I love Christmas and even during this over-commercialized season of secular preparation, even as I try to maintain a proper sense of Advent in my life, I do confess that the odd Christmas carol will percolate into my mind and onto my lips as we get closer. However, I have to add that, spiritually, I find Easter to be far more powerful a liturgical and religious experience. Easter is the central event of the Church year and always has been. We could knock Christmas right off the calendar and it wouldn’t change our faith one jot; whereas, the loss of Easter would make Christianity practically meaningless. In fact, in the earliest years of the Church there was no Christmas! Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany were the great feasts of the year. So where did Christmas come from?
Cultures around the world have held some sort of observation around the time of the Winter solstice. The pagan world knew many ceremonies which had to do with rekindling the dwindling light of the sun and renewing life in general. In the Roman world there were considerable celebration in the name of the god Saturn: The usual order of the year was suspended: grudges and quarrels forgotten; wars interrupted or postponed. Business, courts, schools closed. Rich and poor were equal, slaves were served by masters, children headed the family.
As Christianity became part of the Roman world, the faithful would make themselves obvious by not participating in the revels of Saturnalia. We can imagine Christian children pestering their parents: “but everybody else on our block is decorating their house, why can’t we?”
However it happened, the Feast of the Nativity was added to the calendar and Christians had something they could celebrate. Indeed, the images of light in the darkness and of the renewalof life are woven into the Nativity making the solstice a reasonable time to celebrate Jesus’ birth even though he was probably born in the springtime. But that’s a topic for another article. A parallel to this is the development of Hanukkah as a mid-winter celebration amon
g those Jews living in the Christian world. Hanukkah is not a very significant feast and was not much observed in olden times but has been boosted (and marketed as Christmas has been) so that Jewish families can celebrate along with their neighbors.
Christmas has also adopted pagan elements such as the wreathe, the Christmas tree, holly, ivy and mistletoe. And even old St. Nicholas, so central to Christmas as we know it, has absolutely nothing to do with the Nativity. With our latter-day saturnalian revels and the relentless hype of commercialism, the religious element of Christmas is just about buried. Yet I love Christmas even though I won’t argue for the factuality of the nativity stories either. (Yet another article!)
Christopher L. David