Christmas in History

Mingling cultural traditions

from To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays & Rites of Passage by ALTERNATIVES for Simple Living

Despite the fact that the Gospel of Luke links the date of Jesus’ birth to a census in Palestine decreed by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1), nothing is known of the time of year of his birth. The first evidence of speculation about the date is in the third century when Clement of Alexandria suggested May 20. The earliest mention of observance on December 25 is in the Philocalian Calendar, representing Roman practice in the year AD 336. At about the same time, the Eastern church began to observe the Nativity on January 6, the feast of Epiphany. By the middle of the fifth century, however, most Eastern churches had adopted December 25.
Christmas cartoon

As with other Christian holy days, the date of Christmas appears to have been set to provide an alternative to one or more popular pagan festivals. December 25 was originally the date of the feast to the sun god, Mithras. The cult of Mithras had spread from Persia into the Roman world in the first century, and by the third century was Christianity’s main rival. December 25 also came at the end of the feast of Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival commemorating the golden age of Saturn. Both of these festivals may well have been related to even earlier festivals marking the winter solstice.

Although Christmas was intended as an alternative to pagan festivals, the practices of those festivals were often simply incorporated into the Christian celebration. As Christianity spread through central and northern Europe, the accretions from local religions continued. As early as the fifth century, a small minority of Christian leaders expressed alarm at the growing pagan character of Christmas, a cause for concern that continued through the Middle Ages.

Christmas celebrations were not only enlarged by absorbing elements from local religions but from other Christian traditions as well, for example, St. Nicholas. The association of Christmas with St. Nicholas came about in the Middle Ages, especially in northern Europe. Little is known about his history except that he was Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the fourth century. Of the many stories about this saint, one of the most popular tells about his generosity in giving gifts anonymously to the poor. He became the patron saint of numerous countries, cities and groups, and especially of children. Because of this special relationship, tradition developed that he gave gifts to children on the eve of his feast day, December 6.

During the Reformation of the 16th century, many reformers wanted Christmas dropped as a Christian celebration. In their view, not only was there no biblical sanction for Christmas, but its popular practices still looked too much like the old Saturnalia festivals. In their general resistance to things Catholic, they also wanted St. Nicholas banished. For a few years in 17th-century England, the Puritan-dominated parliament outlawed the feast of Christmas. At the same time, Puritans in Massachusetts passed similar legislation. Between the 16th and 18th centuries the widespread antipathy to Christmas as a holy day—especially by Puritans, Quakers, Baptists, and Presbyterians—had important consequences, consequences which those religious groups could not have imagined.

Resistance to attaching religious significance to Christmas encouraged its growth as a secular holiday. For example, St. Nicholas was replaced by a more secular figure known as Christmas Man, Father Christmas, and Papa Noël. The Dutch, reluctant to give up St. Nicholas, brought Sinterklass (St. Nicholas) with them when they came to America and honored him on December 6. In the 17th century, when the Dutch lost control of New Amsterdam to the English, Sinterklass was gradually anglicized into Santa Claus and acquired many of the accoutrements of Christmas Man—the workshop at the North Pole and the sleigh with reindeer. By the 19th century, when the formerly-resistant Protestant groups began to celebrate Christmas, it was not only a religious holy day but a well-established secular holiday as well.

The 20th century: Commercializing Christmas

Through the 20th century in Europe and North America, the popular celebration of Christmas remains an amalgam of Christian and non-Christian traditions. The lack of clarity about the celebration’s purpose has remained, accentuating a new factor in the 20th century: the commercialization of Christmas.

More than just a mixture of diverse traditions, Christmas is now big business. While the Christian calendar calls for a solemn four- or five-week preparation to celebrate the birth of Christ, the “Christmas economy” overshadows even Halloween, with Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. serving as little more than a prelude to the greatest shopping weekend of the year. In 1939, President Roosevelt moved the date of Thanksgiving back to the third Thursday of November to expand the Christmas shopping season. With the survival of many businesses dependent on Christmas profits and half of the annual advertising dollar spent on Christmas-related advertising, it is not surprising that for some shoppers Christmas spending is regarded as a patriotic duty.

The commercialization of Christmas did not occur in a social vacuum. It is part of our society in which consumption for its own sake—regardless of need—is legitimated and encouraged. Without reluctance, consumerism exploits religious beliefs and deep emotions to persuade people to buy. Advertising’s behavior modification specialists demonstrate that the strains of “Joy to the World” trumpeting throughout the shopping malls in December produce greater profits, and that “Silent Night, Holy Night” is even better. Using Christmas as a religion-sanctioned occasion for extravagant spending, businesses hope that the practice of spending billions of dollars on Christmas gifts in North America is simply practice for greater spending throughout the rest of the year.

While it may be good for the economy in the short run, commercialized Christmas also has its costs. Preparations for observing the birth of one whose coming is “good news to the poor,” are often displaced by the more financially attractive preparations to observe the coming of Santa Claus. Extravagant Christmas spending means fewer dollars available for those ministries and agencies addressing critical social and environmental problems. And the loss is more than dollars. The sense of exploitation that many feel at Christmas, the depression that comes when Christmas does not deliver the happiness popular hype promises, and the guilt from being willing participants in a religious fraud, all rob Christmas of its power to renew the human spirit.

