December 18, 2013

Revising Christmas, Again

by Steve Meister

It’s that time of year when culture warriors take up arms to keep worldly and pagan ideas from encroaching on the spiritual and biblical reason for the season. So Sarah Palin fired a salvo against the “war on Christmas” by “revisionists” who’re turning it into a “winter solstice” celebration. (This is to prepare us for her new book, Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas, ostensibly on the same theme).

But what if the pagans aren’t the “revisionists” and the late December celebrations are indeed rooted in the winter solstice? That would explain some of the odd accoutrements to celebrations of Jesus’ birth. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to make out what evergreen trees, lights, and egg-nog have to do with the little town of Bethlehem. Without being too much of a Grinch, it might be worth asking whether the real “revisionist” is actually Mrs. Palin. Though to her credit, she stands in a long, long line of revising this holiday.  

Celebrations on December 25th were regular long before Jesus was ever born, being motivated by seasonal change, human culture, and very pagan religions. The original revisionists took that pagan holiday and called it “Christ-mass” about 400 years after He was born in Bethlehem. Yet, that’s not even the Christmas we know (and fight for!) today. For the next group of revisionists were 19th-century New Yorkers who wanted to spare their newly urbanizing society by transforming Christmas from a violent drunken riot into something a bit more domestic.

In his helpful book, The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum explains the centuries’ long efforts of “revisionists”:

Late-December festivities were deeply rooted in popular culture, both in observance of the winter solstice and in celebration of the one brief period leisure and plenty in the agricultural year. In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.

From the beginning, the Church’s hold over Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous. There were always people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority. It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize (pp. 7-8).

The difficulty we face in making Christmas about the Lord Jesus is not a new problem. It’s a very ancient one. The reality is that there’s never been a time when Christmas was a simple affair focused on Jesus. And just by surveying the Gospels, we can begin to see why.

Did the Lord Want a Birthday?

As you read the Gospels, you’ll notice the contrast between the brevity surrounding his birth verse the he preponderance of detail we have regarding his death and resurrection. We can date His death on the cross and the empty tomb with some precision, in early April, 33 (see Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity for a discussion of dating). This indicates that the crucial (from Latin, crux, “cross”!) event in Jesus’ life from the perspective of the gospel writers was his death and resurrection, not his birth.

This is helpful when you consider how pagan kings in the first centuries insisted on celebrating their own births. Roman emperors were overt and ostentatious in celebrating their birthdays. So much so that even one early church leader, Origen (ca. 165-264), mocked these “birth festivals”:

Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday. For indeed we find in the Old Testament Pharaoh, king of Egypt, celebrating the day of his birth with a festival, and in the New Testament, Herod. However both of them stained the festival of his birth by shedding human blood…. But the saints not only do not celebrate a festival on their birth days, but, filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse that day (after the example of Job, Jeremiah and David).” (Homily on Leviticus 8)

Now Origen had more than a few theological hang-ups, and I really like my birthday, so I’m not saying we should give those up, but it is a striking contrast, isn’t it?

Pagan emperors ensured everyone would remember their birth, but the Lord did not leave us enough information to be able to accurately calender his. It seems that he means to teach us the vast difference between his Lordship and that of the kings of earth:

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve Yahweh with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him (Ps 2:10-12)

And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth (Ps 89:27)

Our inability to calendar and celebrate Jesus’ birthday provides us, I believe, with an important lesson. Pagan emperors focus on their births because they’re never going to rise from the dead to rule the universe. They’re never going to be highly-exalted with a name above all others. They’re never going to be raised so that every tongue confesses them as Lord (Phil 2:8-11). When you compare it to universal exaltation, who cares about having a pitiful party like Caesar?

Aiming at the Heart

And ultimately, keeping the “Christ” in “Christmas” — and I mean literally keeping the letters in the word — or insisting that people say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” doesn’t need to be our biggest concern. The kingdom of God is not at all affected by whether we can maintain a facade of Christendom in America. Because, unfortunately, plenty of Americans are happy to go to bat to keep Christ in our holiday vocabulary, but are ill-equipped or ashamed (or both) to proclaim the Gospel to their friends and family members, or are enemies of that Gospel themselves. If “the heart of Christmas” will be protected in America, the Christ of Christmas will first have to reign in the hearts of America’s people. And so our mission is Gospel preaching, not the culture wars. “Revision” is not nearly as important as regeneration. Let’s remember that this Christmas season.

Steve Meister

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Steve is the associate pastor of River City Grace Church, in Sacramento, CA.
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  • Good observations, including about the emphasis that Roman rulers placed on their birthdays, as contrasted with our Lord. It is also interesting to note that Jesus Himself only once referred to His birth, that He was born: and that was to Pontius Pilate (John 18), who wouldn’t have the same understanding as the Jews. And even then He quickly added “and for this cause I have come into the world.” Christ usually referred to Himself as being sent into the world, but not to having been born.

    • “Christ usually referred to Himself as being sent”! Exactly. That’s an important distinction, isn’t it? Thanks, Lynda.

  • Very good points. I would nitpick though that some people, by their insistence on saying ‘Merry Christmas’ in today’s culture of political correctness and religious pluralism, actually *are* in line with Romans 1:16. 🙂

    • Thanks Chaz. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. Certainly nothing in Steve’s post suggests that. He merely makes the observation that many professing Christians think that fighting for “Merry Christmas” is kingdom work. His point is that re-Christianizing America from the outside isn’t our mission, but Gospel preaching is, because America won’t be changed unless the hearts of its people are transformed. None of that suggests that “Merry Christmas” and Romans 1:16 are mutually exclusive, just that we keep first things first.

    • Thanks, Chaz, you may indeed have a point there. I agree with Mike’s clarifications, of course. And I would add, sincerity notwithstanding, that the “Merry Christmas” strategy for evangelism is one I’d d rethink. If I reply to the cashier’s “Happy Holidays” with “Merry Christmas” are they really going to understand the power of God unto salvation for all men in the Gospel of Christ? Or are they going to assign me a place next to other “culture-warriors”? This may be tilting at windmills, but – as Mike wrote – let’s strive to keep first things first (1 Cor 15:1-3).

  • “Let’s remember that this Christmas season,” you say? You must have meant “Holiday” season.

    • False opposites, Karl. There’s a difference between using the language of Christmas and campaigning for it as if it was definitional of Christianity. To suggest that Steve’s disagreement with campaigning for it disqualifies him from being able to own Christmas or use the term is short-sighted at best.

  • This was helpful. This was a voice of clarity on the topic of Christmas revision. I’d like to see it revised back to simple church observance and less about shopping malls packed with oversized suburbans.

  • 4Commencefiring4

    Probably a good lesson in not asking too many detailed questions about any other event of history, too. If we look close enough, we might find oddities and what-about-that?-type difficulties in everything from the Exodus to D-Day.

    So we took a pagan holiday and made it into something good…or Jesus was likely born in the spring…Merry Christmas just the same.

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