15 December 2017

Forerunners – Why Christmas?

The first hotel advertisements appeared on Belfast billboards in August, offering special Christmas deals for office parties. The ‘Ten Most Popular Christmas Gifts’ list appeared in October newspapers and the shops were full of Christmas decorations in early November. Soon the whole country will be gripped by the annual need to stock up with food, put up the Christmas tree and other decorations, source and purchase, at the best possible price, appropriate gifts for family and friends, wrap them and deliver them before overindulging ourselves in an afternoon meal on 25th December. For many people Christmas is the only time in a year when they will attend a church service, possibly a candlelit carol service. How did Christmas evolve into what it has now become?

Most of what we regard as a traditional Christmas is really a Victorian invention. Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, brought a Christmas tree to Windsor Castle in the 1830s and ever after the idea became popular throughout Britain. Christmas cards started in 1843 as an idea by civil servant Sir Henry Cole to popularise the new post office system. The first card had three panels; the outer two showed people caring for each other and the centre panel displayed a family enjoying a large Christmas dinner. Some people reacted negatively to the fact that a child in the main picture was being offered a glass of wine. Carol services also became very popular in Victorian times with candlelight adding to the atmosphere. Christmas puddings and mince pies were also added to the annual festivities, though the latter were originally filled with meat, rather than the common dried fruit mix we know today.

The Church has always had a dilemma of what to do about Christmas. While the Victorians adopted the festival and gave it the ‘traditional treatment’ that we know today, it was not always so. The Bible does not tell us when Jesus was born and in truth the early Christians were more interested in his death and resurrection than in his birth. It has been deduced from the fact that shepherds were watching their sheep in fields when he was born that it was more likely to have occurred in April or May.

The earliest evidence for Christians celebrating Christmas on 25th December is in Rome in AD336. The date was probably chosen to oppose the pagan festival of natalis solis invictis, the cult of the sun, celebrating the rebirth of the sun after the shortest day, 22nd December. The feast of Sol invictus was introduced to Rome by the Emperor Elagabalus in AD219 and reached peak popularity during the short reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelian (270-275). Aurelian built a magnificent temple to Sol (the sun) in the Campus Agrippae. In the fourth century the Church in Rome declared 25th December to be the date of Christ’s birth, thus giving a Christian significance to a long established pagan festival. ‘Sunday’ is similarly named after Sol and here again the Church gave Christian significance to this day as the most appropriate for worship because Jesus had risen from the dead on Sunday. The first Christian Emperor, Constantine (307 – 337) gave legal weight to Christian worship, declaring in AD321 that, with the exception of farmers, Sunday should be a day of rest; ‘on the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed.’ In AD386 Emperor Theodosius declared that Sunday was holy. In other words, Christmas and Sunday, became a symbol of Christian determination to counter pagan influences in society. One interesting remnant of the conflation of sun and son can be seen in Charles Wesley’s original wording of the Christmas carol ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.’ In the original 1739 version Wesley had a line, ‘Hail the Sun of Righteousness.’ This was later changed by George Whitfield to the present common wording, ‘Hail the Son of Righteousness.’

Christmas controversy erupted in England in the early 1640s when the Puritan dominated Parliament legislated against the practice of marking Christmas Day as a holy day and public festival. In fact Parliament met as usual on 25th December 1643. The Puritans detested both a Christian Holy Day (mass of Christ) and the sinful behaviour associated with excessive drinking, feasting and celebration. While Parliament legislated against the traditional Christmas Day, overwhelming public pressure ensured that the unpopular new restrictions were overthrown when Charles II came to the throne in 1660.

The modern popular image of Santa Claus is that of a white bearded, rotund man in a red coat. This image has been cultivated by the Coca Cola Company who first used such a Santa in an advertisement campaign in 1931. At that time Coke was perceived as a summer drink and the company wanted to extend sales with a campaign slogan, ‘Thirst knows no season.’ The most famous Christian explanation of Santa Claus is that he is based upon Nicholas, bishop of Myra in Lycia, Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in the early fourth century. According to legend he gave gifts of gold anonymously to a poor man who had three daughters who were unable to marry because their father lacked a dowry to give with them to any perspective husband. Although this story is unlikely to be true, it has not stopped the growth of the Santa myth.

The Church has always faced a challenge regarding Christmas. Should Christians be negative or positive towards it? Is Christmas nowadays an extravagant, out of control, commercial indulgence to be avoided by all sensible children of God or should it be embraced as a golden opportunity to speak to our society in relevant terms of God’s amazing gift; His one and only Son who came into our world to give us life with meaning? There is surely a challenge to Christians today to have something real to say to our society at this important festival? It is also worth remembering that while many people will enjoy themselves immensely this Christmas, many others will be feeling lonely and neglected.

Laurence Kirkpatrick