Sunday, December 21, 2008


Tis the season for gift wrap, large adorned trees, long lines, green and red, nativity scenes, church plays, and spectacular displays of lighting genius. Children and Hollywood dream of Santa Claus in many different renditions, Parents sneak away to hide presents, and people stand under mistletoe expectantly. For many Christmas has been special since childhood. It’s not just about receiving nice shinny new toys, but giving to others and good will. Even though we live in southern California most of us can appreciate the beauty and warmth of a white Christmas. Christmas is a time of beauty, anticipation, rejoicing, and time to share love with those around you.

But with so many positive symbols and feelings associated with this glorious holiday, we often can forget the true meaning of Christmas. We easily get buried in all the icing, and forget about the substance, the reality, the truth about why we are celebrating. Even for Christians, we sometimes get caught up in these “myths” about Christmas, and lose sight of the true real meaning of Christmas. As we prepare to celebrate this glorious holiday season, it is important to focus our attention on the truth of Christmas, and not just on the symbols and traditions that we are surrounded with. So what are some of our “myths” about Christmas?

1) The first myth is also one of the most popular symbols of Christmas in the western world: Santa Claus. It is doubtful that many adults would attribute the true meaning of Christmas to the fairy tale of Santa Claus, but he certainly does occupy the majority of our culture’s attention during Christmas. But was there a real Santa Clause? Or is it entirely myth?

Most likely, the story of Santa Claus begins with a famous Bishop of Asia Minor in the 4th century. St. Nicholas was widely renowned for his generosity and good works, for his kindness especially to the poor and children. As the stories about St. Nicholas passed through the ages, many churches were dedicated to his memory, and he became known in the western churches as the patron saint of children.

Although the stories surrounding St. Nicholas did develop some of their own mythology, (such as his ability to work miracles), the contemporary image of Santa Claus most likely began with the famous poet Clement Moore, who penned the classic work “Visit from St. Nicholas” (“Twas’ the night before Christmas”) in 1822. This began the mythos of Santa Claus, his reindeer, and his twinkling eye. This image was further developed in 1863 by the cartoonist Thomas Nast.
We can certainly see how the traditions of Santa Claus and St. Nicholas are rooted in the celebration of generosity and kindness. Unfortunately the popular conception has distorted this into “being good” in order to receive gifts that meet our wildest dreams. St. Nicholas was about giving, Santa Claus is about receiving.

2) In a similar vein, the second myth is that Christmas is that it is all about presents. This myth is all too commonplace, after all the Christmas season is the favorite of retail markets. The pressure can be overwhelming to find the right present for those special to you, especially worse for those who procrastinate till the night before. So much of what we focus on is about the gifts given, but what is the story behind this tradition?

The practice of gift giving certainly has its roots in the traditions of St. Nicholas, who’s generosity included giving gifts to children. The practice itself probably originated in the 15th century, and was commonly practiced by the end of the 18th century. A theological basis for gift giving is the reminder of God’s greatest gift of his son. There is also a possible allusion to the Magi who brought gifts from the east to Jesus’ birth.

One of the reasons the Puritans were opposed to celebrating Christmas was because gift giving tended to make Christmas more of a secular holiday about friends and family instead of about celebrating the birth of Christ. While protesting the celebration of Christmas is an extreme reaction, their critique is certainly deserving. In our materialistic culture, Christmas (or “the holidays”) is entirely about purchasing lots of gifts for others, and receiving lots of new “toys”.

3) Third, Christmas is full of traditions and symbols. But what is the origin of Christmas? Why do we celebrate on the 25th? Despite the limited data available in Scripture, early Christians chose to celebrate it on December 25th as early as the 3rd century.

One theory is that it was chosen to correspond with the Roman celebration of the winter solstice: “day of the birth of the unconquered sun”. This Roman festival celebrated the rebirth of the sun, as the sun reverses its southward movement, proving that it is “unconquered”. The reason early Christians would have chosen this date is the parallels with the significance of Christ:

"O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born...Christ should be born" -Cyprian.
"They call it the 'Birthday of the Unconquered'. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord...?"
-John Chrysostom.

A second theory is based on the early Christian association of the spring equinox with the date of creation. On the fourth day of creation God created light, and some early Christians possibly derived from this that Jesus was conceived four days after the spring equinox, on March 25. Consequently, he would have been born 9 months later on Dec. 25. Despite the ambiguity of the actual day of Jesus’ birth, the early Church chose to celebrate his birth on December 25 as an alternative to the pagan celebrations of the new sun: as a profound affirmation of the birth of the son who would bring light to the world.

4) Finally, what were the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth? Luke gives us the most vivid account. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem for the infamous census. Bethlehem was Joseph’s home town, and being in the line of David he certainly would have had a lot of family there. Unlike the popular conception, they most likely did not stay at an inn, but at a local family residence. Luke uses the term kataluma in 2:7, which more often refers to the place of lodging or dining area of a home, (such as in Luke 22:11, or Mark 14, note Luke’s use of a different term in 10:34 in the story of the good Samaritan).

Most Jewish homes at that time had two levels. People would sleep upstairs (usually the roof), whereas animals slept in the back of the lower level, (or a cave just outside). The image still evokes the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth: Mary was in labor, but the upper area of the home was too full of relatives. The newborn Jesus was laid in a feeding trough in the back area of the lower level. These feeding trough’s were usually large hole’s dug in the ground.


As Christians, the true meaning of Christmas is about Jesus Christ. But even though we celebrate such a profound truth for this holiday, it is very easy to get side tracked by all the festivities, purchases, and gatherings. It is important that we remind ourselves that Christmas is about celebrating the birth of our savior, the God-man Jesus who is the Messiah Christ that brings the peace of God. Peace is an important message, especially in an era of conflict and sin. Peace is the promised King bringing his kingdom of peace on earth. Peace is the promised Prophet coming to announce God’s intensions to save mankind from sin. Peace is the promised Priest coming to restore a broken relationship between God and humanity.

So this Christmas, let us not get caught up in the traditions and gifts. These are good things in their own right, but let us keep Jesus and his mission of peace at the center. Let us celebrate as a community God’s work of peace on earth through his son, the promised Messiah and author of peace, Jesus.

No comments: