20 November 2021 Speaker: Pr Barnabas Chong
As mentioned earlier, what we are going to discuss today is a festival we are all very familiar with. Because we are reaching the end of the year, when we were thinking about what topic to discuss with all of you today, we thought about discussing Christmas.
Christmas is usually very closely associated with the church. What is Christianity about? What is Christmas? People say that Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Christ. If you put it in this way, it seems like Christmas is a festival celebrated by Christians.
However, if you have observed, there are also people who are not Christians who seem to celebrate Christmas. There are even some people in opposition to Christianity who appear to celebrate Christmas. They take it as an occasion to exchange gifts. There is this action of exchanging gifts but what does it symbolize? It is usually associated with a time of gathering, reunion, and thanksgiving. In Europe, this is akin to what Chinese New Year might be to some of us here.
Some people also take this time as a period for sales. During every festival, there will be many sales. But, during this period, as many people are purchasing gifts to exchange them, the sales volume will be larger during this period.
So, when you ask this question, “What is Christmas?”, with these three points I will share, we can roughly describe Christmas. How did things end up in this state? How did Christmas as we know it today come to be so? These three things seem to be representative of what Christmas is.
In English, we call the festival Christmas. Christmas is made of two words. Christmas is made up of the words “Christ” and “Mass”. Christ is Jesus Christ. The second word is mass. Mass, if you are familiar with what the Catholics practice, is something they have during their worship. Service for them is called mass. When you put these two words together to get Christmas, it means “service for Christ”.
In the history of the church, around the period of AD 300, Christmas was never celebrated. It only began to be celebrated from AD 300 onwards. It was first recorded that Christmas was celebrated in AD 336. And initially, it was not called Christmas. It was called the Mid-Winter Feast. It was only in the 9th century that the festival was called Christmas. How did this thing come to be? How did this festival become associated with Christianity?
In many cultures, there is the celebration of the Winter Solstice. Even the Chinese celebrate the Winter Solstice and this year, it is on 21 November. What does the Winter Solstice represent? After the period of long nights in the winter, starting from the point of the Winter Solstice onwards, the days start to become longer. This is a natural phenomenon observed by everyone in many cultures of the world. That is why many cultures celebrate the Winter Solstice. So, in Northern Europe, they celebrate this as a festival.
The origins of Christmas came about from the way the Northern European countries celebrated the Winter Solstice. First, let us talk about Rome. In Rome, people celebrated Saturnalia. Saturnalia was a celebration of the Winter Solstice. In Rome at that time, they worshipped the god Saturn. So, using Saturnalia, they would worship Saturn.
During the festival, there would be much revelry and merry-making. For the Romans, this festival would be celebrated in this way by people of the lower class in society. The Romans would take someone from the lower class in society and treat this person as the master. They would celebrate with much revelry.
For those of the upper class, they would worship the sun god. This sun god was called Mithra. They would say that this sun god was invincible. They had a term for this god: Sol Invictus.
Why was this sun god considered someone who was unmatched? Because in the winter, the Romans would think that the sun has been consumed by the night. But once the Winter Solstice arrived, the sun god would be revived. They would say that the nights could not consume the sun god and that he has revived. For the Romans, they would celebrate this on the 25th of the 12th month. They would say that this is the birthday of the unconquered sun. This was the way in which the Romans celebrated this festival.
In other parts of Northern Europe, they would also have the Yule festival. Yule was celebrated from the period about 21 December to January. 21 December was the period when the days started to become longer again. The way they celebrated this Winter Solstice was to go to the forest and cut a huge tree down. The father would bring this huge log back with his sons and they would burn this log. This is a way in which they celebrated the Winter Solstice.If you celebrate Christmas nowadays, you might have this practice of buying a cake in the shape of a log from the cake shop. You can make this link about how log cakes came about. Those in these parts of Northern Europe would also have the practice of bringing an evergreen tree back to their house. Why? Throughout the winter, the tree would be green, symbolizing life and the strength of life.
How about Germany? The Germans termed it as Mid-Winter Holiday. On this day, they would remember the god Odin. If we have watched Marvel movies, we might know that Odin is the father of the thunder god Thor. They would commemorate Odin because they believed that Odin would be flying through the sky. He would be observing the people, noting who should be punished and who should be blessed. So, the Germans have this explanation for why they celebrate this festival. This is the manner in which European cultures celebrated the Winter Solstice.
We also know that around this period, Christianity started to prosper, spreading from Rome, then throughout the European countries. When Christianity started to dominate these countries, many people started to believe in the religion. Although they started to believe, they still held on to these practices.
Hence the church made this decision at the time: they started to assimilate these festivals into Christianity because there was no way for them to prevent these pagan festivals from being celebrated. Everyone was celebrating them. They introduced these festivals into Christianity and Christianised them. How did they Christianise them? They made the celebration of these pagan festivals legitimate.
In the 4th century, the church fixed 25 December as the date Jesus was born. In the 5th century, the church even appointed this date to be celebrated as the birth of Jesus in perpetuity. But is there any relationship between the birthday of the Lord Jesus and 25 December? Well, they thought of a way to make a link and associate these things together.
But to you who fear My name
The Sun of Righteousness shall arise
With healing in His wings;
And you shall go out
And grow fat like stall-fed calves.
This verse says that the Sun of Righteousness shall arise. When they saw this verse, they said, “Oh, it is the Sun of Righteousness who shall arise! Doesn’t this refer to Jesus Christ? Jesus is the Son of Righteousness.” On 25 December, the church was celebrating the birth of the sun, so the church put these two things together. “The night could not overcome the sun” became “the night could not overcome the Unconquered Son, Jesus”. Now they had made this link between Jesus and 25 December, saying that Jesus was born on this day. Hence they started celebrating the Winter Solstice as the day Jesus was born.
Simply put, when the Christians tried to preach to the people in Europe because these people in Europe had their own festivals and practices, the church introduced and assimilated their practices into Christianity to resolve the issue. This is how these festivals started to become associated with Christianity.
In the 16th century, there was a reformation in Christianity. In the 17th century, there were also revolutions in certain countries.
At that time, there was a religious sect called the Puritans. The Puritans originated from England, and their aim was to drive out the practices of the Roman Catholic church which had infiltrated into the church and which they deemed as incorrect. So the Puritans decided to do away with Christmas. So, in the 17th century, no one in England celebrated Christmas. But once the leader, the figurehead of the puritan movement, passed away, the celebration of Christmas resumed.
Although there was this move to drive out the celebration of Christmas, the people amongst the ground still celebrated Christmas in some form too. When the Puritans arrived in America, in about 1659, they tried to do away with Christmas. However, there were still people secretly celebrating Christmas. After the American Revolution, anything associated with England was despised and not looked favorably upon, and Christmas was included in these things. The celebration of Christmas ceased in America for about 200 years.
But in the 19th century, the celebration of Christmas started again. In New York, the divide between the rich and the poor started to widen. So, when people were celebrating Christmas, they caused a lot of problems. The celebrations were rowdy and riotous, so the government had to establish a special police force to deal with the rowdiness of the celebrations. But at this time you would find that the celebration of Christmas started again.
In the 19th Century, the celebration of Christmas took on a different meaning. It was not merely for religious reasons, not confined to the celebration for religious reasons. It was also to celebrate family, to do good, and to practice compassion. Why was there such a shift?
Because of the chaos generated from these Christmas celebrations, there was this author called Washington Irving who wrote this book to express how people should celebrate Christmas. In the book, he would describe how a rich person would invite the poor into his house to celebrate Christmas. The background of this is because, in the context of New York, there was a widening gap between the rich and the poor. The author wanted to turn the celebration of Christmas into a heartwarming and cozy holiday. The Americans thought that this was not a bad idea so they accepted it.
In England in 1843, there was this author called Charles Dickens, who wrote the book “A Christmas Carol”, concerning Christmas. There was this person in his stories who was very miserly. He experienced some things in the course of the story and became generous. The story described how he started to become generous and bought gifts for his relatives. This story describes how Christmas could be celebrated in generosity and with family. In this book, someone wished the character “Merry Christmas”, which is a saying that existed a very long time ago. But because Dickens wrote this in his book, people adopted it and started to use it as a form of greeting. The way that we know how Christmas was celebrated today was greatly influenced by these two authors.
In the 19th century, there was a shift in the attitude towards parenting. Parents started not to discipline and treat their children as strictly as they had. They also wanted to understand the emotional needs of the child more. So, they made use of this opportunity during the period of Christmas to buy gifts for their children to show their concern for their children. The period of Christmas became a time for reunion and celebration. It also became a time for buying gifts for children because they needed to give gifts to children.
This is why Christmas is celebrated in the way it is today: because of the events in the 19th century. And this is why as I mentioned at the start, we think of Christmas in these three points: the birth of Christ, gift exchanges, and sales.
