In its simplest observances, Christmas alone among our American holidays rekindles flickers of the past. Consider: Isn’t this the only season in which you routinely and unself-consciously wish others to be “merry”?
But quaint language aside, what makes Christmas unique in our celebrations? Why are the displays and symbols of this particular holiday so often the subject of contentious court cases?
And what is it about Christmas that makes our terrorist enemies most eager at this holiday of all to succeed in attacking us? Over this past weekend, the terror-alert status was raised to “high,” a result of increased activity and communications leading to an assessment that the chance of attack is greatest since September 11, 2001.
What is so provocative about Christmas?
Debates over public display of crèches, combined with singular bans on these symbols while allowing menorahs and the like, demonstrate that this holiday is considered offensive even in its barest representation.
What is so threatening about a child born into meager circumstances? …Whose earthly father was a carpenter, whose mother was a teenage bride pregnant before marriage? But perhaps the story’s very comeliness and winsomeness add to its threat.
Historically, the actual year of Christ’s birth is thought to be between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C., at the end of Herod’s reign. The first mention of Christmas as a formal Nativity feast occurred in a Roman almanac dated A.D. 336. The day we celebrate Christ’s birth, December 25th, was not chosen on the basis of historical evidence but rather to replace the pagan festival natalis solis invicti, the birth of the sun god Mithras, at winter solstice.
The Christmas star that guided the Wise Men to Bethlehem may have been any of a number of recorded astronomical events coinciding with the likeliest dates of that first Christmas. Halley’s Comet appeared in 12 B.C., and ancient Chinese texts note “exploding” stars, or novas, observed in both 4 and 5 B.C. Exceptionally bright planetary conjunctions occurred in 2, 6, and 7 B.C.; among these, the most promising candidate for the Holy Star was the triple conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in 6 B.C.
The prophet Isaiah wrote of the coming Messiah, that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light….” Clearly, well before the birth of Jesus, man longed for light in the days of greatest darkness. Early Christians selected December 25th for the Nativity feast to proclaim that Jesus Christ was the real Light of the World, the true “Sun of Righteousness,” the foretold Messiah. As Jesus later said, he had not come to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them. Christians believe these things are not merely enduring, but eternal – because we are created in the image of Eternal God. And we believe that Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, marks the event which changed the world forever.
Our American Christmas heritage derives, like so much else here, from the mingled Christmas traditions of immigrants from many lands, with differing religious beliefs and customs of worship and celebration. Our name for this Holy Day arises from the old English Cristes Maesse, or Christ’s Mass, and as the name suggests, the holiday was first observed in Early America among the Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Moravians who settled predominantly in the Middle Atlantic colonies and the South. Influenced by Puritanism and Calvinism, the New England Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists looked askance at a celebration they deemed based on “heathenistic traditions.” New England colonial authorities outlawed Christmas from 1649 until 1658. The General Court of Massachusetts in 1659 set a fine of five shillings per offense, punishing the observance “of any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forebearing of labour, feasting, or any such way.” Contemporaneously, the Assembly of Connecticut forbade the reading of the Book of Common Prayer, the keeping of Christmas and saints days, the making of mince pies, the playing of cards, or performing on any musical instruments.
By contrast, Philip Fithian, of colonial Virginia, recorded in his diary entry for December 18, 1773: “When it grew to dark to dance….we conversed til half after six; Nothing is now to be heard of in conversation, but the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments, and the good fellowship, which are to be exhibited at the approaching Christmas.”
Fithian’s Christmas Eve 1775 diary entry from Staunton, Virginia, described other common pastimes of the holiday celebration: “The Evening I spent at Mr. Guys – I sung for an Hour, at the good Peoples Desire, Mr. Watts admirable Hymns – I myself was entertaind; I felt myself improvd; so much Love to Jesus is set forth – So much divine Exercise.” But his 1775 Christmas Day entry noted the vastly different observances of the Scots and Scots-Irish Presbyterians: “Christmas Morning – Not A Gun is heard – Not a Shout – No company or Cabal assembled – To Day is like other Days every Way calm & temperate – People go about their daily Business with the same Readiness, & apply themselves to it with the same Industry.”
The first state to declare Christmas a legal holiday was Massachusetts in 1856. By the Civil War era, most of our shared Christmas traditions were set, and the January 3, 1863, issue of Harper’s Weekly featured a drawing of encamped soldiers receiving Christmas gifts from home. Nearly all Americans (96%) celebrate Christmas today in some form or another. However, that very uniformity belies the variance with which, as in colonial days, Americans hold this holiday apart.
Yet, the power of America’s Christmas persists, as the terrorists’ hostility testifies. Although our nation sometimes finds itself in curious and lamentable denial of its outright Christian heritage, we cannot help but pose a grave threat to the supremacy among civilizations our enemies would seek. Unwittingly, then, our adversaries give proof that our nation’s successes flow from foundations laid in the God who came that first Christmas as the Babe in the manger.
Perhaps this is what gives so much offense that even the simplest and least “religious” retelling of the Nativity must be silenced: Christianity is alone among religious faiths in its calm audacity; Jesus alone among religious founders staked his life on the claim that He was the only way to reconcile fallen, broken humans with our Heavenly Father. His life was the gift – to grant us restoration of life beyond death, that we might have life everlasting in the company of God the Father.
During this Christmas season, and every day of the coming year, may God’s peace and blessings be upon you and all those around you.
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’ When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” (Luke 2:1-20)
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