Today we’re talking about Christmas. I grew up like most people in the West hearing that Jesus is the reason for the season or more specifically that it’s all about the birth of Christ. But it’s interesting to look into the history of the origin of the holiday of Christmas and the birth of Christ.
The end of what we mark on our calendar as December has been celebrated since before the time of Jesus. The Scandinavians would celebrate Yule where they would feast while they burned giant logs. These logs were so large it could take up to 12 days for the fire to go out and each spark would represent a new pig or calf that was going to be born during the coming year.
In Europe they would slaughter most of their cattle to keep from having to feed them throughout the winter. This led to their being an abundance of meat that even the poorest could afford and most wine and beer was finally ready to drink. Both of these things leading to much celebrating. In Germany they would honor Oden this time of year, but they stayed inside at night as they believed he would fly through the sky at night deciding who would prosper or perish.
In Rome they would celebrate Saturnalia in honor of their god Saturn, a holiday that lasted a full month. During this time slaves would take over their masters homes, masters would become the slaves, and peasants were in command of the government. The upper classes would also celebrate the birth of a god named Mithra on December 25th. In an effort to make Christianity more palatable for the pagans in Rome Pope Julius I declared the birth of Jesus to have been on December 25th.
While the date of the birth of Christ is not actually recorded, the early church believed that the birth of Christ occurred on or around the same time as the crucifixion. When Pope Julius I declared the birth of Jesus to have been on December 25th the early church accepted the change since it was exactly nine months after the crucifixion and the conception happening around the same time as the crucifixion was just as plausible a belief to them as the time of the birth had been.
It actually worked out well for the church given that on the 6th of January they celebrated an event that was believed to be the day that the magi, or three kings, or wise men visited Jesus and also the day that Jesus was baptised as an adult. Some have argued that since the wise men were at the birth of Christ that moving the celebration to 13 days earlier was no big deal, or that the discrepancy in the 13 days is because that’s how long it took them to travel to where Jesus was.
Except when we examine the story in Matthew chapter 2 of the wise men coming to Jesus we can’t deny the details that testify to the wise men not being at the manger on the birth night, or even 13 nights later, but finding Jesus much later. It says, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, wise men from the East arrived in Jerusalem saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” For we saw his star at its rising and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this, he was deeply disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. So he assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people and asked them where the Christ would be born. “In Bethlehem of Judea,“ they told him, “because this is what was written by the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah: Because out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” Then Herod secretly summoned the wise men and asked them the exact time the star appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you find him, report back to me so that I too can go and worship him.” After hearing the king, they went on their way. And there it was – the star they had seen at its rising. It led them until it came and stopped above the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overwhelmed with joy. Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and falling to their knees, they worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their own country by another route.”
The main details we need to pay attention to there are that the wise men began travelling towards the star as soon as it appeared, and when they found Mary and Jesus they were in a house, not in a manger like where the shepherds found Jesus on the night of His birth. Reading ahead to Matthew chapter 2 starting in verse 16, “Then Herod, when he realized that he had been outwitted by the wise men, flew into a rage. He gave orders to massacre all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men.” The wise men had been following that star for two years and the birth of the messiah was to be heralded by the appearance of a new star on the night of His birth. This is why Herod had all the boys who were two years old and under in and around Bethlehem killed, because by this time it was highly probable that the Messiah was a two year old toddler. It was too late of an effort though because Joseph, Mary’s husband, had already fled to Egypt with his family after being warned in a dream by an angel of what Herod was going to do.
Over the years whether it’s been the time of Yule, solstice, or Christmas the customs and celebrations have changed. In actuality Christmas itself wasn’t even considered a family friendly holiday until the 1800’s. Before that it was a night where Christians would attend church and then get drunk in the streets in a giant party similar to Mardi Gras. The poor would go door to door in the rich neighborhoods in trick or treat style demanding the houses best food and drinks; and if they were denied they would then indeed play pranks on them.
But, In the end everything is what you make of it. It’s important to know, though, the history of what and why you’re celebrating. Ignoring, or denying the truth about how Christmas came into existence only cheapens the reasons why you’re celebrating. For me Christmas is the beginning of the 12 day countdown to Epiphany where I remember that Jesus, who came first to the Jews, also came for the redemption of a gentile like me. The wise men weren’t Jewish, they were gentiles, gentiles who studied and believed the word of the prophets concerning the Messiah. And when that star appeared heralding the prophecy of the Messiah they rallied their people and caravanned towards that star to worship the King of not just the Jews, but of you and I as well.
Until next time…