by Sandra Hobbs,
17 November, 2020. Published on 22 of December.
As I drive around the streets of my city at the moment, I see more and more Christmas lights on, and if I can see inside people’s windows, I can see Christmas decorations up, even though it was a bit early (in the US, people often wait until after Thanksgiving, while in the UK, although some put up their decs earlier, it is still tradition not to up them up until shortly before Christmas Day.) There is something about the dark nights that makes us crave lights and celebration, which I’m sure is why so many cultures have festivals having to do with light around this time of year.
Add to that the fears around the Coronavirus, and Lockdown, and people are looking for a bit of joy to forget the despair, a bit of light to dispel darkness, and a bit of hope to keep discouragement away.
But where did this celebration come from? Let’s take a look.
Where Did Christmas Come From?
For millenia (that’s thousands of years!) people have held celebrations this time of year. Back in the days before electric light bulbs, the main source of light was the sun. When the sun went down, it was the end of the day, literally! Not much could happen until the sun came up again in the morning.
The sun was essential for growing crops, that is eating! Winter, with its long dark nights, was a cold, desolate and often hungry time of year.
So for those who didn’t know the Living God, it was quite natural to be worried, even scared, that one year, the sun might just not come back again! So people began to do thing to remind the sun, to convince the sun, and even bribe the sun to come back again! And it seemed to work, because once they had their special celebrations and sacrifices on the longest night, the sun would start to grow stronger, the nights would become shorter, and spring and summer would come again, when they could feed their families.
The sun was a deep and profound need, far more essential than we see today. So people obviously took no chances, and had their celebrations and sacrifices every year, ensuring the sun’s return.
So when Christians came and started telling people about God, and that there was only salvation through Jesus, even though the locals believed, it was SO HARD to give up their sun worship and the different things each people group did to bring the sun back. What if following Jesus meant the sun would be displeased and not return?
So those who knew God had a quandary. They recognised that this was worshiping other God’s which was forbidden by the Living God. But how do they help people to move away from sun-worship to worshipping the Son of God?
The answer was Christmas.
Someone suddenly had a bright idea: If we put a holiday – holy day – at the same time, people will still have something to celebrate, and praying to God will replace the pagan activities! So they invented “Christmas” or “Christ’s Mass”, when they would celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ to Earth.
Why Do We Have Decorations?
Of course, over the years, the symbols which were dear to people’s hearts transformed and took on new meanings.
Holly was part of the Roman festival for the god Saturn, which was around the same time. If Christians put holly on their doors, people wouldn’t realise they weren’t celebrating Saturn! After a while, it became normal even where Saturn wasn’t worshiped and became a symbol for peace and joy.
Mistletoe was an ancient symbol of peace. If 2 enemies met under mistletoe, they needed to put down their weapons and form a truce! In some cultures, this involved kissing, which is why we now kiss our sweethearts under the mistletoe.
Both holly and mistletoe are green throughout the winter, and so have come to symbolise eternal life to Christians, as do the evergreen trees we use as Christmas trees.
It is claimed that in about 723, an English missionary named St. Boniface bumped into some pagans, in what is now Germany, who were about to sacrifice under and oak tree. To stop the act, he chopped down the oak tree! Legend has it that a fir tree grew where the oak had been, and this is the first Christian connection to evergreen trees at Christmas.
Santa Claus, also known as Father Christmas, got his name originally from Saint Nicholas, who was a Christian bishop in Turkey in 343. The story goes, a family was about to have to sell their 2 daughters into slavery as prostitutes because they couldn’t afford the dowries to have them married. When St. Nicholas heard about, this, he crept outside the house in the dead of night, and threw 2 bags of gold through the window, each with enough gold for the dowry of one of the girls, so they wouldn’t need to be sold into slavery. Thus, the first Christmas presents!
But Why Does Christmas Really Matter?
Good question! For some reason, Christmas is celebrated around the world, even in nations far from its origin. I think this comes down to the commercialism that surrounds it today. Christmas gifts and Christmas cards, and even Christmas wrapping paper, are a huge financial boosts to retailers. But there is also another reason.
Something about Christmas just feels good.
Christmas is supposed to be a time of glad tidings and peace on earth! And especially at this point in time, we need some of that!
In fact, this is exactly what the Angels proclaimed on a night more than 2000 years ago. This night wasn’t actually on 25 December. It is more likely to have been in mid or late September, given that the shepherds were will out with the flocks, and the positioning of the stars.
Whatever the date of the actual event, Christmas celebrates a birth.
