While its origins can be traced back to the Middle Ages, Christmas is a tradition that has survived the tests of time; but not without its fair share of opposition. It is hard to believe today that there was a time when Christmas did not look as it does, with beautiful trees and warm lights and twinkling ornaments. However, like much of the course of history, human society has altered the traditions over the years to what it has become today.
They say that the Romans chose December 25th as the date of Jesus’ birth as it was the day of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar, which is the shortest day of the year. Augustine wrote, “Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.” In different time periods, Christmas was banned as much as it was celebrated – in 17th century England, Puritan rulers banned Christmas in 1647, on the basis that it was ‘sacrilege’ and deemed a ‘satanical practice.’ A few years later, the ban was revoked as England fell into new leadership.
Christmas was also banned in Scotland in 1640 until as late as 1958, when it once again became a Scottish public holiday. It was not an American custom either, as after the American revolution, the people of the United States felt that the holiday was to be left to England. In 1843, popular English author Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, and its popularity solidified many English Christmas customs such as the spirit of family, feasting and goodwill. Dickens was deliberate in his plans to shape Christmas into much of what we know Christmas to be today, even coining the term ‘Merry Christmas’. However,by the 1870’s Christmas was once again part of American traditions, when an image of the British royal family with their Christmas tree at Windsor castle was published.
By and large, our culture and traditions have largely shaped how Christmas is played out in the Western world. And while some customs are certainly nicer than others (who came up with idea of Elf on the Shelf? That little guy freaks me out), they are still simply traditions.
It’s something to remember as the gifts from underneath the tree are being passed around, and the turkey is being laid on the red tablecloth. The story of Christ and his miraculous birth are so far beyond our Christmas traditions, so far ahead of what is lain before us Christmas morning. And while it is true that in all of our gift wrapping and celebrating we must remember Jesus as the center, isn’t the same true of everything we celebrate? Isn’t the same true in every heartache we experience? Isn’t the same true of every mundane day we are given?
In John 9, Jesus is walking through town when he comes across a blind man. Curious as to why the man was born blind, the disciples ask if it is because his parents are being punished for their sins. Jesus’ answer highlights that they are missing the point; the point is not the cause and effect, but what God can do with brokenness. He goes on to say, “For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.” (John 9:5, MSG).
Those words can sometimes feel too good to be true; hear them and one might feel a little like Peter as he walked on water towards Jesus – are you sure, Lord, are you sure?
But that is the news that we spread – yes, there is hope, yes there is joy, yes there is peace, and His name is Jesus and these things can exist even if you don’t feel them because they are of the Light of the world Himself, and not dependent on humanity to exist; no, He exists outside of us, and only by our prayer will He run to us to cover us in these things.
Christmas can be our vehicle in which we spread this news, but all of these things exist whether Christmas is their carrier or not.
So, today, Christmas day, our prayer is that the name and the thought of Jesus would not be far from your lips. That in everything, in every day, whether the day holds presents or not, whether the day is filled with Christmas trees or not, whether this or that, Jesus would be the focus.
Merry Christmas from our family to yours.