2 December 2003 Welcome - Charles - God-bothering - Christmas revisited

Christmas Revisited (Further thoughts on Christmas)

The modern Christmas story is, to put it simply, wrong. It goes something like this: - Angels appear to a bunch of shepherds looking after their sheep out in the fields, and tell them the good news. They promptly go to the stable in Bethlehem and find the holy babe. At about that time, another group, a bit more up market this time, wise men (or even kings) find their way to the stable and present "Christmas presents" to the baby. We all live happily ever after.

Bearing in mind that this is supported and taught in and by Christian churches, whose beliefs are supposedly rooted in the Holy Bible, and who are led by those who study the Holy Bible, what does the book actually say?

Shepherds with sheep in fields. So not the middle of winter then. Shepherds visiting the baby. OK, that's what Luke 2, 16 says, and the Greek word used is that for baby. Note in passing that in that area, the "stable" was probably a cave. Wise men presenting gifts to a baby? No. According to Matthew 2, 11 it was a young child (different Greek word) that received the gifts; and they found him in a house, not a stable. If we consider Herod's subsequent action (Mat 2, 16) of slaughtering all the children in the area of Bethlehem who were two years old or less, we see that the young child was probably nearly two years old. The family, tipped off by God, escaped to Egypt. (It is more than likely that the escape was funded by those "presents", so don't bother looking for relics.) As for all living happily ever after, the bible chronicles the subsequent slaughter of the one who was the centre of all that attention. Happily ever after for us? That is conditional upon repentance and acceptance of this crucified saviour.

Anyway, why Christ-mas? Why a mass (I thought masses were for the dead) at a birthday? Why a celebration where all the elements are from pagan ritual? Basically because the visible church at around 330 AD was led by a bunch of godless compromisers. (It seems that some things don't change.) They would have argued that what they did brought many into the (man-organised) church. It probably did. But it probably didn't bring many to Christ.

The (real) Church until then had not celebrated the birth of Christ. No need, no reason. When the man-organised church became prominent, it, fearful of opposition, yet wanting to increase its size and power base, "repurposed" the common and hugely popular midwinter festivals of Saturnalia and Brumalia which were based on sun worship. (Incidentally, it was probably Constantine, the first "Christian" emperor of Rome who moved the sabbath to Sunday not much after this.) The celebration of a mass, something associated with a death is explained by the mass for a saint being held on the anniversary of his/her death on the (Roman church's) grounds that it is also their heavenly birth. That could not be argued for the eternal Christ, but a birthday was needed to compete with the lighter-toned festival that was the birthday of Mithras etc. and so the earthly birthday was moved to suit the political requirement.

The other pagan traditions were added as more and more tolerance was seen to be expedient (rather like the modern ecumenical movement).

The influence of both the Roman Empire and its church percolated into European culture, Christmas with it. Europe contributed some of its own, usually pagan customs. The decorated tree, the yule log, St. Nicholas, wreaths, mistletoe, roast pork:-

The tree
The legend of St Boniface is generally regarded as the justification of a fir tree as a Christian Christmas symbol. During the 8th century, Boniface was confronting the pagan practice of (probably human) sacrifice to oak trees. Basically, he condemned the practice, but to make it easier to accept that Christ did not want this sort of behaviour, suggested instead that they take fir trees home. Just what were they expected them to do with them there is anybody's guess.

Yule log
So just what is a yule log (and I don't mean a chocolate covered cake made to look like a log)? The origin "Yule" is questionable: possibly the old Germanic word Lol or Giul which meant a wheel and here signified the sun-wheel rising after the winter solstice. Alternatively, there was an Anglo-Saxon word geol that meant feast, and lead to the month-long revelries of Saturnalia being called geola (feast-month). You'll have to decide... (Sorry)

Father Christmas
The bewhiskered beaming present giver combines several ideas. St. Nicholas, a 4th century Catholic bishop of Myra (Asia Minor) had a reputation as a generous person, and being a "saint" had a feast day (Dec 6th). This was known in Holland as the Feast of Sinterklaas from which comes the name "Santa Claus." The Calvinists (Protestants) nearly got rid of Santa Clause but he transformed into the Christmas man and Father Christmas, perhaps as a legalistic way of avoiding the wrath of the church. His flying sleigh pulled by reindeer? Probably a norse-like myth bolted on to explain the impossibilities of the actions attributed to Father Christmas in much more recent times. Incidentally, "merry" as in, for instance Merry Christmas, meant peaceful and pleasant, not jolly and mirthful. The line from the carol is "God rest you merry, - slight pause - gentlemen" not "God rest you, - slight pause - merry gentlemen", another example of switching understanding to justify licence.

