraism, especially popular with Roman soldiers. While there is continuing debate over precisely why December 25th was chosen to be the day on which Christ’s Nativity would be celebrated, a few general points seem clear enough. Jesus was most likely not born in the winter, if shepherds were out at that time watching their flocks, nor is it likely that a major Roman census would have taken place during the winter months. Also it seems likely the church at least took into account the prevalence of preexisting pagan winter celebrations such as Yule and Saturnalia when making their decision to set the date for Christmas. Regardless of precisely why the December 25th date was selected, from ancient times until our own, Christmas celebrations throughout Christendom have involved a mixture of sacred observances related to honoring Jesus’ birth, and folk customs with roots outside of Christianity.
This can naturally create a tension, in the midst of which we may fear that Jesus and His story are lost aside all of the other cultural accumulation associated with Christmas. It is certainly good that we remain vigilant about ensuring that Christ is at the center of our Christmas celebrations!! But the mere fact that Christmas has involved the appropriation of some non-Christian customs over the years is not inherently bad. In fact, there is Biblical precedent for it. No less a central Scriptural figure than Paul shows us the value of cultural appropriation and adoption. The fact that Paul is a Jew by birth, a Roman citizen, and also someone who is well-versed in Hellenistic culture serves him extremely well as an apostle of Jesus. Paul’s speech at the Areopagus in Acts 17 shows the extent to which he is able to understand, and relate to aspects of the Athenian culture while also remaining true to the Gospel. In 1 Corinthians 9:20-22, Paul writes–“and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
Certainly living and doing ministry in Boulder, Colorado for a year and a half now has taught me something about the value of learning how to relate to and at times borrow from a different culture in order to find the best platform for advancing the Gospel. To put it in a nutshell, out in Boulder there are things that are valued culturally which I’ve learned how to appreciate and highlight those in the context of the ministry we have to college students. For example, Boulder is full of yoga studios and that sort of exercise is as common as jogging or playing tennis and golf might be back home. Adapting this reality to our Kingdom-advancing interests, our ministry found a Christian yoga teacher who offered to do some free introductory classes at one point for our students this fall. Another example of something which carries a high cultural value in Boulder are environmental concerns, which in Colorado aren’t just a fringe issue but rather a central area of political interest. Thus while I don’t think that it is by any means the central message of the Gospel, highlighting those areas of Scripture which address God’s concern for the stewardship of the natural world is something that is well received by an audience of CU students. From another angle, we have to be wise as a ministry in choosing how we stand against certain issues. The vast majority of CU students are in favor of gay marriage, and are happy with the state’s liberal drug laws, including many who would call themselves Christians. So while as a ministry we certainly don’t encourage the use of marijuana, and while we proudly stand in defense of traditional marriage, we have to be cautious in making these positions the “front door” of our ministry. We want students to know first and foremost who we stand for, in Jesus, rather than what we stand against. Our goal is always to change people more into the likeness of Christ. But we have to encounter and engage people where they are first. And that I believe was part of what the early church was striving to do as they found ways to minister to thriving pagan cultures. They knew that the Gospel would transform people, and yet certain cultural distinctives practiced by a particular people group might persist. As long as these did not represent a direct contradiction of Christian truth, they could add to the richness and diversity of what became a truly international faith, yet one whose common ground in Christ remained palpable and unchanging. Christmas today as it is celebrated the world over is a beautiful mosaic—different foods, songs, customs, and practices—and yet everywhere there is unity in the joyful recognition of the Savior’s birth.
For those who are still concerned about these sacred/secular and pagan/Christian tensions which are part of the very fabric of the Christmas season, I would suggest that many of our most enduring Christmas symbols and cultural attachments are in fact very malleable from a Christian standpoint. In other words, even the “secular” aspects of the holiday are infused with an underlying Christian ethos that be readily made apparent if we look to highlight it!! For example, I have seen criticisms of one of the most popular of all Christmas movies, Frank Capra’s 1946 It’s a wonderful life, or the timeless Charles Dickens novella A Christmas Carol, since neither work makes much explicit reference to Christ or the specific details of the Christmas story in Scripture. And yet while it is true that in neither the film nor the book there is much explicit usage of Christian language or terminology, even the most cursory study of either work of art would reveal that both are suffused with Christian themes of redemption, sacrifice, and forgiveness. Furthermore I would allege that the enduring popularity of It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol is in large part due to the fact that their content is in such seamless harmony with the celebration of Christ’s birth and all of the hope, goodness, and joy that He stands for.
