As we approach December 25th people are seen scurrying around shopping for gifts, decorating trees and baking yummy cookies and cakes. But surprisingly, there are still many who do not know the origins of Christmas and of the traditions and customs associated with it.
Over two million people world-wide celebrate Christmas. Different traditions have become part of the celebration, some are unique to specific countries. The origin of Christmas itself, however, the 'Mass of Christ' is to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and is shared by all who are Christians. This sounds simple but Christians believe that Jesus is God ie The Incarnation or God taking on flesh (carne - flesh in Latin). So why did God become man and why is there a birth to celebrate?
The Promised Messiah
In many of the writings of the prophets in the Jewish Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament) a Messiah is promised. 'Messiah' is from Hebrew (although Anglicized) for Anointed One and the Greek equivalent is 'Christus'. These prophets said that the promised Messiah would be of the line of King David Isaiah 11:1-5, (Jesse was David's father); would be born in Bethlehem, David's home city (I Samuel 16:1, Micah 5:1); and that the mother of this Promised One would be a virgin (Isaiah 7:14 ). In Isaiah the word used in Hebrew means young woman implying virginity. The Gospel writer, Matthew, records Joseph's dream encouraging him to take Mary as his wife and quotes the Isaiah passage from the Greek translation of the Jewish Bible (the Septuagint) using the more technical term for virgin. Mary and Joseph were only engaged and not yet married and so Mary was a virgin. Joseph thinking that Mary, who was now pregnant, had been unfaithful to him, was not going to marry her (following Jewish Law) but God spoke to Joseph in a dream reminding him of the prophecy in Isaiah. Joseph knew then that this child had been chosen somehow by God. Did he realize, as well, that he was the Promised Messiah? We don't know how much the young couple understood all of the implications at that time.
Jesus and Mary then travelled to Bethlehem, the city of their ancestors, for a census called by the Roman Emperor. Jesus was born in a cave used as a stable because all the inns were full.
The first Christians were Jews who believed that Jesus fulfilled these prophecies. The name Jesus, in Hebrew, Jeshua, means 'Yhwh helps' or 'God helps'. When Jesus grew up he gained the reputation of a Rabbi (or Teacher) and healer. Once, in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus read from the prophet, Isaiah, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. As he rolled up the scroll, he said, 'Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing'". Before the crowd in the synagogue, Jesus, himself, had claimed to be the Promised One or the Messiah.
Christians believe that Jesus is the Saviour and that he died for the sins of all humanity.
Star and Angels
The story of Christ's birth (told by the Gospel writer, Matthew) say that the Wisemen (or Magi) were led to the place of Jesus' birth by following a star. These were men from somewhere in Asia and had studied and kept track of stars. It is usually thought that there were three Wisemen. This is because there are three gifts mentioned: frankincense, myrrh and gold. These gifts foretell Jesus as priest (frankincense), his death (myrrh) and his Kingship (gold). Of course, there may have been many Wisemen who came. This is the beginning of the exchange of gifts at Christmas.
The gospel writers tell us that angels announced the birth of the Messiah to shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem. Both Wisemen and angels are used on Christmas cards and decorations at Christmas time.
Date of Jesus Birth
Of course, most Christians now know that December 25th is probably not the date that Jesus was born. It is unlikely that the census was held in winter and shepherds and their sheep may not have been out in the fields on 'a cold winter's night'. However, it seems that December 25th was celebrated in Rome as the Birth of Christ as early as 354 AD. (AD is Anno Dominum or The Year of Our Lord and not 'after death' as is sometimes thought). The Catholic Encyclopedia says that the solar feast, Natalis Invicti, in the cult of Sun worship, is the probable source of December 25th as the birthday of Jesus. The Church often took over the feasts that were celebrated by the people before their conversion to Christianity. Thus the celebration also underwent a conversion of sorts; people still celebrated on the same day, but the reason for the celebration had changed. Cyprian wrote, "O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born...Christ should be born". But both Tertullian and Augustine condemned this comparison with Sol Invictus asserting that the Sun should not be identified with Christ. Some believe that using the pagan feast day was syncretistic while others think it was not a bad idea. Perhaps the latter turned out to be right because today, most people in the world have heard of Christmas but not many have ever heard of Natalis Invicti.
Another explanation comes from a quotation from St. Augustine, who writes in On the Trinity (c.399-419), “For he (Jesus) is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day he also suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him not since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th”. December 25th is nine months after March 25.
The origin of giving gifts to friends and family at Christmas is most likely the gifts the Wisemen or Magi gave to Jesus (see story in Matthew 2). Though in the modern telling of the story, these Wisemen came to the stable shortly after the birth of Jesus, the visit was probably much later. The Gospel writer records that King Herod had all baby boys up to age 2 years killed in order to dispose of a possible threat to his throne. Having been warned in a dream, Joseph took Mary and Jesus and travelled to Egypt and so Jesus escaped what is known as 'The Slaughter of the Innocents'. Scripture is silent on the timing and, in fact, only Matthew records the visit of the Magi.
Santa Claus is from the Dutch, Sinterklaas, or in English, Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was a bishop in Myra, Lycia (now Turkey) who died December 6, 345 or 352. St. Nicholas' relics are now in the Church of San Nicola in Bari, Italy after being stolen (or rescued, depending on who tells it) by Italian sailors and taken there. Although very little is known about Nicholas, there are legends that during his lifetime he gave gifts to poor children and performed many miracles. He is the patron saint of mariners, bakers, travelers and children. In parts of Northern Europe (Holland and Germany, for example) art has portrayed him as giving gifts secretly to children on his feast day (December 6). In North America he has become the red-suited Santa Claus (known to Christians and non-Christians alike) who gives gifts to children on Christmas Eve. We owe many of the ideas we have of Santa Claus today to Clement Clarke Moore who in 1823 wrote the poem 'The Night Before Christmas'. It was from this poem that the red-suited jolly man, who comes in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, originated and gained popularity in the West.
The Christmas Tree
Druids and other pre-Christian peoples in Europe used greenery, including mistletoe, to decorate their houses on festive occasions. In c.575 AD, Archbishop Martin of Braga forbade Christians to use yule logs, greenery or trees in their celebrations so as not to be identified with unbelievers. However, the Christmas tree was still used at Strasbourg in the 17th century and came to the rest of France and England in the 19th century. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's German husband, was said to have introduced the decorated Christmas tree to England. Christian advocates of the Christmas tree claim that the evergreen tree symbolizes eternal life and the resurrection and point out that Jesus died on a tree for our salvation. However, the decorated tree is popular in many countries that do not have a Christian heritage. For example, in Thailand, a predominately Buddhist country, the decorated tree has been adopted as a decoration in stores for the New Year celebration.
The Nativity Scene
St. Francis of Assisi in the 10th century is credited for using and popularizing the creche or nativity scene with the characters of the Biblical story around the manger. These are seen in churches but also in public parks and shopping malls.
There are of course other traditions associated with Christmas: carol singing, the turkey dinner (in North America), the colours of red and green for decoration are just a few. Certain countries have their own additions: Mexico has the pinata (a paper mache container filled with candy and gifts), the Philippines has Simbang Gabi (the Mass of the Rooster) and there are many more traditions that include special food, music and activities, in countries like Norway, Germany, Italy and Spain.
New Advent/ Catholic Encylopedia website accessed June 30 and July 1, 2011.
New American Bible. St. Joseph Edition. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co. 1992
Seal, Jeremy. Nicholas. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. 2005.