December 23, 2002

Christmas 2002: The One True Gift

Christmas 2002 comes during an interlude between stages in our nation’s war with our terrorist enemies. Not even 500 days have passed since the September 11th attack that murdered thousands of our countrymen, and for those touched most closely by that deadly assault, the wounds remain raw and dreadful; we can only pray for their solace and comfort. And yet for many others of us, the shocking horror of that day’s devastation has receded. Time and inertia soften all blows.

In the immediate aftermath of those terrible events over a year ago, we were hectored incessantly, “On 9-11, everything changed.” Yet, now can we really believe that? Surveying our nation, have we not reverted to our customary ways and renewed our bad old habits? As the French adage has it, “Plus ça change, plus c'est le même chose.”

The tenderness we felt toward our countrymen last year has crept away, and the hard, bitter arguments have slunk back. The incongruity is jarring in this particular season that honors love and giving. Why, so soon after our nation’s terrible shock, has Christmas again become controversial?

What is so threatening about a child born into meager circumstances? …Whose earthly father was a carpenter, whose mother a teenage bride pregnant before marriage?

What is so offensive about that Nativity that this story alone is banned from many celebrations in favor of a bland invitation to “Happy Holidays”? A silly lie can be easily dismissed, so the many pains taken to banish Christmas suggest there is something of great and lasting power in the story of the birth of Jesus. Perhaps the chords of Christmas carols resonate in the mind, then resound in the soul? Does anyone doubt that the things that last are those written in our hearts as part of our human nature?

It is intriguing to ponder a few circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus that are not so different from contemporary happenstances and persisting debates. A decree from Augustus Caesar declared that all the world should be taxed; and so, Joseph and Mary, the earthly expectant parents of Jesus, journeyed to Bethlehem for the census. Mary was near the end of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and Joseph could have handled the matter by “putting her away quietly” or by publicly condemning her for betraying their engagement; instead, he chose to be father to her Child.

Wise Men, the scientific and technological experts of that day, had reached predications of the coming birth of this Child, and they mistakenly ventured to the most powerful governmental ruler of the region, Herod, as they concluded that the Messiah, newly born King of the Jews, must be a political rather than a spiritual leader. Herod, fearful of the loss of his position and power, chose to slay all male children who might someday supplant him.

Then, as today, governmental tax decisions set the world in motion. Inconvenient people were easily expendable, with governmental permission. And even the most learned folk readily confused political and spiritual power.

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, men 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,” as well as the Messiah foretold in Jewish faith. As Jesus later said, he had not come to destroy the law and the prophets of Judaism, but to fulfill them, and so he also fulfilled the deepest human longings expressed in other traditional celebrations. Christians believe these things are not merely enduring, but eternal – because we are created in the image of Eternal God.

Because Christmas claims to have brought truth to humankind, Christmas is not friendly toward our age’s millenarian smugness about tolerance and inclusion. However, neither is Christmas cavalierly assessed as part of multiculturalism’s grave error of exclusion. Consider those who came to worship at the manger of the Baby King, born among animals in the stable – lowly shepherds and wealthy men of learning and accomplishment. From the very first Christmas on, Christmas has been open to all; the holy event of the incarnation is about incorporation.

Our American Christmas heritage has also been about incorporation, with the manner we commemorate the holiday deriving, 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.

Peter Kalm wrote on Christmas Day 1749, about Philadelphia’s holiday: “Nowhere was Christmas Day celebrated with more solemnity than in the Roman Church. Three sermons were preached there, and that which contributed most to the splendor of the ceremony was the beautiful music heard to-day….Pews and altar were decorated with branches of mountain laurel, whose leaves are green in winter time and resemble the (cherry laurel).”

Philip Fithian, of colonial Virginia, recorded in his diary entry for December 18, 1773: “When it grew too 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 Scotch and Scotch-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.

Our country has before this honored the birthday of the Prince of Peace when war was raging in our land. Indeed, our first national Christmases tell the tale of the Revolutionary War’s ebb and flow. The so-called Christmas Campaign successes of 1776 at Trenton and Princeton were presaged by General George Washington’s writings of December 18: “If every nerve is not straind to recruit the New Army with all possible Expedition I think the game is pretty near up….No Man I believe ever had a greater choice of difficulties & less the means of extricating himself than I have – However under a full perswation of the justice of our Cause I cannot but think the prospect will brighten.” But these surprising victories were followed a year later by the Revolutionary Army’s retreat to Valley Forge, the trail marked by bloody footprints in the snow. Washington’s discouragement was evident in his writing of “A character to lose – an estate to forfeit – the inestimable blessing of liberty at stake – and a life devoted, must be my excuse,” and about how “it was much easier to draw up remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fire-side, than to occupy a cold bleak hill, and sleep under frost and snow, without clothes or blankets.”

And the last battlefield conflict that visited our shores prior to September 11th came during the Civil War. General Robert E. Lee wrote one wartime Christmas with the plaint of Christian warriors ever: “My heart is filled with gratitude to Almighty God for his unspeakable mercies with which He has blessed us in this day. For those He granted us from the beginning of life, and particularly for those He has vouchsafed us during the past year [of war]. What should have become of us without His crowning help and protection?

"Oh, if our people would only recognize it and cease from self-boasting and adulation, how strong would be my belief in the final success and happiness to our country! But what a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world!

"I pray that on this [Christmas] day when only peace and good-will are preached to mankind, better thoughts may fill the hearts of our enemies and turn them to peace.”

Would our wishes today be expressed much differently, despite the span of nearly a century and a half, or the very different enemies we are facing? Are not our thoughts and prayers much the same?

But our terrorist enemies resent our nation’s financial power and military might and cultural decadence, which they consider a poisonous concoction that has overwhelmed their better natures – and they will not be deterred from their deadly mission of murder. But we might ponder the source of our preeminence, which the terrorists so resent. Our Founding Fathers crafted our system of laws out of belief in the message of the Child born on the first Christmas, and their great gift to us rests in the principles of liberty and self-government handed down through these generations.

We Christians believe that Christmas was a necessity because man’s heart is deceitful above all things, desperately wicked, and unfathomably so. War is merely one of the deadliest manifestations arising from this darkness in the hearts of all men. And Christmas addresses the duality of our human nature. We are so depraved, God had to mount a personal rescue mission on our behalf; we are so valuable, He considered sacrificing Himself worth the exchange. Only a Gift would suffice to redeem such creatures into freedom.

The Wise Men followed the Holy Star to lay gifts, symbolic of His life, before the Baby Jesus: gold, because He was a king; frankincense, as he was a divine king; myrrh, to foreshadow that His suffering and death would be our preservation. In laying down their lives as part of their daily work, our warriors give us, their countrymen, lasting sacrificial gifts.

The miracle is not that we can honor Christmas in peace and in war, but that so much of Christmas has endured into our time, celebrated still in its full glory and significance, despite its central paradoxes, so strange to our ears, of the Gift beyond reciprocation: God born in Man, Eternity captured in Time, and Light piercing the Darkness, to reveal a Truth at the heart of the Universe.

We trust that our differences can be resolved by an unwavering adherence to the light of truth. We are encouraged that so many still possess a soul-deep desire for light in the mist of great darkness. And as Christians, we find our way illuminated by the Truth, the Light, that once rested as a Child in the arms of Mary.

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