Christ in Christmas or Santa in Christmas? Or neither? (1 of 2)

I might step in it this time, get myself in trouble. Every kid, me included when I was a kid, can’t walk past a pot hole filled with water after a rain without smashing our foot into it. I don’t know why it attracts us, both boys and girls, but it does. This is me now seeing ahead several water-filled pot holes and I’m aiming for them excited to see the water splash up.

There are two kinds of Christmases we celebrate: Christ in Christmas and Santa Claus in Christmas, Here’s where I step in it; neither is inherently (ontologically) real, both are nothing more than man’s instituted traditions.

Let’s define tradition. From the Cambridge DictionaryI find the simplest definition:

“a way of behaving or a belief that has been established for a long time, orthe practice of following behavior and beliefs that have been so established.”

I’m not saying traditions are wrong, necessarily, they are our reminders of times past that has pivotal meaning for us. They are our moments of remembering.

When the Hebrews after 40 years finally entered the Promised Land God came to Joshua and gave him instruction that we read here:

“So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.” (Joshua 4: 4-7 NIV.)

The tradition this time came from God but it acts the same as those we institute ourselves. The tradition God wanted to start was telling your (the Hebrews) children the meaning of the twelve stones, the story they should tell their children and on throughout history keeping the memory alive about what God did. We institute traditions for the same purpose. The basis for establishing a tradition can be good or bad. We institute tradition to create or support behavior or beliefs we trust are important, not necessarily that they are true but the hierarchy has declared them true. A little cryptic but maybe this example will clear it up:

In 1517 Martin Luther pinned his 95-Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, his way of trying to establish a dialogue with the Catholic Pope over the tradition of the Roman church  selling indulgences. Put simply the Roman church sold indulgences for the remission of sins of the dead. It wasn’t a celebrating tradition but it was a belief and behavior tradition that, as Luther pointed out, had no support for it in the Bible. Some traditions are instituted, not inherent, say like the rocks were inherent from the Jordan River reminding the Hebrews of God’s behavior, grounded in an actual command from God.

The difference between inherent and instituted is crucial; the one given to us to keep, the other we created as a reminder and how we keep it can change at will. In fact, we can end the tradition without it impacting the truth it was built upon.

I love Christmas. The Christmas I love is the Santa Claus Christmas. I was probably 10 years old—I say probably because I’m too old now to remember too much back then—when I accepted Jesus as my savior and ever since can be called a Christian. My mother and father were Christian long before I, but the Christmas I’m familiar with at home all my life is the Santa Christmas. To this day the Christmas at home is more Santa than Christ. We, the family, go to church to celebrate the Christ Christmas. Both have different traditions tied to them.

Christmas is, or at least was, a Christian holiday. If some of you don’t understand this just look at the word: “Christ-mas”. So before Christ there would obviously be no Christmas, and it really only has meaning for Christians. But if we took elements of Winter Solstice from the pagans to form our Christmas celebration it seems fair the secular world can take elements from Christmas to form their Winter Holiday. Remember, Christmas is a man-instituted tradition, not inherent, not instituted by Jesus who did not say Christians should celebrate his birth, which is what Christmas is about.

So when did we begin this tradition? It is said that it was begun in the year 336. Wow! That’s over 300 years after Christ. No Christmas before then? Must not have needed it.  Roman Emperor Constantine (he was the first Christian Roman Emperor), the man who made Christianity legal in the Empire, supposedly started the tradition. A few years later Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th of December. Why December when best evidence tells us Jesus was not born in December, most likely in mid-September?

Well, remember, this is our—by our I mean Christians—instituted tradition not inherent so we can build it how we want to, though we oughtn’t blur truths. Now Easter had already been established as a traditional celebration sometime in the Second Century around 150-200 or thereabouts. It, too, is instituted by man and not inherent. Actually, there isn’t a celebratory tradition Jesus established for Christians. The closest thing to a tradition is communion and it simply is about when we Christians gather we should take the wine and bread as a reminder of Jesus, the meaning of the physical wine and bread takes on different meaning for different religious beliefs. The Jews have a number of inherent—God called for—celebrations. But nothing for Christians.

Okay, if December isn’t when Jesus was born why was it chosen? There are some clues, but they are just clues, nothing definitive. Supposedly to make Christians more popular it was decided to draw from a pagan celebration, not piggy back on it but convert it signifying that while Christians changed it it still showed some respect for pagan beliefs. So Winter Solstice was chosen. About this we read:

“The Roman Festival of Saturnalia took place between December 17th and 23rd and honoured the Roman god Saturn. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti means ‘birthday of the unconquered sun’ and was held on December 25th (when the Romans thought the Winter Solstice took place) and was the ‘birthday’ of the Pagan Sun god Mithra. In the pagan religion of Mithraism, the holy day was Sunday and is where get that word from!”

