The Origins of Christmas

Every year, I hear people talk about where Christmas came from. Here are two discussions of how there came to be a celebration of Jesus’ birth on December 25.

From Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church:

The Christmas festival was probably the Christian transformation or regeneration of a series of kindred heathen festivals—the Saturnalia, Sigillaria, Juvenalia, and Brumalia—which were kept in Rome in the month of December, in commemoration of the golden age of universal freedom and equality, and in honor of the unconquered sun, and which were great holidays, especially for slaves and children. This connection accounts for many customs of the Christmas season, like the giving of presents to children and to the poor, the lighting of wax tapers, perhaps also the erection of Christmas trees, and gives them a Christian import; while it also betrays the origin of the many excesses in which the unbelieving world indulges at this season, in wanton perversion of the true Christmas mirth, but which, of course, no more forbid right use, than the abuses of the Bible or of any other gift of God.

Had the Christmas festival arisen in the period of the persecution, its derivation from these pagan festivals would be refuted by the then reigning abhorrence of everything heathen; but in the Nicene age this rigidness of opposition between the church and the world was in a great measure softened by the general conversion of the heathen. Besides, there lurked in those pagan festivals themselves, in spite of all their sensual abuses, a deep meaning and an adaptation to a real want; they might be called unconscious prophecies of the Christmas feast. Finally, the church fathers themselves confirm the symbolical reference of the feast of the birth of Christ, the Sun of righteousness, the Light of the world, to the birth-festival of the unconquered sun, which on the twenty-fifth of December, after the winter solstice, breaks the growing power of darkness, and begins anew his heroic career. It was at the same time, moreover, the prevailing opinion of the church in the fourth and fifth centuries, that Christ was actually born on the twenty-fifth of December; and Chrysostom appeals, in behalf of this view, to the date of the registration under Quirinius (Cyrenius), preserved in the Roman archives. But no certainty respecting the birthday of Christ can be reached from existing data.

From Craig Blomberg, in his Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey:

In post-New Testament times, Mithraism (originally from Persia) amalgamated with the Roman worship of Sol Invictus (the unconquerable sun), and a festival to Sol was celebrated every December 25. Christians took advantage of this “day off” to protest against Mithraism by worshiping the birth of Jesus instead. After the Roman empire became officially Christian (fourth century), this date turned into the legal holiday we know today as Christmas. The celebration of the annual death and rebirth of the nature gods finds parallels and contrasts, too, with Christian teaching about the death and resurrection of Christ (34).

It is important to note that Christmas did not start out as a pagan festival. It was the co-opting of a pagan festival. In this way, it is like Festivus, the holiday that Frank Costanza (A character on the TV show Seinfeld) created as an alternative to Christmas. There was already a holiday being celebrated, and Christians used the festive atmosphere to create their own holiday.

Good Friday: The Long Silence

At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne.

Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly – not with cringing shame, but with belligerence.

“Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?” snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror… beatings… torture… death!”

In another group a Negro boy lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched… for no crime but being black!”

In another crowd, a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. “Why should I suffer?” she murmured. “It wasn’t my fault.”

Far out across the plain there were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in this world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.

So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because they had suffered the most. A Jew, a Negro, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.

Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man!

“Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.

“At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.”

As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled.

And when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered another word. No one moved. For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.

– Anonymous, quoted in John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 336-7

It’s a Festivus Miracle!

Miraculously, I made it to Michigan for Christmas. On Sunday, dozens of flights from Seattle were cancelled, and thousands of people spent the night at the airport, mostly because airlines ran out of de-icing fluid (Here’s an article about it). Fortunately, I went to the airport late Monday night, and the change was amazing. Sure, there were still a few people passed out under blankets, and there were a few people on my flight who had been delayed for over 24 hours. But the shuttle I took to the airport was not delayed at all (even though on their Web site they said they were running 60 minutes late), my flight was not delayed at all (even though the first leg of the trip was through Minneapolis), and even the last leg of my flight was only delayed for about 45 minutes.

When I say that “it’s a Festivus miracle,” I’m of course referring to the Seinfeld episode called “The Strike,” about Festivus. To me, calling something a Festivus miracle is saying that it is an instance of things turning out pretty well that may or may not have included divine intervention. Since part of celebrating Festivus is the “Airing of Grievances,” it is time to complain about my flying experience. Surprisingly, there isn’t all that much to complain about this time, but I usually am disgusted. And it wasn’t until I read this op-ed piece in the New York Times that I found out why flying is so typically an unpleasant experience these days. Here’s a quote:

I have experienced the decline of service along with the rest of the flying public. But I believe I have felt it more acutely because I remember the days when to fly was to soar. The airlines, and their employees, took pride in how their passengers were treated. A friend who flew for Pan Am and I have a friendly rivalry over which airline was better. Friendly, yes. But we each believe we worked for the best.

We tell stories about cooking lamb chops and dressing them in foil pantaloons; we debate the beauty of my Ralph Lauren uniform versus her Oleg Cassini. I like to tell her how we would have the children on board serve the after-dinner mints — delicious pale-green circles with T.W.A. stamped on them, arranged on a silver tray. We remember the service we provided — dare I say cheerfully? Happily? Proudly? And when my friend and I part ways, although we hold on to our allegiances, we know that all of our passengers were served well.

After-dinner mints? My flight to Minneapolis didn’t even have beverage service. Okay, maybe this was because it was a red-eye flight and they figured everyone would be sleeping. Fine. So where’s my sleep mask?

