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Take Christ Out of Christmas? Early Christians Were in Favor of It


As Christmas time approaches again, the best in people comes forward. It's a time of year when people give more to the needy, send a smile more readily, families come together and old friendships renew.
What is it about this time of year? Is it the atmosphere of bright lights? The parties? The presents? Jingling bells and "Ho, Ho, Ho's"? Or maybe it's the Christian spirit of Jesus that fills us all?

I praise the piety and good works of Jesus. He lived among the poor. He aided the ill and befriended prostitutes and criminals. He confronted hypocrisy and dared challenge the stagnant status quo of Judaism and Rome. Who cannot marvel at this strength, this wisdom, this humanity?

The problem I have is not with Jesus, but many of his followers. Christianity has hijacked a worldwide winter celebration existing long before Jesus and claimed its traditions as its own.

People have celebrated seasonal changes since at least the dawn of agriculture. Traditionally, the winter solstice has often been a time to give to the poor and unfortunate. After all, winter time is usually the hardest time of the year. It is a celebration of hope for the coming spring. It is a celebration of light. It is a closure for the past year.

The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, honoring the god Saturn. It was a month long feast of in December. Presents were traded. Saturnalia turned the Roman social order upside down. Slaves were not punished and often disrespectful. Slave and master often reversed roles during this period.

In the early days of Christianity, Jesus' birth was not celebrated. Only after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire did church leaders create a birth date for Jesus as a holy day. The reason was to convert Roman pagans to Christianity. Conversion was easier when pagan celebrations mirrored Christian ones.

Christianity appears to have no problem celebrating Jesus' birth on an inaccurate date. The Bible makes no mention of the date of Jesus' birth. Moreover, it is quite clear that Jesus was not born in the middle of winter. Shepherds herd their flocks in the spring, not winter. Besides, the Romans were astute bureaucrats. They were not going to conduct a census in the middle of winter when cold weather might easily dissuade census takers from completing their important duties.

If Jesus' birthday was crucial to Christianity, early Christians wouldn't have waited until the 4th century to start celebrating it. Even then, it took until the 10th century to expand Christmas throughout Europe. Prior to the celebration of Christmas, the major Christian celebration was the resurrection.

As Christianity grew, so did the observance of Christmas. Interestingly, by the 17th century a backlash was forming. Many Christian reformists began to view Christmas as decadent. Its observation was not universal by any means. The pilgrims, for example, banned its celebration.

During the mid-seventeenth century, Christmas celebrations were banned in England for about 20 years. Many prominent Christians of the day, mainly Protestants, wanted Christmas celebrations limited to the church. Apparently, Christian leaders felt that the true meaning of Christmas was lost amidst frivolity and joy.

By the time of the American Revolution, Christmas was a minor holiday, although it remained a significant celebration in most parts of Europe. Christmas became the major celebration it is today because of writers like Washington Irving and Charles Dickens who crafted tales of generosity in Christmas. Surprising, it was 1870 before Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the United States.

This brings us to the modern.

Now I don't care when Christmas is celebrated. If it's going to be celebrated without concern for the facts, then winter is as good a time as any. However, I do care when those who call themselves Christians want to take over traditions older than Christianity and convert it to a religious revival.

I find it amusing that the very people who are concerned that the true meaning of Christmas is lost, completely ignore the truth that Jesus wasn't born during this time of the year.

Many Christians are upset that people celebrate the holidays, especially Christmas without reference to Jesus. I am certain the followers of Saturn felt the same as Christians usurped their traditions. The fact is that all the winter holidays celebrate joy, charity and friendship. Aren't these some of the things Jesus brought to the world? Is it more important to worship him as an icon, or his teachings as a way of life?

The idea that without Jesus there would be no Christmas is a half-truth. Yes, there would not be something called Christmas. No, we would embrace the spirit of the celebrations in many of the same ways, only with different traditions.

Some believe that Jesus' work should be remembered in deeds. This time of year truly is a time for giving. Charitable organizations take in more and give out more than any other period of the year. It is always important to remember this is not a Christian concept. This is an ancient tradition older than Christianity. Christian giving enhances it, but does not own it.

Today, commercialism encompasses Christmas, and this is one of the main criticisms by Christians. Some feel that gift giving is more about the gifts than the meaning. They feel that Christmas giving is more of an obligation than true openness of the heart. There may be some valid points here, but gifts are a universal expression of care and love. When a birthday comes, few people complain about gifts as an obligation then. The way I see it the world would be a richer place if we all gave gifts a bit more often and openly.

Ironically, it appears that those who condemn the commercialization and gift-giving of Christmas forget the story of the Magi. These were gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These are not ordinary gifts, but luxuries traded and prized by the upper classes-products of commerce. It is hard to argue that today's gifts are more commercialized than a precious metal, perfume and oil.

Then there are other Christians who are offended by the cheer, "Happy Holidays." They take this too mean Jesus is excluded. This is no more true than a person who greets a roomful of friends with a, "Hello, everyone," instead of individual greetings. These proud Christians seem to believe that other's celebrations are beneath them-a decidedly un-Jesuslike behavior.

The problem with celebrating Christmas isn't that Jesus has been taken out of it, but that Christmas was brought from the churches to the secular world. Many Christians feel it is a religious holiday and should be treated as such by everyone. The problem is that Christmas has become too successful. When businesses, governments and individuals all display Christmas themes in the public, then Christmas becomes more than a religious festival. It becomes something for everyone. Everyone celebrates differently and in their own unique style. Unfortunately, many Christians celebrate Christmas from the narrow view of intolerance.

Perhaps the 17th century Protestants had it right. Christmas shouldn't be celebrated outside the church. If Christians wish to celebrate Jesus' life, deeds and meaning, it should be without commercialism and non-religious cheer. Leave Jesus inside the church, and let the secular world celebrate the winter holidays as each person desires.

America is increasingly becoming a pluralistic religious society. Fortunately, the holiday season has enough for everyone. From Thanksgiving to past New Year's all people can find a celebration to enjoy. Happy Holidays! Merry Saturnalia!

Sources:
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/12/1220_021220_solstice.html
http://www.religioustolerance.org/winter_solstice.htm
http://www.infobritain.co.uk/History_Of_Christmas.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturnalia
http://www.history.com/minisite.do?content_type=Minisite_Generic content;_type_id=1252 display;_order=1 mini;_id=1290