I want to look now at three specific Christmas symbols—Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, and the candle, symbols which, while not inherently Christian, can nonetheless be easily understood as profoundly in keeping with the sacred nature of the celebration of Christ’s Nativity, and can even be re-envisioned as tools to help convey aspects of Christian teaching. Let’s start with Santa, who is often identified as a prime culprit in the battle over the center of Christmas. Over the years I’ve listened to and witnessed a great deal of hand-wringing about how the jolly old Claus has replaced Jesus at the center of the holiday. Some Christians even think it’s harmful for children to be taught to believe in Santa Claus as youngsters. Now without trivializing the fact that we do need to be careful to keep Christ in all aspects of our Christmas celebration, I think these discussions miss a central point—which is that there is nothing inherently anti-Christian about the figure of Santa. If anything it’s the opposite—the concept of Santa is infused with Christian values.
First of all—our idea of Santa, and the name itself comes from St. Nicholas (Santa Claus being derived from the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas —Sinterklaas). Nicholas was not merely a historic legend, however but an important figure in the early church. He was the bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor, and a participant in the critical First Council of Nicea, where he spoke vigorously against the heresy of Arianism. He became a widely-beloved saint who was especially noted for his generosity and concern towards children. Our modern American Santa Claus was born out of the legacy of this generous European saint who’d been venerated for centuries. The central idea of Santa Claus is that generosity is at its most purest and heartfelt form when it is anonymous. Our parents provide gifts for us, but rather than take credit for them, they are attributed to Santa Claus. Thus, on a subconscious level, before they even fully realize it, children learn the lesson taught by Jesus in Matthew 6:1-4 about the spirit in which we should give to others: “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 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.” The example of anonymous giving and donating freely without the expectation of any thanks or payment in return that Santa Claus illustrates is a wonderful means of instructing children about Christian giving. Ultimately the illustration takes us to the greatest of all gifts; Christ’s offer of Salvation to us—something which can never be repaid or even fully comprehended on our parts—but simply accepted in the best spirit of gratitude and grace that we can muster.
One of my favorite essays on the subject of Santa Claus comes from American writer Booth Tarkington. In “Christmas this year”, Tarkington recounts the story of having purchased a religious painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Bastiano Mainardi at a discounted rate during the Great Depression. He became fascinated with discovering the identity of one of the saints depicted in the work—eventually discovering it was Saint Nicholas. “He is St. Nicholas of Bari and his four loaves of bread signify his giving, his generosity. In time, as the legend grew and changed, the most jocund and hearty of all symbolic figures emerged from this acutely sad and grieving one. St. Nicholas of Bari became “Old Saint Nick”, “Kris-kringle” (a most twisted alliterative) and Santa Claus.
He, the troubled and unhappy, now comes laughing down the chimney, fat and merry, to be the jovial inspiration of our jolliest season of the year. We say that time changed him, made this metamorphosis; but it was we—”we-the-people”—who did it. Time only let us forget that St. Nicholas was a sorrowful man.
Mainardi put a date on the painting. It is clear and neat upon a step of the Virgin’s throne—1507. In the long march of mankind, the four hundred and thirty-eight years that have elapsed since the Tuscan painter finished his picture is but a breath. St. Nicholas as we know him now, our jolly, shouting friend, a frolic for the children, may become the saddest of all the saints again, someday. What made us brighten him into Santa Claus was our knowledge that the world was growing kinder than it was in 1507.
St. Nicholas of Bari knew only a cruel world. Christmas of this year needs the transfigured image of him—the jolly one who is merry because the world is wise—and kind.”
