December 23, 2018

“Unpacking Christmas”

Isaiah 9:6-7; Luke 2:1-7

 

I have several memories as a child of trying to understand what Christmas was all about. The older I got, the more complicated the holiday became. My first real memories of Christmas were at my grandparents’ home in Vallejo Ca. at around the age of four or five- I can remember hearing about Jesus’ birth from my mother on our drive over to Grandpa and Grandma’s place. I can remember going into their home, a lovely old Victorian home with high ceilings and seeing their massive Christmas tree. The tree had elf figure decorations as well as some very old ornaments from decades ago. I already knew about Santa Claus, because the week before we headed to Vallejo, I had been taken to a small red wooden shed that sat outside of our local shopping mall, and my folks told me Santa would bring me presents on Christmas eve night if I was good. That sounded like a sweet deal to me, and I remember asking Santa for a pedal car so that I could go racing down the hill in my backyard.

 

I didn’t really have much in the way of any religious understanding of Christmas at that young age, although I do remember being carted off around midnight to a late night service at an old Episcopal church, and falling asleep in the pews while smelling incense. We also had a manger scene at my house, and my mother would tell me who each of the figures were in the manger while I played with them. And at my Grandparent’s home, after dinner, we always sang Christmas carols around their old pump organ before heading off to that midnight service.

 

As I grew older, I became more and more suspicious of Santa, and more aware of the story of Christ’s birth. I learned more about that story through two specific Christmas hymns- Silent Night and Away in A Manger (still 2 of my favorites, which I sang to both of my children when they were younger). I remember seeing a banner up in the Presbyterian church in Vallejo at Christmas time which showed 2 people walking towards a bright light, which said “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” and knowing that was something to do with Jesus. By the time I was 12, I had a good idea of who Jesus was to me, and that the main message of Christmas was good news of great joy to all people, that the birth of the Son of God was a bright light shining for me in an often dark world. That light shined a lot as I navigated the waters of junior high and high school.

 

When I was 17, I began working in retail at Sears, and Christmas was covered up in stress, mass consumerism, and secularism. It didn’t help that I worked in the toy, bike and camera department, which was especially chaotic at Christmas time. I dreaded working during the Christmas season, because of the stress shoppers often carried when they came into the store, ESPECIALLY on December 24 at 5:30 p.m., ½ an hour prior to the store closing. Shoppers had that crazed look in their eyes, and were desperate for a very specific toy, and wanted it RIGHT NOW!!! Christmas and its true meaning became a jumble to me. That jumble really didn’t get sorted out until I began working in the church a few years later.

 

It is so easy, with all of the expectation, commercialism, tradition, and pressure to jumble up the meaning of Christmas. E.B. White once wrote, “To perceive Christmas through its wrappings becomes more difficult each year.” So, I thought perhaps today would be a good day to unwrap Christmas- to look at all of the traditions of this season, to find their origins, and hopefully, in time to be able to dig down until we find what Christmas is really all about.

 

Let’s begin with the DATE for Christmas - December 25. Why do we celebrate Christmas on this day? December 25 was first recorded in history as “Christmas Day” in 336 A.D., during the reign of the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine. The day has complicated roots for sure. Some believe Constantine declared December 25 to be Christmas day to counter pagan winter solstice celebrations, which happened around that date. December 25 is also close to the festival of Saturnalia, in honor of the Roman god Saturn. I think the most likely culprit, however, is that Constantine took the Roman holiday, “Dies Natalis Solis” or “Birth of the Unconquered Sun”, which occurred on December 25, and was meant to honor the sun god Mithra during the darkest time of year, and replaced it with the “Birth of the Unconquered Son”, celebrating Christ’s birth.

 

We do not know when Jesus was actually born, although some question the likelihood of him being born in winter, especially if shepherds were out in their fields, watching their sheep. However, very early Christian tradition believed that March 25 was the date when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary of God’s intention to bring Christ into the world, also known as the Annunciation. Nine months after the Annunciation happens to be Dec 25. These two dates are traced back to the mid 200’s A.D. So, for many complicated reasons, which may or may not have to do with his actual birth date, we celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25.