It was foretold many times in the Hebrew Scriptures that God would send a Saviour, someone who would save people from their guilt and shame, bring light into darkness, bring dead hearts to life, and suffer the penalty of death in place of us. God even told us there would be signs it the heavens to proclaim it!
Then, at the right time, suddenly signs appeared in the sky. In the first chapter of the Christian and Jewish Scriptures, God creates the sun, moon and stars, and says that they will be basically be our event calendar (Gen 1:14b says: “and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years.” People in the ancient world were often very adept at “reading the stars”, not to predict a lottery win, but to look for these “sacred times.”) This sign was this: the star called Regulus, meaning “little king”, passed through the starry pelvis of the constellation Virgo, i.e. the Virgin. The people so read the stars, known as the Magi, understood this meant the imminent birth of a King by a Virgin!
This is probably what these “Wise Men from the East” first saw and understood, and why they headed on the long journey to find this King of the Jews.
Mary, a young woman, engaged to marry but still a virgin, had experienced an angelic visitation, telling her that she would give birth to a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit! Sure enough, she soon realised she was pregnant. Upon hearing this, Joseph, her fiancé, seriously considered divorcing her (because engagement was as serious a commitment as marriage at the time) until God sent an angel to warn him about this!
The baby was born during a Roman Census, requiring people to travel back to their ancestral towns and villages (under Roman occupation, people had scattered widely!) So this is how Mary and Joseph, who lived in Nazareth, ended up in a little village called Bethlehem, a little way from Jerusalem, giving birth to their baby boy.
Today we see it as a stable, a bit like a barn, behind an inn. But in those days, there weren’t inns and hotels like we have today. When people travelled, they stayed with people in the town – usually family, if possible. It was considered an honour to invite a stranger to stay with you. Many houses had a guest room, and the word we today translate as “inn” was the word they used for this room. It was often on the ground floor of the house, a room separated off from where they would bring their animals in overnight.
Mary and Joseph were not likely to be the only travellers that night and they would have had family in Bethlehem because is was their ancestral home town. But it sounds like the “guest rooms” were full from other family members who also had returned to Bethlehem for the census, so someone must have made beds up for them where the animals usually were (which made sense, as it was warm enough to have the animals outside still. And so we read about them putting the new-born Jesus into the manger, or feeding trough, wrapped in the traditional swaddling cloths.
But We Still Haven’t Talked About WHY God Did This.
God had a problem, believe it or not! God created an amazing world, and created human beings in His own image to live in it. But instead of living in relationship with Him, they chose to try to be “like God” themselves, and sin came into the world. Suddenly, God’s love for His creation was mixed with God’s anger over their “sin” – choosing something besides loving God and living out His plan for them.
The cost of this action was separation from God, that is, spiritual death. This was evidenced by physical death, which God had never intended for human beings.
Mankind was now caught in this thing called “sin” which was inherited from generation to generation, and God was heartsick because His love could not forget the wrong they had done. You see, God is also just, and His justice is as perfect as His love!
But God had a plan. He would do what no human being could do. He would pray the price for the sin of everyone, all at once!
Have you heard the story about the judge, who convicts a young man of a driving offence, then gets off his seat and pays the fine himself because the offender was his son? That’s what God has done for us.
God was born. God, the eternal God who always has been, who always will be, who was around long before time happened, was born. He conceived a baby in Mary’s womb who was both, the full man and fully God, who he said should be named Jesus, which means “Saviour.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, it talks about this baby being born hundreds of years before this, and calls Him Emmanuel, meaning “God With Us.” Because God was now living on earth in a body just like ours, breathing the same air, confined inside His skin just like we are!
This baby would grow up to be a man, and after 33 years, would be given as a sacrifice to pay the price of the sin we are all guilty of, and the shame that comes from it. But being God, He not only paid the price of our transgressions, He broke the power of death by coming alive once more! This is what happened on the first Easter.
But back to Christmas. At Christmas, we celebrate the fact that God loved us so much that He found a way around His own anger and justice to be born Himself as a baby, giving up the throne room of heaven for an animal’s feeding trough, to live with us and die for us.
That night, the angels proclaimed Peace, and Joy, and Glad Tidings/Good News! We all need a bit of that right now.
I love all the lights and decorations of Christmas. But without understand that a little over 2000 years ago, God came to earth as a baby to pay the price for my forgiveness, it would all just be a bit of commercialism. I am so glad that God Himself choose to come to live as we do, to be Emmanuel, God With Us, then and forever!