Now that I’m finished with the airing of grievances, I’m done celebrating Festivus for the year. On to Christmas!

Valentine’s Day 2008

I know, I know. You’re asking, “Elliot, what did you do for Valentine’s Day this year?”

Big Pink Heart

Well, friends, ’tis a sad tale. Mary is in the Caribbean on a cruise right now with about a dozen of our friends, having a fantastic time. I’m in Vancouver, and as is so often the case here during the winter, it is raining. Mary sent a card before she left, and I arranged to have flowers delivered on the ship, but there was no Valentine’s Day date. This is not something that I have had to spend a lot of time coming to terms with, since out of my 28 years, I have been in a relationship on Valentine’s Day exactly three times. And oddly enough, exactly none of those three times have I been close enough (geographically) to my significant other to actually see them on February 14.

So instead of going out, I had a romantic evening with my roommate Tony. We ate spaghetti and watched a romantic comedy. It was pretty fun, actually; Valentine’s Day usually has been for me. It has never been a time to reflect wistfully on an unsuccessful love life. More often than not, it has been a good time to get together with friends and enjoy each other’s company. That’s not a bad way to spend the day, especially since a plausible case can be made (according to Wikipedia, at least) that Valentine’s Day had nothing to do with romantic love until Chaucer made the connection in the 1380s.

Break Pictures

I’m back in Vancouver, and as promised, I have uploaded some pictures from the break. Here are a few of them:

This is the table at my grandparents’ house, set for Christmas Eve dinner.

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This is my dad and grandpa in the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

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My nephew Calvin, in the hat that my grandma made for him.

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My dad holding my other nephew, Theo.

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Theo and me.

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The Break In Review

Well, it has been a few days since I’ve written anything, so I thought I’d let my friends far and near know what I’ve been up to: I’ve been on break from school, traipsing around the eastern half of the U.S. Class let out for me on Dec. 14, and I then spent a couple of days in Bellingham, WA with Mary. Then I flew from Seattle to Raleigh, NC, and spent a few days hanging out with my parents in Fayetteville and Clinton. Then, on Dec. 21, I drove with my dad to Grand Rapids, MI to visit family and spend Christmas with them. Then, on Dec. 26, my dad and I drove around the south end of Lake Michigan to visit my brother and his family in Wauwatosa, WI for a few days. Then, my dad and I drove to Cincinnati on Dec. 30, and spent the night with a friend and former colleague of his. Then we drove the rest of the way back to Fayetteville on New Year’s Eve. I spent a couple of days in Fayetteville and a day with my mom and her husband in Clinton, and then flew back to Seattle. I have been in Bellingham, spending time with Mary and her family for the past couple of days. I’ll be here for the rest of this week, and classes begin again on Monday, Jan. 14.

So what have been the highlights?

1. Spending Christmas Eve at my grandparents’ house with most of the relatives. It’s a tradition that has gone on as long as I can remember, and every year, as my grandparents get older, I wonder if it will be the last time. Because of that, I have tended to savor the time more recently.

2. Going to the movies: I saw Kite Runner with my dad and aunt and uncle in Grand Rapids, and National Treasure: Book of Secrets in Bellingham with Mary. I enjoyed both movies, but they’re about as different as two movies can be. And although I didn’t go out and see it in a theater, another movie event of this break has been seeing The Godfather for the first time. That’s right; I’ve been alive for close to 30 years and had never seen it until yesterday. I’ve also never seen The Lion King, for those of you who are keeping score.

3. Getting books. I’ve already posted about the books I got for Christmas, but there were quite a few more that I got with my own money just because the time seemed right. I look forward to reading as many as I can before classes force me to read other things soon.

4. Meeting my newest nephew, and seeing my older nephew for the first time in a year. The older nephew is lots of fun (if tiring – I can only imagine what it’s like to be my brother and sister-in-law), and the younger one is the cutest creature on God’s green earth. I will have to post pictures early next week when I am reunited with the connector cord for my digital camera. It’s in Vancouver.

Thanksgiving at a Glance

Well, it’s Thanksgiving weekend, and it has been fun and relaxing so far. Regent has gone to two reading weeks per semester, and in the fall the two reading weeks coincide with Canadian Thanksgiving (in early October) and American Thanksgiving. So I’ve had the whole week off from classes, though I’ve been reading quite a bit. Mostly what I have been reading is Theology, Music and Time by Jeremy Begbie. It explores what music can teach us about theology and time. I had trouble getting into it at first, mostly because of the time spent early in the book on music theory. Later portions of the book have been much more interesting, though I wouldn’t say that it’s a groundbreaking book. There are a few new insights, but they are more along the lines of, “Oh, that’s interesting” than “I’ve never thought about that before!”

Since Wednesday, I’ve been hanging around with Mary and her family in Washington. Wednesday night, we watched the number one movie on AFI’s Top 100 Movies of All Time, Citizen Kane. I was impressed. The plot I found interesting, and it sustained my interest for all 2 hours. The cinematography was of a kind that I don’t often see in black and white movies, but I see more of those kinds of techniques nowadays. I guess there’s a reason why it’s number one: it’s so influential.

Thanksgiving was spend down in Bothell, WA at Mary’s aunt and uncle’s house, and Black Friday was spent far, far away from the mall. We mostly read our respective books, either at home or at a coffee shop. It’s nice to be dating a person who is also in grad school; I don’t feel like so much of a nerd for reading constantly when Mary has to, as well.