Thinking of Christmas

Yesterday I listened as a couple with young children were discussing their Christmas plans with another family at the church. The family has two children, an infant about 6 months old and another just over 2 years old. They plan to travel to Eastern South Dakota to celebrate Christmas with family and were wondering what to do about Christmas presents for the 2 year old. On the one hand it seems a bit silly to take presents that they have here in Rapid City on a 350 mile trip to be opened on Christmas Day and then load them back up and haul them back home. On the other hand, they thought that it might be confusing for the 2 year old to open the presents before they go on the trip and then have a Christmas celebration without gifts or with fewer gifts when they arrive. The dilemma of Santa Claus also was a bit daunting. They like the spirit of holiday generosity, but don’t want to get into the bind of intentionally lying to their children about the existence of a stranger who gains entry into their home and deposits gifts once a year.

It wasn’t an occasion for my comment, and I don’t think I would have had any expertise to offer, but it was a moment to reflect on how we make choices what and when we tell our children about various aspects of life and faith. I am grateful that there are thoughtful parents who are giving such matters serious thought and who persist in intentional parenting.

As is true of other aspects of Christianity, the story of the celebration of Christmas is complex. For the first Centuries of the emerging Christian movement, there was no official holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus. The biggest festival in the early centuries of Christianity centered on Easter. Among other things, Easter was the annual time for the reception of new members into the Christian community. This ceremony was preceded by a six-week period of fasting and preparation. After Christianity received official status as a Roman religion in the time of Constantine, the stream of new members became so big that the church was in need of a second entry point in the year. At the same time, the church was trying to avoid becoming too secularized and was resisting the over celebration of the annual solstice events that were considered to be pagan. The result was a second day of celebration preceded by a six-week time of preparation. Advent was the name given to the time of preparation and Christmas was set on December 25. The variation between the actual date of the holiday and the winter solstice is itself complex, and has to do with differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendar and increases in accuracy in measuring the movements of the planets, but the celebration date ended up close to the solstice.

The emergence of gift-giving as part of the celebration of Christmas was much later in the history of Christianity. In many parts of the world, gift giving is focused on St. Nicholas Day, celebrated on December 6, with Christmas being reserved for religious observances. It is all very complex, with all kinds of cultural differences and variations. Suffice it to say that religious leaders of the first 500 years of the church would not recognize the contemporary secular celebrations as having any connection with their faith.

Christmas as a secular marketing phenomena is evident in a quick drive around our neighborhood after dark when the lights are turned on. You’ll see a 10-foot tall Santa Claus, dressed in red and white, a cartoonish reindeer, several plastic snowmen, and a variety of other creatures. No one in our particular corner of the community has erected a nativity set or creche scene and the closest thing to to a religious symbol that I have observed are several stars, mostly five-pointed ones. Don’t look for religious references in the advertisements that clog the newspaper and pop up in annoying ways when you are trying to find something on the Internet. It seems as if the holiday is primarily an orgy of buying that exists to boost retail sales to make stores profitable before the end of the year.

Somewhere in the midst of all of the other things, however, is a beautiful and very important religious concept that is worthy of our exploration. Incarnation - God taking on human form - is not unique to Christianity. In fact it existed in both Egypt and Rome in variant forms before its prevalence in Christian theology. In both of those variants there was a connection made between the leaders of the official government and religious authority. The pharaoh or emperor was depicted as the child of God acting under the authority of God. As such the emergence of the ruler was filled with all kinds of magic and ceremony and the ruler was to be treated with special deference and afforded unique luxury and power.

The Christian story stood in stark contrast to previous ideas. In our faith God take form as a humble, everyday human being, born to poverty and subject to the vulnerability shared by every newborn baby. He did not grow up in luxury despite early recognition by his family and the leaders of the temple. He wasn’t given a life of power and recognition, but rather knew the struggles of the life of common people in an oppressive society. The details of his birth were not recorded in official record books, but rather preserved as family story, passed down from generation to generation in the manner of family tradition.

Only one of the four gospels gives any detail to the story of the birth. Luke’s narrative leaves much to the imagination, and we have enhanced that story in our pageants and displays. Matthew tells of the visit of the Magi without any information on the actual birth. The melding of the two stories into a single event has become tradition, but is not presented as an accurate picture of the events.

As a result there is no single “correct” way to observe Christmas. There is no single day, either. The church recognizes the twelve days between December 25 and January 6 as the season of Christmas.

Incarnation itself is messy. There is no reason for our celebrations to be overly neat and orderly.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!