Do You look forward to Christmas? Or does its approach fill you with nervous apprehension? Millions of people ask: ‘Whom will I get gifts for? What should I buy? Can I afford it? For how long will I be paying off my debt?’
Despite such concerns, Christmas remains very popular. In fact, the celebration has even spread to non-Christian lands. In Japan most families now celebrate Christmas, not because of its religious significance, but purely as a festive occasion. In China “Santa Claus’s cheery red face is plastered in shop windows in major cities,” says The Wall Street Journal, adding: “Christmas fever is gripping China’s newly rising urban middle class as an excuse to shop, eat and party.”
In many parts of the world, Christmas has been a great boost for local economies. That is especially true of China, which is now “an export powerhouse of plastic trees, tinsel, twinkling lights and other yuletide trinkets,” says the Journal.
Predominantly Muslim lands also promote Christmaslike festivities, although not necessarily on December 25. In Ankara, Turkey, and Beirut, Lebanon, it is not unusual to see shop windows dressed with tinsel-covered evergreens and gift-wrapped packages. In Indonesia, hotels and malls sponsor festive events, and children can dine with Santa or have their picture taken with him.
In Western lands, Christmas is now largely secular and commercial, with many ads “blatantly pitched at children,” said Canada’s Royal Bank Letter. Granted, some people still attend Christmas services at a church. But it is the shopping malls, resonating with carols, that have become the new temples. Why the change? Could the reason be connected with the origin of Christmas? What are its roots?
The custom: According to tradition, Jesus’ birth took place on December 25 and is celebrated on that date. “Christmas,” says the Encyclopedia of Religion, means “‘Christ’s Mass,’ that is, the mass celebrating the feast of Christ’s nativity,” or birth.
Its roots: “The establishment of December 25 evolved not from biblical precedent,” says The Christmas Encyclopedia, “but from pagan Roman festivals held at year’s end,” about the time of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Those festivals included the Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn, god of agriculture, “and the combined festivals of two sun gods, the Roman Sol and the Persian Mithra,” says the same encyclopedia. Both birthdays were celebrated on December 25, the winter solstice according to the Julian calendar.
Those pagan festivals began to be “Christianized” in the year 350, when Pope Julius I declared December 25 to be Christ’s birthday. “The Nativity gradually absorbed or supplanted all other solstice rites,” says the Encyclopedia of Religion. “Solar imagery came increasingly to be used to portray the risen Christ (who was also called Sol Invictus), and the old solar disk . . . became the halo of Christian saints.”
The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano (December 20-21, 2004) made some interesting observations.
Regarding the date when Christmas is celebrated, the Catholic newspaper said: “The real date of Jesus’ birth, from the historical viewpoint, lies concealed beneath a veil of uncertainty as regards Roman history, the imperial census of that time and research in the subsequent centuries. . . . The date of 25 December, as is well known, was chosen by the Church of Rome in the fourth century. This date in pagan Rome was dedicated to the Sun god . . . Although Christianity had already been affirmed in Rome by an Edict of Constantine, the myth of . . . the Sun god was still widespread, especially among soldiers. The above-mentioned festivities, centred on 25 December, were deeply rooted in popular tradition. This gave the Church of Rome the idea of impressing a Christian religious significance on the day by replacing the Sun god with the true Sun of Justice, Jesus Christ, choosing it as the day on which to celebrate his birth.”
What the Bible says: The Bible does not give Jesus’ birth date. But we can safely conclude that he was not born on December 25. How so? The Bible tells us that when Jesus was born, shepherds were “living out of doors” tending their flocks at night in the vicinity of Bethlehem. (Luke 2:8) The cold, rainy season usually began in October, and shepherds—especially in the colder highlands, such as those around Bethlehem—brought their sheep into protected shelters at night. The coldest weather, sometimes accompanied by snow, occurred in December. It appears that Jesus was born during the ancient Jewish month of Ethanim (September-October).
Significantly, the early Christians, many of whom had accompanied Jesus in his ministry, never celebrated his birth on any date. Rather, in harmony with his command, they commemorated only his death. (Luke 22:17-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
Jesus Christ “was certainly one of the most influential people who ever lived.”—“The World Book Encyclopedia.”
GREAT men are usually remembered for what they did. So why do many remember Jesus for his birth rather than for his deeds? Throughout Christendom, most people can recount the events surrounding his birth. How many recall and strive to apply his superlative teaching as found in the Sermon on the Mount?
Granted, Jesus’ birth was remarkable, but his early disciples attached much more importance to what he did and to what he taught. Surely God never intended Christ’s birth to eclipse his life as a mature man. Yet, Christmas has succeeded in obscuring the person of Christ in a mire of Nativity legends and folklore.
Another disturbing question arises with regard to the nature of Christmas celebrations. If Jesus returned to the earth today, what would he think about the rank commercialism of Christmas? Two thousand years ago, Jesus visited the temple in Jerusalem. He was outraged by money changers and vendors who were taking advantage of a Jewish religious festival to make money. “Take these things away from here!” he said. “Stop making the house of my Father a house of merchandise!” (John 2:13-16) Clearly, Jesus did not approve of mixing commerce and religion.
The Enciclopedia Hispánica likewise notes: “The date of December 25 for the celebration of Christmas is not the result of a strict chronological anniversary but, rather, of the Christianization of the festivals of the winter solstice that were celebrated in Rome.” How did the Romans celebrate the rise of the sun in the winter sky? By feasting, revelry, and the exchanging of presents. Since church authorities were loath to abolish such a popular festival, they “Christianized” it by calling it the birth of Jesus instead of the birth of the sun.
At the outset, in the fourth and fifth centuries, attachment to sun worship and its customs died hard. Catholic “Saint” Augustine (354-430 C.E.) felt obliged to exhort fellow believers not to celebrate December 25 as the pagans did in honor of the sun. Even today, the ancient Roman festivities seem to have the upper hand.
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