 

What about the Christmas Tree? It also has complicated roots, no pun intended. We know that pagan cultures celebrated winter solstice by decorating their homes with tree branches, which pointed toward new growth, light, and Spring. During the aforementioned Roman holiday, Saturnalia, the temples in Rome were all decorated with fir trees, and the trees may have been decorated themselves.

 

Beginning in Medieval times (from the 5th to approximately 15th century) the church often promoted mystery or miracle plays, which told stories from the Bible to the people, many of whom were illiterate. The Paradise Tree, which symbolized the tree in the garden of Adam and Eve, which was often a fir tree decorated with apples was often used to advertise when a play was about to occur. People walked around town with the tree to announce the play. Some believe the Christmas tree may have sprung up from the Paradise tree. And there is another connection between the Paradise tree and the Christmas tree. December 24 was the day early Christians celebrated Adam and Eve day.

 

Around 1000 A.D. in Northern Europe, apparently, Christmas trees were brought into the home and often associated with Christ’s birth as well as solstice. For whatever reason, the trees were hung upside down from the ceilings! If a tree or flowering Hawthorne plant was not readily available, people made pyramids out of wood scrap and decorated their fake trees with candles, apples, and paper.

 

There is a Christmas tree story tied to church reformer Martin Luther as well. It is said that Luther was out walking amidst the trees, saw a particularly beautiful pine tree, cut it down and brought it into his family home because it reminded him of Jesus. By the early 1600s in Germany, Christmas trees were commonplace in people’s homes, possibly in part because the miracle and mystery plays were banned by the church. Those early trees were often referred to as “Paradise Trees.” So, IS the Christmas tree a religious symbol? Yes, and no…

 

What about Presents-When did the tradition really take off? Giving gifts around the time of Winter Solstice has been around for a very long time. Gifts were given to one another on the winter solstice, I would imagine as a way of giving thanks that, soon the world would be a brighter warmer place. Gifts were also exchanged during the festival of Saturnalia. It was in 336 A.D. when Christmas became established by Constantine that gift giving was tied to the gifts the magi brought baby Jesus. It wasn’t until around 1500 that giving gifts to children at Christmas became customary, although the gift giving happened on December 6, St. Nicholas Day, not on Dec 25. The date changed to Christmas day, due to a very influential poem by Clement Clarke Moore, ”The Night Before Christmas” in 1823, along with the famous 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Due to their influence, we open our presents now on Dec 25.

 

That leads us to a very important central figure at this time of year, and I understand we are blessed to actually have both he and his wife with us. Please help me to welcome Mr. and Mrs. Claus. How has the image and story of Santa Claus evolved over the centuries, and is Santa real or not? No offense…

 

The origins of Santa Claus begin with St. Nicholas, who lived in what is modern-day Turkey from 270-343 A.D. Nicholas came from a wealthy Christian Greek family. He was appointed a priest by his uncle who was a bishop in the Christian church. His parents were said to have died in a mass plague. After their death, Nicholas was taken by the story of the wealthy young man who met Jesus, and who was told to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor. Nicholas began distributing his parent’s wealth. He gave money to poor families in Myra, and in time, became the bishop of the church in Myra. There are many works written from later centuries which tell miracle stories about Nicholas.

 

But one story, in particular, speaks of Nicholas’ character and also has led to several traditions around this time of year. The story goes that Nicholas heard about a desperate father in Myra who had run out of money and could not afford a dowry for his three daughters. Dowries were important in those days- you had to give a prospective husband something of wealth in order to secure a marriage. This father had nothing to offer and would be forced to let them sell themselves in prostitution. Nicholas went by their home, saw an open window and threw in a sack of coins, one each night for 3 nights in a row to help the girls out. Each night, while there were stockings hanging above the fire to dry, he threw the sack of coins and they landed inside the stockings. He must’ve been a good shot! This is where the traditions of Christmas stockings, chocolate coins, and oranges, which represent gold balls put into stockings originate- all from Nicholas.

