The Roots of Modern Christmas
FOR millions of people worldwide, the Christmas season is a very joyful time of the year. It is a time of sumptuous meals, time-honored traditions, and family togetherness. The Christmas holiday is also a time when friends and relatives enjoy exchanging cards and gifts.
Just 150 years ago, however, Christmas was a very different holiday. In his book The Battle for Christmas, professor of history Stephen Nissenbaum writes: “Christmas . . . was a time of heavy drinking when the rules that governed people’s public behavior were momentarily abandoned in favor of an unrestrained ‘carnival,’ a kind of December Mardi Gras.”
To those who view Christmas with reverential awe, this description might be disturbing. Why would anyone desecrate a holiday that purports to commemorate the birth of God’s Son? The answer may surprise you.
From its inception in the fourth century, Christmas has been surrounded by controversy. For example, there was the question of Jesus’ birthday. Since the Bible does not specify either the day or the month of Christ’s birth, a variety of dates have been suggested. In the third century, one group of Egyptian theologians placed it on May 20, while others favored earlier dates, such as March 28, April 2, or April 19. By the 18th-century, Jesus’ birth had been associated with every month of the year! How, then, was December 25 finally chosen?
Most scholars agree that December 25 was assigned by the Catholic Church as Jesus’ birthday. Why? “Most probably the reason,” says The New Encyclopædia Britannica, “is that early Christians wished the date to coincide with the pagan Roman festival marking the ‘birthday of the unconquered sun.’” But why would Christians who were viciously persecuted by pagans for over two and a half centuries all of a sudden yield to their persecutors?
In the first century, the apostle Paul warned Timothy that “wicked men and impostors” would slip into the Christian congregation and mislead many. (2 Timothy 3:13) This great apostasy began after the death of the apostles. (Acts 20:29, 30) Following the so-called conversion of Constantine in the fourth century, vast numbers of pagans flocked to the form of Christianity that then prevailed. With what result? The book Early Christianity and Paganism states: “The comparatively little body of really earnest believers was lost in the great multitude of professed Christians.”
How true Paul’s words proved to be! It was as if genuine Christianity were being gobbled up by pagan corruption. And nowhere was this contamination more apparent than in the celebration of holidays.
Actually, the only celebration that Christians are commanded to observe is the Lord’s Evening Meal. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) Because of the idolatrous practices associated with Roman festivals, early Christians did not share in them. For this reason third-century pagans reproached Christians, saying: “You do not visit exhibitions; you have no concern in public displays; you reject the public banquets, and abhor the sacred contests.” Pagans, on the other hand, bragged: “We worship the gods with cheerfulness, with feasts, songs and games.”
By the middle of the fourth century, the grumbling subsided. How so? As more and more counterfeit Christians crept into the fold, apostate ideas multiplied. This led to compromises with the Roman world. Commenting on this, the book The Paganism in Our Christianity states: “It was a definite Christian policy to take over the pagan festivals endeared to the people by tradition, and to give them a Christian significance.” Yes, the great apostasy was taking its toll. The willingness of the so-called Christians to adopt pagan celebrations now brought a measure of acceptance within the community. Before long, Christians came to have as many annual festivals as the pagans themselves. Not surprisingly, Christmas was foremost among them.
An International Holiday
As the predominant form of Christianity spread across Europe, Christmas expanded with it. The Catholic Church adopted the viewpoint that it was fitting to perpetuate a joyous festival in honor of Jesus’ birthday. Accordingly, in 567 C.E., the Council of Tours “proclaimed the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive season.”—The Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home.
Christmas soon absorbed many features from the profane harvest festivals of northern Europe. Merrymaking remained more common than piety as revelers indulged in gluttonous eating and drinking. Rather than speak out against the loose conduct, the church endorsed it. (Compare Romans 13:13; 1 Peter 4:3.) In 601 C.E., Pope Gregory I wrote to Mellitus, his missionary in England, telling him “not to stop such ancient pagan festivities, but to adapt them to the rites of the Church, only changing the reason of them from a heathen to a Christian impulse.” Thus reports Arthur Weigall, who once was inspector general of antiquities for the Egyptian government.
During the Middle Ages, reform-minded individuals felt the need to speak out against such excesses. They sent out numerous decrees against “the abuses of Christmas merriment.” Dr. Penne Restad, in her book Christmas in America—A History, says: “Some clergy stressed that fallen humankind needed a season of abandon and excess, as long as it was carried on under the umbrella of Christian supervision.” This only added to the confusion. It hardly mattered, though, for pagan customs were already so closely fused with Christmas that most people were unwilling to give them up. Writer Tristram Coffin put it this way: “People at large [were] doing just what they ha[d] always done and paying little attention to the debates of the moralists.”