Wassail refers to a drink, a hot spiced wine used in drinking to someone's health on Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, etc. Legend from the 5th century tells of Rowena, a beautiful Saxon who toasted the health of King Vortigern with the words "Wass-hael" (meaning "your health!", compare the word hale). This spiced wine was a derivative of the ancient Greek (?) hypocras, and was restricted to the very wealthy until the richer times following the Middle Ages. Wine might have come from Europe, but spices came from further afield at great cost. While it remained expensive, it was reserved only for special occasions.

The first noel
(The word is still often spelled nowel.) The derivation is uncertain. The best, though not strong case would be meaning birth, or nativity - compare the sound of "natal". But other possibilities include news (novel, and the old English nowellis) and new sun from the old Celtic phrase "novo Hel".

Wreaths and Mistletoe
Now here are some really pagan bits. Wreaths hark back to sun worship with the circle suggesting an endless cycle of dying and coming back to life. Mistletoe (a parasitic plant) is a symbol borrowed from the Druids who regarded it as medicinal and - remember that kissing under the mistletoe custom? - and as an aphrodisiac. Holly, incidentally, was a pagan protection against witchcraft.

Pork or Turkey?
Pork isn't the dominant Christmas fare it used to be, having been overtaken by the turkey and its cheaper option, the chicken. Pork was the food of choice for those involved in the Saturnalian feasts, in memory of their gods. The turkey sneaked in as a result of the closeness of Christmas and Thanksgiving in the USA (ends of December and November respectively), the power of the marketeers, and the ignorant assumption on the part of Europeans that Thanksgiving was Christmas. Note that the turkey probably was known in Europe earlier, but was not common. Goose was a better general feast option.

So does any of this matter? After all, Christmas is a time for the kids, its a time of goodwill, rejoicing, making merry (which meaning though?). It's a time for generosity, not meanness. A time for bringing happiness and joy. Er, well, just look around. Take a good look. Remember what actually happens. Then ask yourself "why?". In answering that you might see exactly why it matters, but in case you don't, let me spell it out.

For the average person in the Western world, there is no Christ in Christmas. For all, it is a time of intense commercial activity. It is a time of stress. It is a time when children learn to want and acquire things. It is a time of competition and scheming. Listen to people working out who to send Christmas cards to; who did we get them from last year? Listen to the detailed planning of gift purchases; what's the least we can get away with giving? Listen to the pious planning of parties: have we got enough booze in? Listen to the expectations; I always eat to much, we all get drunk at the Christmas party - it's expected. And don't forget, "It's really cool to go to church on Christmas eve."...

It is hardly surprising that this happens, the whole event is dedicated to ungodly forces. We are, ostensibly in the name of Christ, teaching our children confusing myths, mixing it with miss-interpretations of scripture which will form a barrier to their trusting it in their later lives. We are generally indulging in a drawn-out pantomime of hypocrisy in which we all know the parts, the dialogue and the outcomes. We don't really like it, and we are almost powerless to stop it.

So yes, it does matter. God has a bit to say about it too.

"Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel: Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good." Jer 10, 1-5.

"And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. 2 Cor 6, 16-18.

"And they left the house of the LORD God of their fathers, and served groves and idols: and wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem for this their trespass." 2 Chron 24, 18

The Old Testament is full of God's battle for the hearts of mankind, His creation. Full of accounts of their folly, their chasing after other gods (that were no gods) and idols that were the work of their own hands. It is easy to underestimate the effect of many little nudges in the wrong direction if they are considered only individually. The overall result of going with the (worldly) flow at a time like Christmas is a significant move towards commercial or pagan thinking. That adds up, year after year, to the point where the truth is left so far behind that it can no longer be seen. And if you're arguing, you're probably at that point.

The following are web pages I have found interesting and relevant, though I make no comment about their doctrinal integrity:

John Mosley of the Griffith Observatory looks at common errors in explaining the Star of Bethlehem

For a general, comprehensive overview, the text of The Christmas Book is online, or there is a note on the origins of Christmas and Easter at the (Australian) Christian Churches of God website.

Wassailing is a note on the same from the Journal of Antiques and Collectibles.

A witchcraft site claims "Christmas customs have a Pagan origin".

An interesting comparison between Santa Claus and God, and more, is presented by Maineville Baptist Church, Ohio.

A detailed critique of Christmas traditions is available from what was part of The Worldwide Church of God (Plain Truth).

Another comprehensive overview, from Yahweh's Restoration Ministry has a lot to say about ancient influences on Christmas.

A positive view of what we might learn from the biblical story (but usually miss) is online at the Grace to You site.

"For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised: he also is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the people are idols: but the LORD made the heavens." 1 Chronicles 16, 25