As ubiquitous as Santa during this season is the Christmas tree. An estimated 79% of all American homes—essentially four out of every five, display a tree at Christmas. The modern practice of decorating a tree and bringing it indoors for Christmas probably began in Germany centuries ago. There is a story told, perhaps apocryphal but still charming, that no less a personage than Martin Luther began this tradition for his countrymen. He was by chance walking in the woods one snowy Christmas Eve. And there he found the snow-flecked trees all around him so beautiful that he was moved to cut down a small evergreen and bring it back to display for his family, decked out with candles in celebration of the Birth of the Christ child. In fact Luther was renewing a much older Teutonic tradition. For pagan Germans had once displayed evergreens during their mid-winter celebrations, known as Jul. And then gradually from the time of the Reformation onwards, the displaying of Christmas Trees in German homes became popular, and eventually through Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert in the 19th century, the custom spread into the English-speaking world. Going back in history however we find that not only Germanic peoples, but cultures as diverse as the Chinese, Egyptians, and Hebrews all made use of evergreen trees, wreaths and garlands in their seasonal celebrations. Thus the Christmas tree is not just a festive means of decoration. It’s usage goes much deeper than that I believe. For since antiquity, people have had an instinctual reaction towards that which remains green even in the season when all other vegetation dies. The Christmas tree then, passed down through history, is a testament to that sense of eternity which is in our midst as Christians when we celebrate the birth of Christ. In a world where everything seems to be so fleeting, where death and decay seem to have the last word, it is one way that we remind ourselves of the truth that we too may be partakers of something greater, and more lasting. The Christmas tree can serve also serve as a beautiful reminder of what Psalm 1 teaches, that as Christians, we are to be like a tree, well-rooted in the soil of a godly, and Christ-centered lifestyle. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree, planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither, and whatever he does shall prosper.”
To me, one of the simplest and yet most profound of all Christmas decorations is the lighted candle we place in each of our windows at home. While many different countries use candles in their Christmas celebrations, the tradition of doing so in America seems to have been brought over by the Irish, who lighted them at Christmas time to remember deceased relatives as well as to alert passing priests that theirs was a “safe” house where Mass could be celebrated during the years of persecution suffered under English rule. But as with the Christmas trees’ connection to Germany, the candle in the window taps into a spiritual symbolism which goes back much further than the historical/cultural perspectives of one country. English writer Rumer Godden’s excellent essay “The History of Christmas” opens with some reflections upon the significance of light imagery in the Judaeo-Christian tradition: “Among early Christians there was a custom of saying a blessing when the household lamps were lit: ‘Praise God who sends us the light of heaven.’ The Jewish Sabbath observance begins with the ritual lighting of candles by the woman of the house, a reminder that light was one of the first acts of creation. The Sabbath ends with the father saying a prayer, his hands spread towards a lighted candle, towards the light as if longing for it.” Having a lighted candle in our windows at Christmas time does much more than simply make our houses appear festive and inviting to passing cars and pedestrians. The candle framed by a dark window is as succinct and eloquent an illustration of the Christian ideal as any sermon can provide. John’s Gospel makes it clear that Jesus came to be light amidst the darkness of a sinful world. John 1:4-5, 9— “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it…That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.” Furthermore, the missional command given by Jesus to His followers in Matthew 5:14-16 is also perfectly illustrated by the candle in the darkness: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Santa Claus, a Christmas tree, and a candle in the window. These common Christmas symbols, while not directly Biblical, are nonetheless clearly adaptable for Christian purposes because they can so easily serve to illustrate some of the great theological truths of this special season. The observance of Christmas down through the centuries has included a great deal of cultural elements that are not directly related to the Biblical story of Christ’s birth. But these different customs and practices can nonetheless often be used to drive home the same ultimate message. Regardless of some of the nuances of how Christmas is celebrated, this timeless winter festival is about a message of hope—a Savior coming into a dark world to bring light, joy, and redemption. Using a creative array of means to bring across this message is part of what makes the Christmas season so rich in its diversity and color. There are so many different ways to celebrate Christmas, and still honor Jesus in doing so! As we celebrate this Christmas, let’s keep Christ at the center, so that however we observe it—in the foods we eat, the decorations we enjoy, the music we listen to, the books we read, the movies we watch, and all of our cherished family traditions—the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:31 are kept in mind: “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Amen, and Merry Christmas!!