Monday, November 26, 2018

The Birthday of the Sun/Son: How Saturnalia Became Christmas, Saint Nicholas Became Santa, And A Holiday Became A War

How did Christmas start? Why do we celebrate the way we do? What do all the symbols mean? Is it a Christian holiday or not?  Why is there a "war" every year? And should there be?

For better or worse, here is my attempt to sort through the history of this popular holiday. Keep in mind that there is a LOT of competing information out there about the history of Christmas. I have worked to find the truth, but my presentation is only as good as my sources, which I hope are reliable. 

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The date of Jesus’ birth is not known. It was not a priority in the early church, and no writer of Scripture saw fit to include a date.  Origen(c.185-c.254) said it would be wrong to honor Christ in the same way Pharaoh and Herod were honored (like, Herod got heads on a platter for his birthday). Birthdays were for pagan gods and kings.[1]Tertullian (155-240), among others, did not list Christmas as a Christian celebration.   

Dionysius, a monk, is famous for doing the historical math and arriving at a birth date around BC 12 He received a tradition that the Roman emperor Augustus reigned 43 years and was followed by the emperor Tiberius. Jesus was 30 in the 15thyear of Tiberius’ reign (Luke 3), which meant he lived 15 years under Augustus (so, born in the 28thyear of Augustus reign).Others disagreed. An anonymous document from North Africa placed Jesus birth on March 28; Clement (bishop of Alexandria) thought Jesus was born on November 18. Based on historical records, another dude (Fitzmyer) guessed that Jesus was born on September 11, BC 3. 

Generally, Jesus’ birth date is now placed around 4 BC, but there is nothing of theological or spiritual significance that hangs on this date.  He almost certainly was not born in December. 


Romans observed Saturnalia between December 17-25. It was a holiday in honor of Saturn, “the birthday of the unconquered sun,” and it was a party (to say the least) characterized by a lot of personal and societal chaos. Some of the upper classes celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun who was born of a rock, on December 25. However, that influence seems minor compared to Saturnalia.

During Saturnalia, Roman communities would chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.”  They selected someone who was forced to indulge in all the pleasures throughout the week.  On December 25th, they symbolically destroyed the forces of darkness by murdering them.[5] Eventually, in 274 AD, the Emperor Aurelian created a holiday on December 25 called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – the birthday of the Sun. The Greek writer Lucian said there were other customs as well, like going from house to house while singing naked consuming human-shaped biscuits.
Fast forward to the 300s, when Pope Julius I chose December 25 as a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, probably to accommodate converts who were used to being a part of the Saturnalia festival. There was plenty of imagery to tap into (light over darkness, conquering the Lord of Misrule, the birth of the unconquered ‘son’, etc). [6]  The church quickly embraced this. 

  • A Christian writer, in 320: “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.”[8] 
  • In A.D. 336 we first see these words officially: "25 Dec.: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae." December 25th, Christ born in Bethlehem, Judea. 
  • By AD 386, Chrysostom was preaching, "Without the birth of Christ there is no Baptism, no Passion, no Resurrection, no Ascension and no Pouring out of the Holy Spirit."[9]
  • In 389, St Gregory warned against 'feasting in excess, dancing and crowning the doors'. [10]
  • Augustine (354-430 AD), while cautioning against celebrating the Sun like the pagans did, wrote: “So then, let us celebrate the birthday of the Lord with all due festive gatherings.”[11]

Christmas (then called Feast of the Nativity) spread to Egypt (in the 400s), England (in the 500s), Scandinavia by the 700s (we get the language of “Yule” and the tradition of Yule logs from them), and Russia by the 900s.
During the Middle Ages (400-1400) Christianity eventually became a formative behind this celebratory time. While the church formally increased the focus, a lot of the informal celebration was not as focused. The poor would go to the rich and demand their best food and drink, like a Christmas version of trick or treat. There was a significant economic Reason For The Season as Christmas became a time when the rich evened the unfair economic score by entertaining the poor. 
The earthly benefits remained a focal point for a long time. The Church had a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve (“Christ’s Mass”, 1039); one reason this was such a celebration was that it marked the transition from fasting to feasting. [12]As much as the Church formally focused on Jesus, Christmas was never fully able to avoid excess once it got outside the confines of the church building. 
In the 1620s- 1640s,  Separatists who ‘separated’ from the Church of England sailed across the pond and came to America. They brought with them no desire to continue the observation of Christmas as it happened in England. Christmas was a time of drunkenness, rioting and “misrule’, unfortunately, better honored (if I may quote Hamlet) in the breech than the observance.
When Oliver Cromwelland the Long Parliament took over England around that same time (1645), they vowed to rid England of decadence and, among other things, cancelled all Christian holidays except Sunday. They even changed the name of Christmas to “Christ-tide” to avoid the word “mass.” 
Charles II resurrected the holiday when he was restored to the throne in 1660, and it has remained ever since.