All I’m going to give you is this little blurb. You can research it for yourself, how Christians borrowed from pagan rituals incorporating them into reformed Christian rituals. Nothing new here and the reason our new insanity over “cultural appropriation” is so ridiculous is because historically we’ve all been taking from others incorporating into ourselves adapting it to our cultural expressions. Our politically felt need to be outraged driven by our hate often causes us to look foolish in the stands we take. Again I remind you we’re instituting (creating) the traditions we’re building, not God, not Jesus, not the Holy Spirit, we. Sure, it might be better if we came up with fresh and new ideas we didn’t take from the Pagans, but we’re all looking for traditions and celebrations connecting us with the ineffable.

So why Christmas to celebrate Jesus’ birth? Almost every American alive, and most of the world, is caught up in celebrating birthdays. It’s a really big deal. I don’t know why, but when you’re young birthdays signal we are getting older and that is attractive to the young because it carries so much meaning for what each new year allows us to do. Of course, when you’re older a lot of untoward baggage comes with your birthday memories and they’re not so exciting.

Birthdays were not celebrated in the ancient world, certainly nothing like we do it today. It’s no wonder then that for over 300 years after Jesus’ birth no one thought of celebrating his birth and certainly didn’t think of starting a tradition that would be called Christmas. Intentions can be messy things.

“Seemed like a good thing at the time. All we wanted was to thank God for Jesus and so we thought honoring his birth was our way of thanking God.”

History didn’t always find us celebrating birthdays, certainly not how we do it now. From the CBS Minnesotawebsite Jason DeRusha gives us this insight about ancient birthday celebrations:

• Why do we celebrate birthdays?

The idea of celebrating the date of your birth is a pagan tradition. In fact, many Christians didn’t celebrate birthdays historically, because of that link to paganism.

Pagans thought that evil spirits lurked on days of major changes, like the day you turn a year older.

The ancient Greeks believed that each person had a spirit that attended his or her birth, and kept watch. That spirit “had a mystic relation with the God on whose birthday the individual was born,” says the book The Lore of Birthdays.

• Why do we blow out candles on our birthday?

The candles were a response to the evil spirits. They showed up to communicate with the gods. A light, in the darkness.

The Germans are credited with starting the kids birthday tradition in the 1700s. They put candles on tortes for “kinderfeste,” one for each year of life, along with some extras to signify upcoming years.

This may be why for over 300 years Christians didn’t think of celebrating Jesus’ birthday. Perhaps the fact that the church began celebrating Jesus’ death led the church to decide it might want to complete the cycle and celebrate his birth.

Obviously there was no Biblical instruction how to celebrate Christmas since there was no call for it so I’m curious what the first celebration looked like, especially in light of what it has developed into today. Alas it’s a question that has no answer. It appears to have very simply begun for the Roman Catholics as a Christmas mass in celebration of Jesus’ birth. When the new Protestant church evolved that mass was in the form of a candlelight service on the night of the 24th. There was no nativity scene as below.


The elements are certainly in the Biblical account of Jesus’s birth but the celebratory mass and candlelight service didn’t start as an elaborate production, just a thankfulness that Jesus was born. On the Nativity scene Wikipediahas this to say:

Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 at Greccio, central Italy, in an attempt to place the emphasis of Christmas upon the worship of Christ rather than upon secular materialism and gift giving. The nativity scene created by Francis is described by Saint Bonaventure in his Life of Saint Francis of Assisi written around 1260. Staged in a cave near Greccio, Saint Francis’ nativity scene was a living one with humans and animals cast in the Biblical roles. Pope Honorius III gave his blessing to the exhibit. 

So how did it get from here in 336 AD to the mess of Christmas today? Below is just an idea.

Many of the pagan customs became associated with Christmas. Christian stories replaced the heathen tales, but the practices hung on. Candles continued to be lit. Kissing under the mistletoe remained common in Scandinavian countries. But over the years, gift exchanges became connected with the name of St. Nicholas, a real but legendary figure of 4th century Lycia (a province of Asia). A charitable man, he threw gifts into homes.

Around the thirteenth century, Christians added one of the most pleasant touches of all to Christmas celebration when they began to sing Christmas carols.

No one is sure just when the Christmas tree came into the picture. It originated in Germany. The 8th century English missionary, St. Boniface, Apostle to Germany, is supposed to have held up the evergreen as a symbol of the everlasting Christ. By the end of the sixteenth century, Christmas trees were common in Germany. Some say Luther cut the first, took it home, and decked it with candles to represent the stars. When the German court came to England, the Christmas tree came with them.

Puritans forbade Christmas, considering it too pagan. Governor Bradford actually threatened New Englanders with work, jail or fines if they were caught observing Christmas. (From, The 1st Recorded Celebration Of Christmas Dan Graves, MSL found HERE.)