Christmas presents pastors and churches with a challenge that Easter does not. Easter bunnies and chicks have only nibbled and pecked at the margins of the day Christians call “The Resurrection of the Lord.” Easter has suffered but a glancing blow from the secularizing, sentimentalizing and commercializing forces of the culture. On the other hand, Christmas, “The Nativity of the Lord,” has suffered a body blow from these same cultural forces, rendering the day a pummeled and barely recognizable from of the “real” Christmas churches imagine it once was. The challenge pastors and congregations face in keeping a faithful Christmas is real, but the truth about Christmas and its history and keeping is more complicated than most imagine.
RETURNING TO “CHRISTMAS OF YORE”?
I had a friend, a next-door neighbor on Long Island who grew up in a big, boisterous Irish- Catholic clan in south Queens. He never much went to church, but he had opinions on religious matters. He once told me how offensive he found the common abbreviation for Christmas, “X-mas.” When I quizzed him, it turned out that he understood it to imply that Christ was being “x-ed out” of Christmas, as if the abbreviation meant that Christ was crossed out of Christmas. I decided not to explain that the letter X in our alphabet looks much the same as the letter chi in the Greek alphabet, and that chi is the first letter of Christ, so the X in X-mas is actually a Greek chi, and chi is an abbreviation for Christ. “X-mas” doesn’t cross Christ out; it abbreviates the name.
Christians do rightly worry that Christ is getting “x-ed out” of Christmas, noting that the popular Christmas of our culture, “The Holidays” as political-correctness names the season, seems lamentably light on Christian content. Christmas, they note, is popular in Japan, a country with very few Christians. So concerned Christians suggest: Let’s stop “x-ing” Christ out of Christmas and get back to the good-old, “spiritual” Christmas of yore. I have even heard suggestions that the church might do well to celebrate the birth of Jesus at another time of the year and let our post-Christian world have what’s left of its secularized “holidays.” The problem with these understandable sentiments is that there never was a good-old, purely spiritual “Christmas of yore.” Christmas has always been an admixture of the sacred and the secular, an interweaving of faith and culture, a fusion of the spiritual and the material. Today’s cultural Christmas may indeed be an awkward intersection of heaven and earth, but the equally awkward fact is that Christmas has, in some measure, always been this wThe early church paid little or no attention to celebrating Christ’s birth. Good Friday, Easter and the preparatory season we name Lent were the center of the Christian calendar. Christmas as a liturgical marking of Christ’s birth was not noted by Christians until the third century — and then spottily and on no agreed-upon date. When some Christians began to consider remembering the birth of Jesus liturgically, the church was pressed to find a date for doing so. But no one knew the date of Jesus’ birth. The lone biblical clue as to the day is Luke’s note that Christ was born when “there were shepherds living in the fields.” Ironically, it’s likely that in first century Jewish Palestine, shepherds were “in the fields” perhaps nine months of the year, every month except the coldest ones: December, January and February.
WHY DECEMBER 25?
How the church settled on December 25th is opaque, but there are several surmises as to why this date was finally settled upon, an agreement not reached until the sixth century. One argument for December 25 emerged when some early Christian scholars computed that Jesus had been crucified on March 25. Many ancients subscribed to the “whole year theory,” which assumed that great figures like Jesus must have been born on same date as their death. This would have suggested March 25 as the proper date to celebrate Jesus’ Nativity, obviously a liturgical problem, as Christmas would routinely fall on or near Good Friday. To work around this quandary and still remain faithful to the whole year theory, it was suggested that Jesus was perhaps conceived rather than born on the date of his computed death, implying a birth date nine months later on December 25.
Another possible reason for the selection of December 25 is the fact that the third century Roman emperor Valerian had sponsored a new religion he hoped would eclipse the increasing popular Christianity, his sun-worshipping cult of Sol Invictus. Valerian chose as his focus holiday December 25, the date the Roman calendar then thought to be the winter solstice, the day the sun begins to come back. It may be that the church chose the same date to counter Valerian’s neo-pagan monotheism. Additionally, Romans had long celebrated another December holiday, a monumental bash called “Saturnalia” featuring lots of food, alcohol, gift-giving, wild partying and role-reversals in which the powerful waited upon the poor and the marginalized played at being the powerful. Saturnalia ran from December 17 to the 23. The church, some speculate, might have chosen December as a counterpoint for its own more subdued party. But mostly, it would seem that December 25 made emblematic and theological sense. Christ is “the light of the world” as John’s Gospel declares, so it made perfect sense to celebrate that light breaking into the world’s darkness on the assumed day of the winter solstice, the day the light begins its return.