Let’s look at other aspects of Christmas. Let’s look at Santa Claus, an important figure in the whole celebration of Christmas. Among kids, Santa Claus is very popular because once they see him, they know that they will receive gifts from him. How was he introduced into the celebration?
In the 4th century, there was this Greek bishop Saint Nicholas, someone who was generous to the poor. There were some stories of how he had sold his possessions to give to the poor. Another story was about how a father wanted to sell off his three daughters, but Saint Nicholas used his own money to prepare the dowry for the three daughters so that the father could marry them off instead. Saint Nicholas was a saint beloved by many, especially the sailors and children, because they believed that this saint would help them. But he died on 6 December, which became known as Saint Nick’s Day. He was more influential amongst the Dutch people, being known as Sinterklass. This also meant that he would give them gifts.
Sinterklass was the name given to him by the Dutch. At that time, there were Dutch sailors who made their way to America. There, “Sinterklass” became “Santa Claus”. These Dutch sailors brought the tale of the generous Saint Nicholas, about how he gave to the poor. In 1821 AD, there was this author who wrote a book “A Visit from Saint Nick/A Christmas Eve”. In this story, Clement Clarke Moore described this figure going down the chimneys and riding on a sleigh with reindeer. This developed this myth of Santa Claus’ existence.
But in fact, Santa Claus also has other origins in Europe. There was a myth of Odin riding on his steed, similar to the image of Santa Claus riding on his sleigh. This is how the image of Santa Claus has been influenced by European mythology.
Let’s look at the appearance of Santa Claus. In the early years, he appeared as a plump, big-bellied dutch sailor wearing a green winter coat. Later on, how did his appearance change? The writer Thomas Nast described Santa Claus in a different way. He described Santa Claus as someone living in the North pole. He was fat and he wore red and white.
Subsequently, Coca-Cola wanted to print an image of Santa on their bottles, and that is why we know Santa Claus as someone who is in red and white. So although Santa Claus seems to have come from Christianity, his existence carries with it some form of mythology.
Now let’s look at a Christmas tree. As we mentioned earlier, the people had this practice of bringing back evergreen trees.
Christmas trees are commonly evergreen trees. Pine trees are usually used as Christmas trees because evergreen trees represent eternal life. The tree has survived through the deep winter.
Initially, they did not use pine trees, but oak trees. They would sacrifice these oak trees to the gods. But later on, there was a saint called Saint Boniface. When he was sent to Germany to preach the gospel of Christianity, he changed the pine tree to a fir tree, because the fir tree was triangular in shape, which was then linked to the trinity. Hence, from then on, the fir tree was used in their celebrations. But in fact, the Christmas tree has its origins in European mythology.
When we have talked so much about the origins of Christmas, the question we want to come back to is “What does it have to do with Christianity? Why are there some Christians who choose not to celebrate Christmas?” You might have heard of some Christian denominations that do not celebrate Christmas. This is because, to them, the celebration of Christmas has a lot of pagan elements mixed within. In our Bible, there are Bible verses that tell us not to participate in the practices of these pagan religions.
1 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. 3 According to the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, you shall not do; and according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you, you shall not do; nor shall you walk in their ordinances. 4 You shall observe My judgments and keep My ordinances, to walk in them: I am the Lord your God.
This gist of this verse tells us not to participate in the practices and customs of how the pagans worship. In 2 Corinthians 6:15, Paul also tells us that Christians have nothing to do with Belial. Some Christians do not celebrate Christmas because of these Bible verses, which tell us that we have nothing to do with pagan or foreign religions.
Christmas is linked to Christianity because people have said that 25 December is the birth of Christ. When we look at the Bible, it is not likely that Christ was born on 25 December. This is because when Christ was born, the shepherds could still go out with the sheep to graze at the pastures. Because of this, scholars say that Christ was not born during the winter.
Since 25 December is not the birth of Christ, if Christians celebrate Christmas, aren’t Christians propagating something false? This would go against the truth! In fact, the Bible tells Christians to celebrate His death but not His birth (see: Holy Communion). These are two reasons why Christians do not celebrate Christmas: it is linked to pagan religions and it is not the correct date of the birth of Christ.
Now, some Christians may still choose to celebrate Christmas because they think that these are not important. But if we want to follow the words of the Bible, we should know how to act. This is the relationship between Christians and Christmas. We ask God to give us the wisdom to know how to discern.