By the time Europeans began settling the New World, Christmas was a well-known holiday. Still, Christmas did not find favor in the colonies. Puritan reformers viewed the celebration as pagan and banned it in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681.
After the ban was lifted, the celebration of Christmas increased throughout the colonies, particularly south of New England. In view of the holiday’s past, however, it is not surprising that some were more concerned with having a good time than with honoring God’s Son. One Christmas custom that was especially disruptive was that of wassailing. Rowdy bands of young men would enter the homes of wealthy neighbors and demand free food and drink in a trick-or-treat fashion. If the householder refused, he was usually cursed, and occasionally his house was vandalized.
Conditions in the 1820’s worsened to the point that “Christmas misrule” became “an acute social threat,” says Professor Nissenbaum. In cities like New York and Philadelphia, wealthy landowners began hiring watchmen to guard their estates. It is even said that New York City organized its first professional police force in response to a violent riot during the 1827/28 Christmas season!
The 19th century brought unprecedented changes to humankind. People, goods, and news began to travel much faster as a network of roads and railroads emerged. The industrial revolution created millions of jobs, and factories churned out a steady supply of merchandise. Industrialization also introduced new and complex social problems, which ultimately affected the way Christmas was celebrated.
People have long used holidays as a means to strengthen family ties, and so it is with Christmas. By selectively reworking some of the older Christmas traditions, its promoters effectively changed Christmas from a wild, carnivallike festival to a family-based holiday.
Indeed, by the late 19th century, Christmas came to be viewed as a sort of antidote to the ills of modern American life. “Of all holidays,” says Dr. Restad, “Christmas was a perfect agency for transporting religion and religious feeling into the home and for righting the excesses and failures of the public world.” She adds: “Gift-giving, gestures of charity, even the friendly exchange of a holiday greeting and the decoration and enjoyment of an evergreen tree set in a parlor or, later, a Sunday school hall, linked members of each nuclear family to one another, to church, and to society.”
In a similar vein, many today celebrate Christmas as a means to affirm their love for one another and to help maintain family unity. Not to be overlooked, of course, are the spiritual dimensions. Millions of people celebrate Christmas in honor of Jesus’ birth. They may attend special church services, put up Nativity scenes at home, or offer prayers of thanks to Jesus himself. But how does God view the matter? Do these things meet with his approval? Consider what the Bible has to say.
“Love Truth and Peace”
While Jesus was on earth, he told his followers: “God is a Spirit, and those worshiping him must worship with spirit and truth.” (John 4:24) Jesus lived by those words. He always spoke the truth. He perfectly imitated his Father, “Jehovah the God of truth.”—Psalm 31:5; John 14:9.
Through the pages of the Bible, Jehovah has made it clear that he hates all forms of deception. (Psalm 5:6) In view of this, is it not ironic that so many features associated with Christmas smack of falsehood? For instance, think of the fairy tale about Santa Claus. Have you ever tried explaining to a child why Santa prefers entering through a chimney instead of a door, as is widely held in many lands? And how does Santa visit so many millions of homes in just one evening? What about flying reindeer? When a child learns that he has been deceived about believing that Santa is a real person, does it not undermine his trust in his parents?
The Catholic Encyclopedia plainly states: “Pagan customs . . . gravitated to Christmas.” Then why do the Catholic Church and other churches of Christendom continue to perpetuate a holiday the customs of which are not of Christian origin? Does that not indicate a condoning of pagan teachings?
While on earth Jesus did not encourage men to worship him. Jesus himself said: “It is Jehovah your God you must worship, and it is to him alone you must render sacred service.” (Matthew 4:10) Similarly, after Jesus’ heavenly glorification, an angel told the apostle John to “worship God,” indicating that nothing had changed regarding this matter. (Revelation 19:10) This leads to the question, Would Jesus approve of all the worshipful devotion that is directed to him, not his Father, at Christmastime?
Clearly, the facts about modern Christmas are not very flattering. It is largely a manufactured holiday with much evidence pointing to a degraded past. In all good conscience, then, millions of Christians have decided not to celebrate Christmas. For example, one youth named Ryan says regarding Christmas: “People get so excited about a couple of days a year when the family gets together and all are happy. But what is so special about that? My parents give me gifts all year!” Another youth, 12 years old, says: “I don’t feel deprived. I receive gifts throughout the year, not just on one special day when people feel obligated to purchase gifts.”
The prophet Zechariah encouraged fellow Israelites to “love truth and peace.” (Zechariah 8:19) If we, like Zechariah and other faithful men of old, “love truth,” should we not avoid any false religious celebration that dishonors the “living and true God,” Jehovah?—1 Thessalonians 1:9.
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“I don’t feel deprived. I receive gifts throughout the year”