 

Legend has it that Nicholas was persecuted during the reign of Roman emperor Diocletian in beginning in 303 A.D. He was imprisoned along with other church leaders of the day, was said to have been beaten, and to possibly have had a crooked nose due to the beatings. He was released along with other Christian leaders around 306 AD. Nicholas’ signature is found in documents linked to the first gathering of church bishops, the council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Nicholas died in 343 A.D. Less than 200 years after his death, the church of St. Nicholas was built in Myra, over the original church where Nicholas served as bishop. Nicholas’ bones were placed there in veneration for his life and his faith. When the Byzantine Empire lost control of the region to the Persians in 1087, Nicholas’ bones were brought to Bari, Italy. The bones are now enshrined in the Basilica di San Nicola, although the Turkish government is requesting they be returned to Myra. Those bones were partially examined by a forensic scientist in the 1950’s, and dated to the time Nicholas was alive. And in 2004, a facial reconstruction was done by a forensic pathologist. Here is the reconstructed face of what St. Nicholas actually looked like. So, if anyone balks at the idea of whether or not Santa exists, now you know-Yes, Virginia, there was a Santa Claus!

 

Nicholas evolved over the centuries to who we have here before us today, through many influences. First, the poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, also known as “The Night Before Christmas” written by Clement Clark Moore in 1823. This poem cements the idea that Santa has a sleigh with eight reindeer, that he goes down the chimney to deliver presents to children, places goodies in their stockings, has a red nose, red outfit, has a large belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly, etc. In 1881, an illustration by American Thomas Nast of Santa cemented Santa’s look and was used in advertising for centuries. In the 1930’s Santa’s image was further enhanced by an artist hired by Coca-Cola, leading basically to the Santa we have here before us today, although there are several other versions around the world including Father Christmas in the U.K., a Finnish Santa named “Joulupukki”, who looks more like a scary goat than St. Nicholas, and the dark side of Santa - Krampus, who is his companion in places in Europe, and whose duty is to scare the heck out of bad children.

 

As for you, Mrs. C, Mrs. Santa Claus is first mentioned by name in the pages of the Yale Literary Magazine in 1851, where the student author (whose name is given only as "A. B.") writes of the appearance of Santa Claus at a Christmas party, “In bounded that jolly, fat and funny old elf, Santa Claus. His array was indescribably fantastic. He seemed to have done his best; and we should think, had Mrs. Santa Claus to help him.” An account of a Christmas musicale at the State Lunatic Asylum in Utica, New York in 1854 included an appearance by Mrs. Santa Claus, with a baby in arms, who danced to a holiday song. A passing reference to Mrs. Santa Claus was made in an essay in Harper's Magazine in 1862; and in the comic novel The Metropolites (1864) by Robert St. Clair, she appears in a woman's dream, wearing "Hessian high boots, a dozen of short, red petticoats, an old, large, straw bonnet" and she brought the woman a wide selection of finery to wear. Your legend has grown a bit since then and in a good wayJ

 

 

So, we’ve unpacked the traditions of Christmas, many of which have complicated roots - some Christian, some not. We’ve learned that just as there is a real Santa with us today, there was a real St. Nicholas, a person of faith who knew of the life and teachings of Jesus, and who followed them. When you take all of those things away, we are left with the birth of Jesus. As Linus said, “That is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” He was born to save us from our sin, to reflect the image of God, to teach us God’s wisdom, to help us walk in the path of faith, to challenge the ways of this world, to call us to hope, peace, joy and love, and to open the gates of heaven and prepare a place for us in eternity. That is indeed good news of great joy, for all people. We thank God for this greatest gift, the gift of the Christ child, Jesus. Alleluia! Amen.

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