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In Retrospect: ...of CHRIST-MASS, Christmas Trees, and the Holiday's Traditions.
Looking back at this most recent holiday, we are reminded not only of the birthday of Jesus, but of all the other iconic symbols and practices spanning the centuries that have also become associated with the Christmas season. Over the years we have heard the debates raised amongst good Christians and other well intended people of the faith, about the birth of Jesus and the traditions that have evolved surrounding this glorious occasion. There has always been talk about the influences from both ancient and medieval cultures, with hints (if not heated debates) towards their roots in polytheism or non-Christian pagan observances, with the implications of the same. Some people take a position to either support their modern cultural observances, one way or the other, or stand in opposition against those teachings and practices. Others simply become overwhelmed or confused by all of the doctrinal clutter and as a result, they end up not knowing what to believe or whom to even consult about the truth of the matter. Therefore, what is really the correct way to observe this solemn occasion, as it is otherwise a tradition that developed later in Christianity?
Although the intellectual study of the history and origins of our respective faith may prove quite interesting, there can be great damage done when we become overzealous in our attempts to "share" our perpsectives on these individual practices with others. For a faith whose principle foundation is to, "love one another" and to "treat each other as we would treat ourselves", it quickly looses its effectiveness when the practitioners themselves do not reflect this. Likewise the same applies in the course of theological debate over religious customs and doctrinal practices.
This having been said, it would be prudent to review the facts that have come to light and reflect on how the customs associated with the Christian faith have evolved over the centuries.
"Christ-mass" the Religious Observance
Most people (at least Christians) are aware of the many historical facts about the early history of the church and the introduction of its traditions. Likewise, many have at least a basic knowledge of the origins of the Christmas holiday and its customary practices by now. We all should also know and realize that many of these traditions were not practiced by the apostles nor the original disciples who were the forefathers of the church, as it spread from the Middle East into what would become the Western European culture. Most of us have heard the accounts about the church's implementation of a special holy day and religious service (a ceremonial "mass") to be observed in December as commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Thus the origin of the holiday's name, as "Christ" mass or Christmas.
Many people have also heard of the early Christian church's supposed reasoning behind wanting to implement a time to celebrate the birth of Christ, as in opposition to, or as a replacement for the pagan practices and observance of the 'winter solstice' at the same time of the year (around the 21st of December). Therein is where the traditions and information surrounding this date becomes the debated topic.
The precise origins and reasoning of assigning December 25th as the birth date of Jesus are somewhat unclear to many people and is often confused as a result. Modern scholars have long argued that the festival for Christmas was intentionally placed on (or near) the date of the winter solstice for another more specific reason (other than the birth of Christ). One widespread explanation of this origin is due to the "Christianization" of the Latin expression and Roman observance, "Dies Natalis Solis Invicti" - "the birthday of the unconquered sun", which was most popular in the first few centuries of the common era. This was a traditional holiday in the Roman Empire that also celebrated the winter solstice. It was symbolic of the resurgence of the sun, the casting away of winter, and was meant to herald the rebirth of spring and summer (similar to many other pagan traditions pertaining to the winter solstice). December the 25th was first identified as a possibility for the birth of Jesus in 221 AD by Sextus Julius Africanus (born 180 AD in Jerusalem), when he was the first Christian historian known to produce a universal chronology of the faith. This of course would later became the more commonly accepted date and practice.
The commonality of Christmas and the winter solstice being observed together would became especially evident under the reign of the Roman Emperor Aurelian (270-275 AD). Some earlier Christian writers even noted the connection with observing the rebirth of the sun, to the birth of Jesus Christ. "O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born... Christ should be born", wrote Cyprian (Bishop of Carthage, 249-258 AD), as the celebration of the winter solstice on or around December 25th was well established in the Roman imperial calendar. There is some evidence that suggests this religious celebration of Sol (the "venerable day of the sun") on that specific date, had actually been the predecessor to the observance of Christmas by the early Christian church. One of the major difficulties with this view however, is that it suggests a nonchalant willingness on behalf of the Christian church to appropriate a pagan festival, especially when the early church was so intent on distinguishing itself separately from pagan beliefs and practices.
Emperor Constantine I (from 306-337 AD) is credited as being the first Christian ruler of the Roman Empire, yet he simultaneously carried the title as head of the pagan priesthood (as all Roman emperors did). Although he did not patronize Christianity alone and Constantine did not officially convert to the Christian faith until he was at the age of 40, he did openly support Christianity and gave much of the credit for his success to "the protection of the Christian High God". