Monday, 6 December 2010

Christmas Traditions & The True Meaning of Christmas

For me Christmas is a very special time of the year, but one of the things I feel quite passionate about is trying to distinguish between the traditions that have develop around Christmas, and the true meaning of Christmas. 

So much of what we now associate Christmas with, has very little to do with the actual true meaning of Christmas.  For example I take assemblies regularly in schools, and if I ask the children what Christmas is really about, the answer I get is that it’s about Father Christmas and receiving presents.  The Christmas play at my son’s school this year was all about how toys come alive at Christmas, and last year it was about a winter hedgehog.  What concerns me is that many people today don’t even realise Christmas has anything to do with the birth of Jesus.  In a survey conducted a number of years ago, people were asked about which person they most associated with Christmas.  Cliff Richard came fourth in this survey, and the Vicar of Dibley came tenth.  They were the only people who had any kind of association with Christianity in the top ten answers.  The trotter family came first (from Only Fools & Horses) and Morcambe and Wise second.  As someone said, if you take Christ out of Christmas, all you’re left with is M&S. 

I used to live in Carlisle, and one Christmas two boys were overheard talking just outside the church.  One of the boys pointed to the church and said, “That’s where Santa Clause lives.”  For many people today Santa Clause is more of a reality that Jesus is. 

Do you realise that if Santa Claus was real, she would be a female and not a male.  The reason why Santa has to be a woman is because:
·        Men can’t pack a bag
·        Men don’t think about getting gifts until Christmas Eve, when it’s too late.
·        Men refuse to stop and ask for directions when they get lost

I like the quote from Shirley Temple who said “I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six, my mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.” 

There are clearly a lot of people with too much time on their hands, because someone has calculated that if Santa did exist, he would have 34 hours to deliver his gifts across all the time zones, which would mean he would have to travel at 650 miles per second, 3000 times the speed of sound.  In addition Santa’s slay would probably have to weigh 500 thousand tons in presents.  And because a conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds, Santa would need approximately 360,000 reindeer to pull the slay! 

The real origins of Santa Claus are found in Saint Nicholas, who was the bishop of the Mediterranean city of Myra.  He was born to rich parents in about 270AD.  His parents died while he was still young, and as a young man he inherited a large fortune.  There are many stories about Nicholas, but the most famous is that he heard about a poor man who had three daughters.  This man could not afford a proper dowry for them.  This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the poor man's plight, Nicholas decided to help him but being too modest to help the man in public, (or to save the man the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the man's house.  The depiction of Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, does have some echoes of this great saint.  For example the colour of his outfit recollects the red of the bishop’s robes, and of course we still continue the tradition of secretly giving gifts on Christmas Eve. 

There are many other traditions we have at Christmas time, which we associate so much with Christmas, have very little to do with the actual true Christmas story.  In fact some of these traditions pre date the arrival of Christianity on our shores.  For example, whilst many people would see Christmas as being the most important Christian festival after Easter, but do you realise that the birth of Jesus is only mentioned in two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke?  The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John make no mention at all of Jesus’ birth.  Christian’s only started to celebrate Christmas in the third century after Christ, but it was not until the fifth and sixth centuries that Christmas became a wide spread.  Christmas was originally celebrated not on December 25th, but January 6th, which is the date the Orthodox Church continues to celebrate Christmas on. 

December 25th happened to be the day that pagan’s celebrated the winter solstice.  For the Roman’s the winter solstice indicated that the winter was over and that spring was on its way.  And so the winter solstice was a time of great celebration.  The light of the sun (SUN) had conquered the darkness of winter.  And so the Emperor Aurelian in AD 274 officially declared December 25th as the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (SUN). 

The early church was quick to seize upon the significance of this, because Jesus had said that he was the light of the world, so the early church regarded this as an appropriate time for a celebration of the birth of Jesus.  So December 25th moved from being a celebration of the SUN to a celebration of Jesus, God’s SON. 

The reality is that Jesus wasn’t born in the winter at all, but in the Spring (March or April) or maybe in September.  The reason we know this is because in Luke’s Gospel we read that “there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” (Lk 2:8)  Shepherds would not have been out in the fields with their sheep during the winter.

There are many other traditions that we have at Christmas.  For example the tradition of hanging mistletoe over doors originates from the days of the druids, because it was believed that mistletoe possessed mystical powers that would ward off evil.

Likewise holly and ivy was used in pre-Christian times as well.  Like mistletoe, holly and ivy was thought to be associated with warding off evil powers.  When Christianity came to Western Europe, the holly and the ivy were turned into Christian symbols and used in Christmas celebrations, with Christian meanings attributed to these symbols.  So the prickly leaves of the holly were thought to symbolise the crown of thorns.  The berries were seen to represent the drops of blood shed by Jesus.  And ivy has to cling to something, so this is seen to symbolise our need to depend on God. 

Another symbol that we associate with Christmas is the Christmas tree.  Again the origins of this are pagan.  The modern Christmas tree dates from the 8th century, when St Boniface was converting the Germanic tribes.  The tribes worshipped oak trees, decorating them for the winter solstice.  Boniface cut down an enormous oak tree that was central to the worship of a particular tribe, but a fir tree grew in its place.  And so the evergreen became a symbol of Christianity, which the newly converted Germans began decorating for Christmas.  It was of course Prince Albert, who then introduced the Christmas tree into this country after his marriage to Queen Victoria in 1840. 

There are other things which we associate with Christmas, but we no longer remember their original meaning.  For example a popular food item at this time of year is the mince pie.  Mince pies were originally filled with meat such as lamb.  They were made in an oval shape to represent the manger that Jesus slept in as a baby, with the top symbolising his swaddling clothes.  And Boxing Day began in England during the Middle Ages.  It gets its name because it was the day when the alms boxes were opened in parish churches so that the contents could be distributed to the poor. 

For me, one of the challenges is about getting back to the heart of Christmas, which also means pealing away the layers of myth and tradition and also sentimentality that surrounds Jesus’ birth.  The Bishop of Croydon, Rt Rev Nick Baines was in the news recently attacking some of the "nonsense" lines that are found in Christmas carols.  I have to confess I agree with him.  I realise that I’m probably in a minority with these views.  Take for example the carol ‘Away in the manger’.  It has the lines “The cattle are lowing the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”  As the father of young children, the one thing I know about babies is that they cry – sometimes a lot.  

Another very popular carol is ‘Once in Royal David’s city’ which has in it the lines ‘Christian children all must be, mild obedient good as thee.  Again I’ve always had an issue with this line, as the Bishop of Croydon said, it smacks of Victorian behaviour control!

The reason why I have an issue with some of these carols is that they water down the reality of what Jesus’ birth was really like, making them appear more like fairy tales that reality.  And therefore I’m left wondering, how does the story of the birth of Jesus relate to us, and our sometimes messy, complicated and painful lives?   Just for once I would love to see a Christmas card which showed a picture of a harassed and tired looking Mary and Joseph trying to calm down a screaming baby, because that is an experience many people have!   

Most people’s view of what happened at Jesus’ birth is based more on fantasy than fact.  A great deal of what we remember, sing about and celebrate at Christmas is actually not in the original script. 

For example let me ask you some questions:
·        How did Mary travel to Bethlehem? –The Bible doesn’t say, but in nearly all our nativity scenes a donkey is portrayed. 
·        What did the inn keeper say to Mary and Joseph? There is no account of the inn keepers words.  In fact there is no mention of an inn keeper in either Matthew or Luke’s accounts – we infer the presence of an inn keeper from the text.
·        Where in Bethlehem was Jesus born?  The Bible doesn’t actually say – only the manger is mentioned.
·        How many wise men were there? The Bible doesn’t say – but we know they were men, because if they had been women, they would have arrived on time, helped deliver the baby Jesus, and brought much more practical gifts!

I hope that these questions just illustrate how the nativity story has taken on a life of its own, and shows why one of my passions is to try and strip away the myth and tradition to get back to the true story.

I think nativity plays and nativity scenes have in part led to the way we perceive Jesus’ birth.  For example, in every school nativity play there has to be an inn keeper – even though the Bible doesn’t mention one. 

There was a little boy who was really disappointed about not being chosen to play Joseph in the school nativity play.  Instead he was given the role of the innkeeper instead, and over the weeks leading up to the play plotted his revenge.  The day of the performance came.  Mary and Joseph came to the inn and knocked on the door.  The innkeeper opened the door a crack and looked at them coldly.  “Can you give us a room for the night?” asked Jospeh.  Then the innkeeper flung the door wide, beamed at them and said, “Come in, come in!  You can have the best room in the hotel!”  There was a pause.  But Joseph was a quick thinker.  He looked over the innkeeper’s shoulder, then turned to Mary and said, “We’re not staying in a dump like that.  Come on, Mary, we’ll sleep in the stable!”

Another discrepancy that we have with nativity scenes and plays and the account of the birth of Jesus as recorded in the Bible is the visit of the wise men.  The wise men (usually three of them) turn up at the stable where the new born Jesus is lying in a manger, to offer him their gifts.  Last week I was taking an assembly and I asked the children what gifts did the wise men bring to baby Jesus.  To which one of the children answered, gold, myrrh and Frankenstine.  But if you read the Bible account carefully, you will realise that the wise men didn’t visit Jesus until a long time after his birth.  By the time they saw Jesus, Jesus could have well been up to two years old.  The reason we know this, is because the wise men first visit King Herod in Jerusalem.  And Herod enquires of them when they saw the star which accompanied Jesus’ birth.  Later on Herod, perceiving that this child could be a threat to his own power, order than all children up to the age of two should be killed.  This also indicates that Mary and Joseph probably spent quite a significant length of time in Bethlehem, where there was a very good chance Joseph would have had relatives. 

So what does Christmas mean for me?  Christmas for me is a very special and joyful time of the year, and it is the birth of Jesus, and what this means for the all of us, that makes it so important for me. 

Having three small boys, it is wonderful to see their joy, wonder and excitement about Christmas, and it helps me to remember how I used to feel as a child at Christmas time.  Like all children, mine are very exited about the presents they will receive on Christmas day.  For me, Christmas is about celebrating the greatest present of all, the gift of Jesus Christ. 

My oldest son celebrated his sixth birthday last week, and unfortunately several of the presents he was given didn’t last long before they were damaged, broken, or he had lost interest in them. 
Jesus is a gift that has eternal value and usefulness.  There is a Christian evangelist called J John, who said this “At Christmas time, when we receive presents we don’t really need, God offers us a gift we cannot do without. 

In the Bible names are very important, what someone is called, tells us a lot about them.  At Jesus’ birth he was given two very important names.  The first name is the one I have been using throughout this talk, Jesus.  The name Jesus literally means “God is salvation”. So when Joseph was told by the angel that Mary was going to give birth to a child, the angel's message to Joseph was "You shall call His name 'God is salvation,' for He will save His people from their sins." That name tells us exactly why Jesus came into the world.  That through him, God was going to save humanity.  The other name Jesus was given was ‘Emmanuel’ which means, God is with us.   

This is what makes the birth of Jesus so extraordinary.  I had no choice about when and where I was born, but God did, and he chose a stable.  Christian art has made the nativity scene gloriously hygienic.  But the truth is, the stable or cave where Jesus was born would have been smelly, dirty and untidy.  Life can be like this too.  Life can be messy, rather than neat and orderly.  And so the message of Christmas is that God came into the world, as a small, and very vulnerable baby, born into extreme poverty and humility, and revealed himself to us.  God choose Mary, a very young, unmarried teenager (possibly as young as fourteen) to be the mother of Jesus.  This would have caused huge scandal in Jesus’ day.  And the witnesses of Jesus’ birth, where not the people you may have expected for the birth of such an important child.  They were shepherds, who in Jewish culture were considered very much to be outsiders, people of little account.  But it was to these people that the news of Jesus’ birth was declared.  And then there were the wise men, foreigners from a far off land.  This shows us that Jesus came not just to the Jews, not just to the religious, not just to those who have their lives all sorted, but to each one of us. 

The US astronaut James Irwin, only one of twelve people to stand on the moon, was asked after returning to the earth what he felt the most significant achievement of our age had been. He said this: “The most significant achievement of our age is not that man stood on the moon, but rather that God in Christ stood upon this earth.     

So for me, the message of Christmas is the message of God’s love.  It is the message of hope, for all the world.  And at Christmas time, I am challenged once again to consider how I am going to respond to the gift of Jesus Christ.  I came across these two quotes as I was preparing for today’s talk:

“You can never truly enjoy Christmas until you can look up into the Father’s face and tell him you have received HIS Christmas gift, Jesus Christ.” 

And this: “Christmas is based on an exchange of gifts: the gift of God to man – his Son, and the gift of man to God – when we first give ourselves to God.”
I said a bit earlier that there are some carols, whose words I am not so keen on.  But I want to close this talk, by quoting one of my favourite carols - ‘In the bleak midwinter’, because the closing words of this carol sum up for me what  Christmas is all about: 

What can I give Him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man,
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him:
give my heart.

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