Christmas Thoughts   Leave a comment

My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving because it gets me in the mood for Christmas, which I find overly commercialized and misinterpreted.

I do realize that our modern Christmas celebration is an amalgam of two holidays — the Roman festival of Saturnalia and the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Let’s get this out in the open right away. Jesus was probably not born on December 25. The shepherds were in the fields. The weather wasn’t winter. Likely he was born in the fall — during the time of the Feast of Trumpets. We call that Rosh Hoshana today — the Jewish New Year. It makes sense that God would arrange the birth at this time of atonement followed by a time of celebration.

So, how’d it end up being celebrated in December?

There’s no evidence that the Jewish Christians of the first and second centuries celebrated Christ’s birthday. They celebrated His death, burial and resurrection — first fruits, pascha, what we erroneously call Easter today. The Gospels record the relative importance of the birth. Mark skips the event entirely. Matthew wrote it from Joseph’s perspective. Luke wrote it from Mary’s perspective — there’s evidence he actually talked to Mary, probably when she was living with John in Ephesus and Luke and Paul were there teaching. John synopsized the birth into one verse — “the Word became flesh and dwelt with us”. One-third of the gospels are spent on the last week of Jesus’ life and most of that on the death and resurrection. The birth was interesting historical footnote to the Jewish Christians.

Luke was a Gentle Christian and that may be where the difference lie. Gentiles had a rich tradition of celebrating the births of their deities. I’m not saying Luke was wrong to record it; just that his culture may have been what directed him to do so. Of course, Christianity wasn’t widely accepted in the Roman world for the first three centuries of its existence. During some of those years, being a Christian was not a healthy choice and involved lions, tigers and bears. Celebrating openly could result in a very public death. So the Christians picked a time when their neighbors were involved in a drunken orgy — the solstice called Saturnalia. It was a way to “hide in plain sight”.

Christianity has always been culturally adaptable. The Jewish Christians still went to the temple and kept the feasts. The Gentile Christians were not required to do so. As Christianity moved across the Roman world, its voluntary converts incorporated parts of their culture into the practices. Evergreen boughs were hung in Celtic homes in midwinter to freshen the air. It makes sense that they continued to do so after they became Christians.

Saturnalia apparently has never completely waned in Europe. There’s always been a segment of society that used Christmas as a wild party. The Protestant Reformation attempted to turn Christmas into a quiet spiritual affair, but it refused to remain that way. I think it has a lot to do with the time of year. People need a party at the winter solstice. Certainly Alaskans need a party at the winter solstice.

Still, Thanksgiving, which holds no particular spiritual meaning for the vast majority of modern Americans, is the more spiritual holiday for me because it has not been commercialized. I don’t need to go out into the stores and fight to buy people stuff they probably don’t even want. Don’t get me wrong — I love to decorate my home for Christmas, but I truly wish that it were more of a holy day than it is because it does celebrate a fundamental transformation of human history. God stepped down into human flesh and chose to live for 30 years as a man so that He could die for our errors and provide us a spiritual future. It’s an amazing concept — an incredible act of love — and the greatest miracle to occur since God created the universe.

Posted December 24, 2012 by aurorawatcherak in Christianity, culture, Faith, History

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