The Puritans did NOT bring Christmas with them to what we now call the New England states. In fact, from 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston (you could be fined five shillings for exhibiting Christmas spirit). The Puritans were generally a fun-loving bunch (beer was their beverage of choice at Thanksgiving), but if we want to talk about the War on Christmas in the history of U.S. culture, the Puritans win hands down. 
On the other hand, John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all at Jamestown, which was settled by Anglicans, people who still were loyal to the Church of England. 
Whatever Christmas momentum might have started in Jamestown faded for a while after the American RevolutionHowever, carols remained popular, and churches did not stop celebrating the birth of Jesus. Peter Kalm, a Swede who visited Philadelphia in 1749,wrote: 
"Nowhere was Christmas Day celebrated with more solemnity than in the Roman Church. Three sermons were preached there, and that which contributed most to the splendor of the ceremony was the beautiful music heard to-day. . . . Pews and altar were decorated with branches of mountain laurel, whose leaves are green in winter time and resemble the (cherry laurel)."
This was the same year that Quakers forbade the observance - in Philadelphia. This kind of clashing experience was not unusual. In just a single state, one could have entirely different experiences.
Fast forward to the 1800s. Unemployment and poverty were high, and actual riots by the poor often occurred during Christmas. New York city created the city’s first police force to respond to a Christmas riot. 
In 1819, Washington Irving wrote a book (The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent)that was basically a series of stories/essays that featured an English squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday where the two groups mingled in friendship. To Irving, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday that united people from every walk of life. 
Around that time, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, a novel which had a huge impact in both England the U.S. Note, once again, a strong economic Reason for the Season in both these influential books as opposed to a spiritual reason for observing Christmas. 
This is when people in the United States really began to see Christmas as a national holiday characterized by love, generosity and warmth. The U.S. being the melting pot that it was, people began building traditions from all sorts of sources,[13] For example, German immigrants brought their tradition of putting lights, sweets and toys on the branches of evergreen trees placed in their homes.

In June 26, 1870, Christmas was officially declared a federal holiday (a number of states, especially from the Anglican tradition in the South, had already made it a state holiday).
To summarize: the Church embraced a cultural holiday and sought to redeem it. I have no problem with this; in fact, I think it’s a great idea. At the same time, we must be honest that we moved into an existing celebration, and the cultural observance has always had a strong influence. These two focuses have always lived in tension, with an ebb and flow to which focus moves front and center.  More on this later.


THE CHRISTMAS TREE: Pagans had long used trees as an accompaniment to their worship (the oak was a popular one). Christianity did not ban trees; it changed the focus.  Around 700, the trees associated with pagan worship were replaced by the fir tree as symbol of Christianity (because of its triangle shape /the Trinity) The ‘ever green’ was also associated with eternal life. 
TINSEL: Legend says a poor family wished to decorate their Christmas tree but had nothing. A spider spun a web on the tree at night, and Baby Jesus turned those threads into silver. 
CANDY CANE: the shepherd’s crook of the Good Shepherd.
POINSETTIAS: the star of Bethlehem. 
WREATH: a symbol of true love, which never ceases.
HOLLY:a symbol of the crown of thorns worn by Christ on the cross.
BELLS: They stand for joy, and as a reminder that Jesus is the Great High Priest (Jewish priests had bells attached to the hem of their robes).
TREE BAUBLES OR BALLS:in early church calendars of saints, December 24th was Adam and Eve's day.[16]The tree became a symbol of the tree of Paradise, and people started decorating it with red apples (originally the apples were a reminder of sin; they morphed into a symbol for the fruits of the Spirit). 
LIGHTS: A story is told that, one night before Christmas, Martin Luther was walking through the forest and looked up to see the stars shining through the tree branches. It was so beautiful, that he went home and told his children that it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas. He then brought a tree indoors and decorated it with candles in honor of Christ’s birth (indoor stars!). [17] 
MISTLETOE has my favorite plant name: “dung twig.” the Druids associated it with fertility. In the Middle Ages in England, it was hung to ward off evil spirits and witches. In Scandinavia, it was a plant of peace. In Norse legend, it was a symbol that reminded them to protect life. In many cultures it was considered a cure-all medicine. The Catholic church banned it for a while because of how much the pagans loved it, but it’s easy to see how it blended into a celebration of a baby that would heal all nations and bring peace, and who died so we could live. 
CHRISTMAS PRESENTS: ideally, a reminder of the gifts of the Magi and of God’s gift of Jesus to us. The giving of gifts really took off in the mid 1800s in the United States - it was largely absent before - and in the church there was a lot of concern that this was "a worrisome, materialistic perversion of a holy day."

NATIVITY SCENES: the Gospels do not mention there being any oxen, donkeys, camels or Magi at the manger. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, a medieval text, has heavily influenced the images in our heads as well as our Christmas songs. Tradition about the Magi built from some assumptions from OT passages (Isaiah 1:2-3; 60:3, 6, 10-11;Psalm 72:10). An early church leader named Origen decided that Genesis 22 had something to say about the Magi, so he set the number at 3. Don’t ask me to explain why.