ST. NICHOLAS ARRIVES ON THE SCENE
As Christianity spread, Christmas adapted to local cultures, merrily adopting cultural artifacts of the diverse peoples who began to keep Christmas. Christmas was not the same in Egypt or Spain, in Iraq or Italy, in England or Africa. Today, however, the “Christmas season” celebrated in distant corners of the earth is becoming increasingly globalized, uniform, commercialized, trite and, of course, largely de-Christianized. As a New Yorker, it pains me to confess that this global Christmas most of the world now keeps was in great measure invented in New York. New York took the lead in commercializing Christmas, helped sentimentalize it, rendered it more child-centered than it had ever been and New York gave Christmas Santa Claus.
As many Christians know, the original St. Nicholas was indeed a real person, an obscure fourth century bishop from Asia Minor. Little is known about him, but in the Middle Ages, Nicholas became one of the most popular saints in Christendom. Wondrous Nicholas stories blossomed, one of the most popular of which told how Nicholas rescued three young daughters of an impoverished family from immanent slavery by sequentially tossing three bags of gold through the window of their house. Hence, the notion of giving gifts via the window — or later, the chimney. St. Nicholas’ feast day was (and is) December 6.
In the early 19th century 1,400 years later, a New Yorker named Washington Irving wrote a tongue-in-cheek history of the state in which he opined that this St. Nicholas had been the patron saint of old Dutch New York, erstwhile New Amsterdam, and that he gave gifts to children on December 6. He did so, Irving noted, riding on a wagon pulled by a horse. And now his gifts went down the chimney rather than through the window.
Just over a decade later, in 1821, Clement Clark Moore, a professor at General Theological Seminary in New York, wrote a poem that he read to his six children on Christmas Eve. He called it “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” We know it by the first line: ’Twas the night before Christmas. Moore cribbed much of Irving’s material and added some luscious details of his own: Irving’s horse became “eight tiny reindeer,” the wagon was transformed into a sleigh and, most importantly, St. Nicholas’ visit was moved to the night of December 24. His name would later be bowdlerized into “Santa Claus.” It was only two centuries ago that St. Nicholas was first connected to Christmas.
GLOBALIZED, COMMERCIALIZED CHRISTMAS
New York, as the emerging hub of global capitalism, also successfully commercialized modern Christmas, making it into an occasion to spend money so you could give stuff. Macy’s, the city’s flagship department store, did not single- handedly commercialize Christmas, but their Thanksgiving Day parade is emblematic of the raucous commerce that invaded Christmas. The first parade was held in 1924 as an intentional imitation of circus parades. People followed circus parades to the circus and bought tickets. Similarly, people followed the Thanksgiving parade to Macy’s at 34th Street and bought stuff. That first parade had live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. Live animals were risky, so the 1927 parade featured gigantic papier-mâché creatures, and then in 1928, the balloons. New York, one can argue, invented the Christmas we know today. Between roughly 1820 and the 1940s, New York — and soon much of the world — fell for a globalized, commercialized, romanticized and child-centered iteration of the 1,400-year-old holiday. Christmas was again acculturated, but not regionally and nationally as before, rather now globally, fusing the venerable Feast of the Nativity with a global culture of commerce and sentiment.
To return to the original practical question: How are pastors and congregations to faithfully keep a day that has so slipped its moorings? The sectarian call to withdraw wholly from the cultural Christmas is tempting, but frankly unrealistic. More importantly, such a strategy is theologically problematic.
The fact that Christmas has everywhere and from its beginnings combined the sacred with secular is actually theologically fitting. The Christian Christmas is an annual liturgical affirmation of the doctrine of the incarnation, the bold assertion that in Jesus Christ God has invaded human time and space, the transcendent trespassing into the human — human culture included. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
So, it was that in the 4th and 5th centuries, the God who took on flesh invaded that bawdy Roman Saturnalia with its feasting and its roll-reversals and infused it with Christ. Christmas feasting became an affirmation of the generosity of the Creator and goodness of the creation. Social rolls were still reversed, but in a new way as the child born to peasants in a stable became the Sovereign of Heaven and
Earth, great gift-bearing Magi from the East kneeling at the feeding trough where he lay. The God who took on flesh likewise invaded Aurelian’s Sol Invictus, the “unconquered sun,” and injected Christ, “the true Light which enlightens everyone.” In the early Middle Ages, the God who took on flesh invaded pagan German winter solstice trees and made them into Christmas trees. The God who took on flesh invaded heathen Scandinavian evergreen circles and made them into Advent wreaths.
The God who once deigned to take on mortal flesh can, we should trust, still invade our present-day, fleshly, flashy, earthly Christmas in all its hoopla. There’s much to be said for Christian efforts to “put Christ back in Christmas.” Congregations singing Christmas hymns and pastors preaching Christmas sermons do exactly that. But even as the faithful stubbornly keep Christ in Christmas, we do well to remember that Christ has long done a remarkably good job of keeping Christ in Christmas.
MICHAEL LINDVALL is pastor of Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City.