If there is one aspect of American life that vividly illustrates the ‘culture war’ between traditional Christianity and our modern secular society it might be the observance of Christmas. It seems that a growing number of non-Christians take offense at any perceptible hint of religious meaning in the public observance of this holiday and even bristle at the name. Christians, on the other hand, increasingly grumble about the secular neutering of “our” church festival into a winter holiday devoid of any religious context.
This annual tension between competing value systems is not new – the Christ vs. culture conflict has been part of the observance of this day from the start. Originally, however, it was the pagans celebrating their religious festival that the early Christians wanted no part of. In ancient times as the days grew shorter with the approach of winter, people noted with dismay how the sun seemed to be ‘dying.’ So December 25 was celebrated as the ‘Nativity of the Sun’ when the sun god was reborn. This was the basis for various pagan religious rites and some serious partying. Not surprisingly, early Christians took a dim view of such things.
In fact, the very idea of an annual observance of Christ’s birth seems to have been far from the minds of the early Christians. Celebrating birthdays was a distasteful concept for ancient Jews because of the pagan association of birth dates with occult portents and magical rituals (indeed, such familiar customs as giving gifts and blowing out candles while making a wish seem to have their roots in pagan practices). So the earliest Christians, who mostly came from a Jewish background, made no attempt to celebrate Christ’s nativity. For them Easter, the date of His resurrection, was THE important annual observance.
That indifference to birthdays may explain why two of our four Gospels mention nothing of the event at all – and the two that do (Matthew and Luke) make no attempt to pin down the date. What we can be pretty sure about, however, is that it almost certainly wasn’t December 25! Since “there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” the birth must have been at a warmer time of year because Palestinian sheep herders kept their flocks under cover during the cold winter months.
It wasn’t until 354 AD that Bishop Liberius of Rome decreed that December 25 should be an official date for celebrating the nativity of our Lord – and it is widely speculated that his motivation was to provide his flock with an alternative to the debauchery that accompanied the pagan celebrations on this date. By now Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire, so Christmas preempted the older observance – at least in principle. However, many Christmas traditions (such as the Yule log and mistletoe) continued to be imported from pagan practices. (It’s also interesting to note that this was a few decades after the death of St. Nicholas, who lived in Turkey, not at the North Pole, and had no known association with either reindeer or elves!)
In modern times, things seem to have come full circle, with Christians wondering how to react to a church festival that seems to have again become hostage to ‘false gods’ of materialism and self-indulgence. Indeed, even among church members, participation in worship often seems to be considered secondary to other Christmas activities.
We can look at such trends with dismay as marking the demise of a ‘traditional’ image of Christmas that many of us hold dear. But perhaps it is only fitting that the observance of the nativity of our Lord become again a time where the followers of Jesus are called to intentionally disengage from the frantic festivities and priorities of contemporary culture so that our true focus may be on God’s faithfulness in fulfilling His promises:
“And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’” (Luke 2:10-11)