In December of 1914 in the first bitter winter of a long bitter war the solders of the German Empire and the soldiers of the British Empire defied the orders of their officers. They abandoned their hastily dug entrenchments, that would soon grow into an elaborate maze of trenches stretching from Switzerland to the English Channel, to meet each other in no man’s land. They sang hymns and exchanged gifts in a spontaneous outpouring of the feelings of peace, fellowship, and forgiveness which were then the staples of a Christ centered Christmas season.
If you drench yourself in the torrent of Christmas movies that bombard us from Thanksgiving till December 25th you see that the spirit of Christmas in emotional America isn’t about the Christ child who came into a lost world to die as a payment for sin and to rise again to bring new life in harmony with God. It is instead about the sentimental ideal of love and the boy gets the girl or is it the girl gets the boy? Who knows, sometimes they throw in a curve that really builds the suspense. There are movies about Santa Clause, his sons, his daughters, his elves, and wingless angels all of whom help people learn the true meaning of Christmas, which is never about Christ and always about family and friends and being nice people.
In commercial America, Christmas is about Black Friday and discounts so deep they remind me of the street vendor in Mexico who follows you shouting “I’ll give you 110% off if you buy two!” The Chia Pets come out along with snuggies, pet rocks, and every other doodad imaginable to buy for people who already have too much.
The mountains of presents which obscenely bury Christmas trees in so many American homes are ripped apart by sugar-high children. Children who get into a frenzy of getting so intense they never have time to appreciate what they get. All they want is to get something else. The beautiful wrapping paper, the miles of ribbon, and the forests of bows are stuffed unceremoniously into big green garbage bags soon on their way to landfills.
The problem with being a Historian is that you are constantly looking for the context, the background, the circumstances in the past that created the circumstances you face in the here and now. Sometimes when you discover the story behind the story it isn’t what you thought it would be. Sometimes it is the opposite of what you thought you would find. Take Christmas for instance.
The early Church never celebrated Christmas. Why didn’t the early Christians celebrate the festival honoring the birth of Jesus Christ? For the same reason they didn’t honor either birthdays or anniversaries. It was known that the celebrating of any day or date was a custom of the pagans. By the word ‘pagans’ they meant people who still lived in the darkness of superstition. In an effort to divest themselves of all pagan practices, they did not even set aside or note down the date of their Savior’s birth.
In the Fourth Century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Controversy, heresy, and false teaching began to plague a church now swollen from small groups of dedicated disciples ready to suffer persecution with and for Christ to a massive bureaucratic organization crammed with those who wanted to be part of the religion mandated by the government. Naturally the Church began to lose its fervor and fire: the zealous faith that exploded out of Israel and spread through the Roman world. Unfortunately, just like today, the Christian leaders of that time not knowing the true secret of the Church’s growth, looked to outward sources to bolster their flagging faith. Celebrations and entertainment began to surface within the church.
In 354 AD – Bishop Liberius of Rome declared that Christians everywhere should celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25. Since the early Christians didn’t record the actual date of Jesus’ birth how was December 25th decided upon? Most scholars agree that the birth of the Redeemer did not take place in the month of December at all. In fact, the 25th of December was not even chosen by the Christians, but by the pagan Romans.
When the Romans of that age noticed that the days grew shorter each year during the months of November and December, they began to fear that the earth might be dying. Therefore with the ‘return of the sun’ at the end of December resulting in longer days, the Romans began to celebrate the “Feast of the Sol Invictus” (the Unconquerable Sun) on December 25. Soon many Christians began to join in this pagan festival and the various celebrations that went with it. Their faith wasn’t vibrant enough (or real enough) to stand against the strong pull of the festivity and celebration around them. They drifted with the crowd.
Thus, in order to keep the Christians away from all the pagan rituals that were part of this worship of the sun, Bishop Liberius of Rome declared, in 354 A.D., that all Christians everywhere should celebrate the birth of our Lord on December 25.
Did this celebration continue unbroken? No. During the rule of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of Britain and the Commonwealth, the celebration of Christmas was banned because of “the heathen traditions surrounding this sacred event.” From 1649 to 1658 no celebration was allowed except for special church services on Christmas Eve. Cromwell was a dedicated Christian who lived by the commands and principles of Scripture.
We must recognize a parallel in what took place in church history and what is taking place in this day and age. The pagan festivities of the fourth century and Cromwell’s day are much like the commercial celebration of Christmas today.
Christians no longer participate in the worship of the sun or the sun god as in the fourth century. The centerpiece of Christmas is now no longer the sun but the unconquerable Santa Claus. This white bearded, chubby benefactor typifies the god of this age – materialism. It was Coca Cola who first gave the white bearded individual his red suit to go with the advertising color of the popular drink. What this plump, rosy cheeked individual has to do with the advent of the precious Lamb of God, I cannot even begin to understand! Writer Jonathan Skinner puts it this way: “A white-bearded old man has thrown the baby out of the cradle, and his trinket-filled grotto has replaced a rustic stable…The spiritual has been swallowed by the secular, the sacred obliterated by sentiment. Christmas has been gutted of its meaning.”
These humanistic and unscriptural traditions have quietly crept into the church when true faith and real worship were fading. All this is reflected in the entertainment aspect of much of the Christian worship of today. If we claim to be Christians and disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, let us distance ourselves from the commercial (and pagan) celebration of the so-called Christmas season. Holy celebration is Scriptural but must begin from within in the hearts of those who claim to follow Jesus. The crazy rushing whirl that typifies the celebration of Christmas today has nothing to do with our servant Lord who had no place to lay His head.
Instead of obsessing over the war on Christmas waged by Progressives who desire to erase all that made America great, and instead of campaigning to get Christ back into Christmas perhaps we should pray for a revival that will get Christ back into Christians. Instead of worrying about whether we are allowed to say Merry Christmas, we should be concerned that so many have lost sight of Mary’s Christmas.
Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion. He is the Historian of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com © 2016 Contact Dr. Owens [email protected] Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook or Twitter @ Drrobertowens / Edited by Dr. Rosalie Owens