SAINT NICHOLAS/SANTA CLAUS: The Catholic Church associated gift giving with Saint Nicholas, one of the bishops who convened the Council of Nicaea in 325. Legend says he became aware of some desperate needs in his congregation (a desperate family selling their children into slavery, among other things), so he gave money, fruit, food, etc.[18] 
In 1087, a group of sailors moved his bones to Italy and basically worshipped him. This group (a cult, really) was eventually adopted into German and Celtic pagan religions. These Celts worshipped Woden (from whom we get the word Wednesday), who had a long, white beard and rode a horse through the heavens. As these Celts converted into the Catholic Church, the church moved that horse ride through the heavens to December 25. St. Nicholas was the rider, not Woden. Problem solved!
In 1809, Washington Irving wrote a story[19]that featured a white bearded, flying-horse riding Saint Nicholas using his Dutch name, Santa Claus. Then, in 1822, we got this iconic poem (based on Irving’s writing): “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.  The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in the hope that Saint Nicholas soon would be there…”  
Soon after that poem, an illustrator named Thomas Nast drew more than 2,000 cartoons of Santa for Harper’s Weekly. Nast moved Santa to the North Pole, gave him a workshop filled with elves and a list of the good and bad children of the world.  
 In 1931, the Coca Cola insisted that Santa, who was the face of their new campaign, be in a bright, Coca Cola red suit.[20]

So, to hit the highlights on Santa Claus: A Christian bishop from the Council of Nicaea filtered through Celtic gods, Dutch culture and American cartoons, and brought to you by Coca-Cola. :)  


On The Saturnalia Connection

As a Christian, I am not put off by this muddled holiday history. Christianity has a rich tradition of moving into cultural celebrations or images and redeeming them to point toward Jesus. Art, music, symbols and holidays have been subverted and converted to the glory of God for 2,000 years.

Integrating Christians worship with the existing flow of culture didn’t always happen smoothly, and there was clearly the danger of Christianity being subverted instead of the other way around. But just as Jesus came to seek and to save lost people, the followers of Jesus have taken the time to at least attempt to seek and save the 'lost’ customs which have influential and formative roles in the lives of lost people. As much as we can point people toward Jesus at Christmas, from whom True Peace, Hope and Love come, more power to us.

On The War On Christmas

In the 1600s, the Puritans abolished Christmas. In the 1800s, it was the Quakers. In the 1920s, Henry Ford complained about the Jews abolishing Christmas and Easter from schools. In the 1950's, the John Birch Society blamed the U.N. for trying to replace Christmas symbols with U.N. symbols (?). The most recent iteration of the 'War on Christmas' can probably be traced to John Gibson, who appeared on Bill O’Reilly's show in 2005 to promote a book he had recently written, The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. 

In some sense, there has always been someone "at war" with how or why Christmas is observed. This is no surprise. This is a clash of worldviews that has been happening for 2,000 years. Sometimes it's exaggerated; sometimes it's not.

The question: how much should Christians insist that others celebrate or observe Christmas on our terms? The answer (or at least my answer): we shouldn't. In other words, I think we need to relax with our concern about the War on Christmas. From Relevant Magazine: 

“The War on Christmas” is predicated on the idea that mainstream, American culture (in this case, American consumer culture) should mirror Christian values. But the reality is these values are in conflict with each other, regardless of whether we receive a catalog in the mail says “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” 

Many “War on Christmas” advocates demand that retailers use the term “Christmas” in their marketing and sales material. The argument is that by keeping the term “Christ” associated with the event (even if it’s in the form of selling discounted tires), then we are somehow honoring His name and properly reflecting on His birth.
But Christ never wanted a brand. He didn’t ask us to use His name to sell stuff. He didn’t even ask us to celebrate His birthday... 

There is a real danger that one day we will have taken “the Christ out of Christmas.” But that won’t happen when people stop saying “Merry Christmas” in favor of “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings." Christ is “taken out of” Christmas when we forget what His birth—and His life—were all about...

There is a real war on Christmas. But it won’t play out in advertising, marketing materials or on fast-food marquees. The real war on Christmas happens in each of us when we try to reconcile the values of a consumer-driven culture with the birth of a Savior who wants us to let go of the things of this world.

I can’t imagine Jesus or the early church supporting Christians being offended that those outside the church don’t embrace this time as a celebration of Jesus.  We, of all people, ought to be showing what good will on earth looks like.  We ought to be the ones from whom the light of kindness and joy point toward the Light of the World.

If Starbucks wants to print a cup that says “Happy Saturnalia,” and businesses require employees to say “Happy Holidays,” that’s their call. They don’t worship like I do; I don't expect them to celebrate Jesus like I do. Meanwhile, Hobby Lobby and Chick-Fil-A will say Merry Christmas. Cool. If nobody puts a creche on a public space, that's fine; I can put one in my front yard or on my church property. 
The church has always lived in this tension. Our job is to be Christ-like in the midst of it, not turn it into a war. 
Merry Christmas!

[19]A satire of Dutch culture called Knickerbocker History

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