Christmas cartoon

Perhaps the greatest cost of commercialization at Christmas is paid by the poor. In our society, the poor experience Christmas as a cruel hoax. Our pervasive cultural Christmas ideology is not Christology—celebrating Christ’s coming as “good news to the poor”—but what we might call “Santology.”

The creed of Santa Claus theology is the well-known song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” According to this creed, Santa is omniscient; like God, Santa knows all about us. There is also a day of judgment. It comes once a year when “good” children (and adults!) are rewarded with good things, while the “bad” (i.e., the poor) get coals and switches. The truth is, of course, that gifts are not distributed based on who has been “good or bad” or “naughty or nice,” but on what people can afford or get credit to buy. But that’s not what our culture teaches children.

What it teaches is bad for both poor and non-poor children. Poor children are told that they don’t receive gifts because they are bad, while the non-poor are taught that they receive gifts because they are good. Both notions, equally reprehensible, are part of this culture’s Santa Claus theology.

Commercial Christmas, its underpinnings of Santa Claus firmly in place, continues its spiraling growth. It seems evident that its cultural pervasiveness makes future change little less than a distant dream. It is also true that many Christians and congregations accept the distortion of their holy day without challenge. The reason, one suspects, is not so much an insensitivity to the issues, but rather a feeling of impotence—not knowing what to do or how to do it. Aware that slogans such as “putting Christ back in Christmas,” and ideas about “Christmas basket charity” are simplistic, many Christians opt to do nothing. The commercialization of Christmas is something everybody talks about, but nobody does anything about.

Alternatives to the commercialized Christmas

What can you do to make Christmas a joyful celebration of Christ’s birth? How can the meaning of Emmanuel, “God with us,” be made real at Christmastime?

RECOGNIZE at the outset that there are no quick fixes for miraculously transforming our Christmas celebrations. Christmas commercialization is deeply ingrained in this society. You can save yourself a lot of frustration by realizing that patience and perseverance are virtues needed in good supply for this venture.

Let Advent be Advent! Use the Advent season to develop a spirituality of cultural resistance to the commercialization of Christmas.

Turn down the volume of commercial Christmas hoopla. Long before Christmas arrives, the airwaves, print media, and shopping malls are saturated with messages to provide a “good” Christmas. Restrict exposure to this propaganda by watching television less frequently, making fewer trips to malls, and getting “Christmas” catalogues out of your house.

Tune in to activities that are less consumption-oriented. Set aside time in the weeks before Christmas for personal quiet time and reflection, time for family and/or friends, time to work through an Advent calendar or the Gospel Bible readings for Advent, time for making gifts at home, and time for household members to share in the pre-Christmas cleaning and cooking responsibilities.

EXPECT your religious community to provide resources and opportunities—through its church school, worship services, and outreach committees—for members looking for ways to resist the pressures of commercialization. Then, help out. Act to see that your expectation becomes reality. Consider organizing a community-wide alternative Christmas festival.

TAKE Santa Claus theology seriously. Perpetuation of the Santa Claus myth is an issue on which people of good will can and do disagree. Many—especially young parents—struggle with this issue alone because some congregations actively perpetuate Santa Claus theology, while others say nothing. Consider recovering the St. Nicholas tradition, thereby creating new celebration traditions that do not detract from celebrating Christ’s birth.

REDISCOVER creativity in gift-giving, both in what and where you buy. Recover the almost lost art of self-giving through gifts of time and skill, as well as presents made in the kitchen, workshop, or at the desk.

INCLUDE in your congregation and family celebrations, those who would otherwise be alone. Celebrate Christ’s coming as “good news to the poor” by sharing the joy and intimacy of your Christmas with senior citizens living alone, foreign students, street people, refugees, or people who simply need hospitality.

GIVE to honor the birth of Christ. Do a cost analysis of your spending last Christmas. How much for presents? Decorations? Travel? Food? Covenant with members of your household to take 25 percent of what you spent last Christmas and make that a “birthday gift” this Christmas. Give it to those who are working with and on behalf of the really needy.

PLAN for Christmas. Don’t just be defensive. Find positive ways to react to society’s idea of the “good” Christmas.
——During the summer, approach the appropriate committees in your church with ideas about how your congregation’s celebrations might fully celebrate Christ’s birth.
——Before Thanksgiving, write letters explaining your ideas about celebrating this year to family and friends with whom you ordinarily spend Christmas.
——Begin the gifts you want to make early enough to avoid being stampeded into buying at the last minute.
——Prepare your children early for an alternative Christmas. They need your help to resist the media’s hard sell that begins right after Halloween.


From To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays and Rites of Passage, by ALTERNATIVES for Simple Living, “Equipping people of faith to challenge consumerism, live justly and celebrate responsibly,” 1987. Used by permission.
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