Christmas decorations are an automatic expectation for most Christian households and public spaces like our churches. It usually includes some basics: manger scene, tree, ornaments, stockings, lights, mistletoe (maybe not at church), and probably some hot drinks spiced up with cinnamon and nutmeg. But was this always the way Christmas was celebrated? What can the past teach us about how and where our own Christmas traditions originated? Perhaps through our learning, we might be more aware on what to make significant and (perhaps) what to dismiss.
Celebrate How? A Look Back At The Origins Of Christmas Traditions
First, I think the dating of Christmas is interesting. We don’t have any reference that the early church celebrated Jesus’ birth. In fact, according to Andrew McGowan, Origen (165-264) mocks the Roman practice of birth anniversaries calling them pagan. Nevertheless, Clement of Alexandria in around 200 suggests several dates as possibilities for remembering the Incarnation. They were March 21, April 15, April 20 or May 20. It’s not until the Roman Empire begins to adopt Christianity with Constantine’s reign (306–337) that Christmas gets a permanent place on the calendar. Most of us probably know that the December date relates to the the Roman holiday Saturnalia, the festival of light celebrating the deity Saturn. Similar to our general custom, they gave gifts to children, played games, and broke from regular routines.
Enter a cave (100s)
According to Justin Martyr (100s), Jesus was born in a cave just outside the town of Bethlehem. Why then do we use a barn? It’s likely due to our perception of where someone would find a feeding trough for animals. If we look again at Luke’s account, it’s the manger itself that is referenced, not an inn or barn or even a cave. However, in terms of chronology, Justin is far closer to the actual event itself, which lends some credibility to his reference.
St Nicholas (2oos)
Nicholas lived in modern day Turkey from March 15, 270 to December 6, 343. He was imprisoned for his faith and then released by Constantine. He even attended the Council of Nicaea. The myth that becomes Santa Claus is based on his secret gift of coins given in shoes, as well as the miracle stories where Nicholas helped the very poor and needy. Perhaps his ability to see a person’s need might motivate us during this season of giving and year-round.
Cut down a tree (700s)
The Christmas tree has its origins, as best we know, in Germany. St Boniface in the 700s, cuts down an oak tree that was worshiped as a demonstration to paganism’s end. In its place, reads the legend, grew an evergreen tree. Early on, it was decorated with apples to share the story of Adam and Eve. It’s also a representation of the Trinity with its three points. Certainly, the evergreen also has a basis in pagan religion, but its use to represent God’s story seems to be early.
Manger scene, anyone? (1200s)
In 1223, Francis of Assisi visited the town of Grecio. Because the church appeared too small for the midnight Christmas mass, Francis decided to hold the service down the street. In an effort to make the mass stand out in the minds of his congregation, he found a manger, an ox, and a donkey. This is the beginning point for the use of manger scenes as an exhibit of the first Christmas. This display comes to be known as a crèche in 18th Century France, but it’s pious Francis who begins the Christmas tradition.
The Magi (1400s)
The three kings, magi or wise men probably came later to present their gifts. How much later, we’re not sure. But, Matthew 2 says they came to a house after Jesus’ birth, Joseph only gets the dream to flee because of Herod after the wise men left, and the church historically ends Christmastime with Epiphany, 12 days afterwards. Why did the two events merge? We don’t know, but it’s likely through telling the story as simply as possible, especially since Matthew references the star still hanging low. It’s in the 1400s that the church adopts names for the Magi: Melchior from Persia, Caspar from India and Balthazar from Babylon. What is the significance of their gifts? That goes back to Origen who I referenced earlier. He tells us, “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.” And, yes, we don’t really know the number either, only the number of gifts.
Fire up that Yule Log (1400s)
The Germanic people contributed to Christmas with Yule, a festival loosely about the god, Oden on a winter hunt. During the season of 12 days, a yule log is slowly fed to the fire, gifts are given and food is shared. As far as we know, the festival dates back to the 1400s, but it’s probably much older. And, it’s still with us, at least in passing reference like, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire/Jack Frost nipping at your nose/Yuletide carols being sung by a choir…” As the Western world was Christianized and the Germanic tribes unified, Yuletide was exchanged for Christmastide. Perhaps our use of Christmas lights and the warmth it brings is rooted in this communal activity.
Merry Christmas (1800s)
A nod to both Charles Dickens and especially Washington Irving, both of whom reshaped Christmas during Victorian era generally (1837-1901) and into today. We know Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which is a lesson against greed and for cheer. We may be less familiar with the more significant Irving. We know him more for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. However, his essays fashion the story of St. Nick, talk about singing carols and even include the greeting “Merry Christmas.” All come from observations he makes in England. He even explains the use of mistletoe, “The mistletoe is still hung up in farmhouses and kitchens at Christmas; and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases” (“Christmas Eve”). His observations come from his time in England. Here’s what he says:
But in the depth of winter, when nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources. The dreariness and desolation of the landscape, the short gloomy days and darksome nights, while they circumscribe our wanderings, shut in our feelings also from rambling abroad, and make us more keenly disposed for the pleasure of the social circle. Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more aroused. We feel more sensibly the charm of each other’s society, and are brought more closely together by dependence on each other for enjoyment. Heart calleth unto heart; and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of loving-kindness, which lie in the quiet recesses of our bosoms; and which, when resorted to, furnish forth the pure element of domestic felicity. (Irving, “Sketch Book”)
Santa Claus (1800s)
In the 1820s, we get Santa Claus flying reindeer and visiting children in both Children’s Friend (1821) and A Visit of St Nicholas, or, as we know it, Twas the Night Before Christmas. That makes Santa Claus a very recent Christmas tradition. Even more recent is Rudolph (1939), introduced to sell product for Montgomery Ward, and Frosty (1969) which was simply a TV special. Quickly, the drift was to commercialize Christmas, something that we are reaping the horrors of today.
What are we to do with all this? I think the lesson is to be wise and discerning. The anchor and meaning and power is the Incarnation. It seems of right motives that Christmas was placed on the calendar in December, that Advent begins our Christian year about 40 days before Christmas day. The other Christmas traditions? If it invites community, warmth, a spirit of love where we can minister to others, than we are carrying the Gospel of Jesus lived out through St Nicholas and lived out in us. That’s Christmas, the mass for and centered on Christ, the Messiah come to die.