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The Christmas season is a delightful, variegated smorgasbord of customs that annoys the purists, like Dr Paul Moon, [i] and often confuses the rest of us. This morning I want to talk about the four main traditions of the season, and what they each have to offer us.
The first tradition is the Winter Solstice of the Northern Hemisphere that was observed on December 25th in the Roman Julian Calendar. It marked the longest night of the year. After the bounty of harvest all nature had begun to die. The colour green faded from the earth. Death it seemed was making an irrevocable advance. Then a significant event happened: the sun turned. Light was re-born to the world. Hope was renewed. People could rejoice, feast and celebrate. [ii]
In Middle Eastern civilizations – Syria, Egypt, Persia – Winter Solstice was symbolized by the birth of a divine male child from the dark womb of the Goddess. There was no father, as the Goddess herself was all sufficient.
Winter Solstice rituals in Europe primarily involved greenery and fire. Candles were lit to invoke fire, but the most important fire ritual was the Yule-log, which symbolized warmth, light and the continuance of life. Yule, the festival of rebirth, lasted 12 days [now known as the ‘twelve days of Christmas’].
Greenery was used to celebrate the triumph of the life-force. In Rome, temples were decorated with evergreens, especially holly. Pine and fir trees were also decorated with streamers, bells, and ornaments of gold and silver. In Britain holly, ivy and mistletoe stood out as rare splashes of green in the bare forest, and therefore used in this celebration.
At Solstice rituals people sang and danced carols. Some carols today, like “The Holly and the Ivy”, date back to these times.
Winter Solstice rituals carried on century after century, with many customs being incorporated into Christmas.
The second tradition of the season is Santa Claus. He is derived from St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, born during the third century in the village of Patara. Nicholas’ wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering.
Over centuries St Nicholas has travelled a circuitous route through Europe, especially the Netherlands, and then to the Americas, through the pens of cartoonists in the 1800s to the jolly red bearded figure of today. The saint's name shifted to Santa Claus – a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus. His mission also shifted – from caring for the poor to being a gift-giver to all, including the affluent. He’s also been used increasingly in the last century as an endorser of consumer products and our materialistic society in general.
Love him or loathe him Santa Claus is here to stay. At best he’s a symbol of generosity, and a reminder that we need to care for those who have the least resources. At his worst he’s a symbol of the “I-want-more-culture”. A culture based on greed.
All around the Santa gift-giving myth there is predominantly a sense of fun, merriment, feasting and laughter. Ho ho ho. No wonder it endures.
The third tradition is the Pageant Christmas. This is what society generally thinks is Christian belief. It involves all the nativity characters on stage at once. There are angels, white robed and winged. There are shepherds, healthy and benign, with a sheep or two in tow. There are kings, wise men from the East, with their gifts. There is stolid, solid Joseph. There is innocent, placid Mary. There is an inviting manger, with an adorable blue-eyed boy in its crib.
This happy scene is replicated on Christmas cards and in carols. “Love came down at Christmas time, love all lovely, love divine; love was born at Christmas – star and angels gave the sign.” [iii]
This Christmas tradition emphases babies, families, togetherness, love, and singing.
If one begins to deconstruct this mythological Pageant, as I have done in the past, then one is quickly criticized by both those who do not use critical faculties when reading the Bible and those for whom this togetherness ideal is very important. The critic becomes the Grinch, stealing the fun.
So, it’s easier to live with it. Indeed a lot of our enjoyment of Christmas is tied into this myth: Babies are wonderful, and a birth is a sacred event. Families are important, and the broader family of an eclectic community can produce much kindness. Love is the essence of God, and music is the closest thing we have to God’s language. All this is worth celebrating.
The fourth tradition is the Biblical Christmas. This is not about a baby, but about a man. Compiled in the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, the writers talked about hope. Using their Hebrew Scriptures they created stories to talk about the hope found in Jesus.
Historically, little was known about Jesus’ early years, save that his mother was called Mary, his birth was scandalous, and his hometown was Nazareth in Galilee. Yet the writers knew about his adult ministry. They knew he had lived and preached a radical tolerance. They knew he had sided with the poor. They knew he had been a threat to those in positions of religious and political power.
Matthew’s birth narrative, probably the first, uses scriptures from the Hebrew Bible, taken out of their original context, to undergird claims about the adult Jesus. The prediction, for example, about a ‘virgin conceiving’ was not a comment about sex but about God still being miraculously with them at this crisis point in history. The references to Egypt, as another example, were saying that the Jesus movement is another ‘Exodus’ movement, and Jesus a new Moses, a new liberator.
The genealogy Matthew constructs links Jesus to King David. Yet there are also indications that Jesus’ power would be quite different from that of a king. Radically in that genealogy, women are included: scandalous sinners and non-Jews/aliens. Jesus power would be one of crossing boundaries, promoting tolerance and compassion.
The creation of the Magi, Zoroastrians, travelling to the manger, likewise serves to underline this theme. The Jesus movement was not just for Jews. There are no boundaries around God.
Luke’s birth narrative is similarly an interpretive meditation on the Hebrew Bible that points to the adult Jesus. The birth stories of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel, for example, are used to underline that even in the most unlikely of circumstances new hope can arise. As in the early hymn, the Magnificat, Hannah [Samuel’s mum] sings of hope: the mighty being brought low and the humble lifted up.
This reversal theme, politically potent, is emphasized in the place of Jesus’ birth, a religiously impure stable belonging to a stranger, and his first visitors, shepherds – who in that time were considered petty thieves. The message is that Jesus the adult was of lowly origins who stood with people of lowly origins against the power and wealth of the high and mighty. He was not born in a palace, attended by courtiers, and visited by other potentates.
Similarly the angels – poetic symbols of the mystery of God – sing of the adult Jesus claiming the titles of Caesar. Jesus would be the one who would save. Jesus would be the sovereign one, the Lord. Jesus’ power though would not come from riches and military might, it would be an upside-down power grounded in a life lived in God.
These four traditions: Winter Solstice, Santa, Pageant, and Biblical Christmas merge together at this time of year. Solstice celebrates the passing from darkness to light, from barrenness to greenness. Santa celebrates the power of generosity and challenges us to emulate it. Pageant Christmas celebrates the magic of children, and the power of love and togetherness. Biblical Christmas celebrates the hope found in the adult Jesus, who lived a life of tolerance and compassion, confronting the boundaries and power of religious and political elites.
All of these Christmas season traditions are to be valued, none should be discarded. All are to be celebrated. For each nurture our spirits, and challenge us to make our world a better place.
[ii] Juliet Batten Celebrating the Southern Seasons
[iii] Christina Rossetti Love Came Down At Christmas