It’s that time of year where all kinds of traditions happen.
WARNING: I am honest and frank about all things Christmas here. I make no apologies for what I say but if you want your kids to still believe in Santa then don’t let them read this.
Yule Logs, Christmas trees, Fat Men who jump down chimneys committing the anti-crime of housebreaking with intent to provide, Stories of ‘The Christ-child’, Goodwill, overeating, overdrinking, overspending and raised suicide rates, Holly, Ivy, Mistletoe, Snow (often only on the traditional cards especially for those of us in the South of England) and cheesy annoying music that you wouldn’t listen to any other time of year. Lots of Family traditions as well, presents in sacks, presents in Stockings, when to put the decorations up, when to take them down.
Is it any wonder that at this time of year some people wonder what all the fuss is about and whether it’s worth it. It’s then that us Christians start talking about ‘the real meaning of Christmas’ – so are we right to do so?
At the very basic level what will be told to many Christian kids is that Christmas is Jesus’s birthday. So is this the case?
Well. Around 2000 years ago (Bearing in mind that AD started counting at 1 as there was no zero at the time and that most historians now reckon Jesus may have been 3 or 4 in AD 1 I’d say that it was just under 2010 years ago give or take a couple of years) Jesus was born. I am (I hope reliably) informed that he was born during the Jewish Festival of Sukkot, known as the festival of Tabernacles or Festival of Booths which celebrates the Israelite’s faith in God while traveling through the Desert and God’s protection. I find it quite Poetic that it was at this time of year that Jesus came. During a festival about God’s faithfulness to the people in the wilderness the God who dwelled with them as a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud came down in human form to be in the dwelling place of men.
So is Sukkot in December? No. As the Jewish calendar is different to ours it can happen any time between September and October.
So if Jesus didn’t come to Earth in December why do we celebrate his Birthday at that time?
This brings us onto Solstice and the second ‘reason’ for the Mass (Feast) of the Christ-child.
The winter solstice is an astronomical event. A solstice is a time of year when the sun, having traveled either North or South, ’stands still’ (Latin: Sol Sistere). In Pagan times, long before the coming of Christianity to Europe, a festival was held to stave off the winter chill. A Pagan precursor to Santa Claus was involved, a god or demigod who brought gifts to those who had been good (sometimes accompanied with a malicious god meting out punishment to ne’er-do-wells), a Yule log which, depending on which historian you ask either had a Pagan Religious significance or was simply part of a non-religious tradition and a way of keeping warm, various pagan traditions and Gods were celebrated at this time. Trees and Mistletoe would have been a significant part of Druidic religion practiced back then.
So that’s a basic description of some of the stuff that happened at Solstice – so what of the second ‘reason’.
The second account of why we celebrate Christmas is that it was an attempt of Christianity to remove the ancient pagan festivals. The argument goes like this:
The Catholic church was upset that people were still following their Pagan festivals so they placed their Pagan festivals over the top of them to replace them so that the people had to decide between the two. Christmas replaced the festival of Solstice, Easter replaced the spring fertility festival (in the UK it’s even still named after the Goddess Aster who used to be worshiped at the time) and so on.
It’s a nice story. But it’s not the truth.
In truth for the first 300 years the Christian church would Celebrate the Nativity of Christ on various dates including that of, you’ve guessed it, the festival of Booths in September/October. It was the Emperor Aurelius who took the day of the 25th of December, formerly the day of celebration for the birth of the birth of the invincible sun (yes, with a ‘u’) and proclaimed it the day of Christ’s birth. Why? Because people were celebrating Pagan festivals instead of Christian ones? No, most probably because he was anti-Semitic and didn’t like Christians celebrating during Jewish Festivals. So he took the day of his favourite Sun God and other pagan religious days and did what Romans had done to other cultures for centuries. He syncretised it. The ancient Roman gods became the saints, and Mary, and, Lord help them, Jesus.
So reading this you’ll probably think I’m dead set against celebrating Christmas.
Not really, no.
You see. Festivals were made for Man. God himself has said that he prefers a righteous and obedient heart to the celebration of any festival. Neither the pagan meaning nor the Christian one is really seen in todays modern, largely secularised religious festivals. (I will say though that if you want to teach your children that fairy tales are reality, that a fat man with a red suit magically gives them presents, if you want to tell them these lies while at the same time telling them the truth of God then be willing for the risk that you’ll tarnish their view of Christianity. See the lyrics of the thoroughly depressing ‘I believe in Santa Claus’ Christmas song for my reasoning why.)
I think that in reality the real meaning of having a festival at this time of year is this:
It’s flipping freezing outside. Let’s have a party.
…. and as Christians if that gives us an excuse to talk to people about the birth of the most lifechanging baby ever born, the very Son of God, then I think it’s an excuse that we should use to it’s utmost.
May you have a blessed and glorious Feast of Christ during this year’s Winter Solstice and a happy and blessed New year.