What are we really celebrating at Christmas?

Let’s face it: Our stories about Christmas originate from the Gospels, particularly Matthew and Luke, but we don’t really know when Christ was born. Many scholars tend to favor spring as the most likely time of year. This is based on the account of shepherds watching over their flocks by night, something more likely to have taken place in spring than winter.

We probably celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 because of efforts by the Roman Catholic Church to co-opt pagan celebrations held around the winter solstice. It was also the birthday of Mithra, the pagan god of light. On the darkest day of the year, Roman pagans celebrated by lighting up the night with fires to repel the dark. Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival of Saturn, was also celebrated in December, with often-unrestrained merrymaking. Scholars believe elements of both festivals eventually became incorporated into Christmas.

Hans Lietzmann, in his definitive “A History of the Early Church,” writes, “The festival on Dec. 25 originated in the west, and undoubtedly Rome was its cradle. Here it was observed as early as A.D. 336 under Constantine. From that date onwards, it is mentioned wherever we are justified in expecting it. Epiphany was unknown in Rome throughout the whole of the fourth century, being observed for the first time about 450, when it was mentioned by Leo the Great as the festival of the ‘Magi,’ i.e., the wise men from the east.” Historian Will Durant, in “The Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ,” wrote, “Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it.”

Popular culture and Christianity have slowly developed traditions that don’t always correctly represent the facts surrounding Jesus’ birth. For example, Christmas cards, crèches in homes and churches, and living Nativity scenes wrongly depict the Magi as being present at the birth of Jesus, though they did not arrive until sometime after his birth — possibly days or weeks later, or even longer. Scripture notes it was some time after Christ’s presentation in the temple. The shepherds came, but not the wise men. Likewise, the Bible doesn’t say there were three wise men, only that three gifts — gold, frankincense and myrrh — were given.

During the Reformation, many reformers, including John Knox, John Calvin and Martin Luther, rejected the way Christmas was celebrated. Luther, a former Roman Catholic priest, did allow certain Catholic observances of Christmas, and is said to have encouraged the bringing of evergreen trees inside and lighting them with candles. Presbyterians, on the other hand, were a late holdout against the celebration of Christmas, and when Puritans settled in America, they initially banned its celebration (cultural suspicion of the holiday persisted into the mid-1800s in New England).

Gift giving, once a tradition welcoming in the New Year, slowly shifted to Christmas in the 1800s. In the last hundred years, Christmas has become a phenomenon of unrestrained spending to honor the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s even become an international sensation in countries with virtually no official tie to the teachings of Christianity. To me, it’s curious that religious leaders do so little to correct this orgy of spending, redirecting those energies toward the holiday’s true meaning.

I’ve visited many churches in town during this Advent season, an annual time of reflection and preparation of recognition of the birth of Jesus, and with only one exception, I’ve heard “business as usual” sermons on many different topics including parables or explications of passages of Scripture unrelated to the coming Christmas season.

Thankfully, one pastor mentioned “Advent Conspiracy.” Advent Conspiracy (see adventconspiracy.org) is a movement started nine years ago to correct the excesses of this season. Its website states these four simple aims: “Advent Conspiracy is a global movement of people and churches resisting the cultural Christmas narrative of consumption by choosing a revolutionary Christmas through Worshipping Fully, Spending Less, Giving More and Loving All.”

It’s simple and easily accomplished. Some families have written to me telling me wonderful stories of how Advent Conspiracy has changed their perspectives, helping them become better Christian citizens of the world, fulfilling the truth of the Gospel.

This contrasts with pollsters’ predictions that average American spending for Christmas will be $830 per family, with many spending over $1,000, the highest amount since the Great Recession of 2008.

Who hasn’t had a family gift opening with squalling children, hurt feelings, and a numb sense after the gifts are all open, not to mention mounting debt as a result? I’ve seen it many times; it’s not pleasant. Christmas spending is a huge shot in the arm for our economy, but wouldn’t it be better to more wisely use those resources during the year to recognize family birthdays in turn?

Christmas is “not your birthday,” as the Rev. Bob Mather of Baxter Road Bible Church reminds me yearly. For Christians, at least, it’s Jesus’ birthday — to be observed in a manner reflecting all the glory and praise back to Him for the marvelous gift of grace God gave a fallen world. (And yes, I realize practitioners of other religions, plus atheists and agnostics, observe Christmas traditions that have become a part of pop culture.)

Despite the misgivings outlined above, I think Christmas is a wonderful time of year to look forward to and celebrate the birth of Christ in Scripture, spoken word, and song. It is also the least invasive time in which we can invite friends and acquaintances to our place of worship to celebrate this joyous time. For parents, it’s a teachable moment when your children can learn about the beginnings of Christianity. Advent observance can also delve deeply into prophetic scriptural writings, words and music dealing with Messianic anticipation.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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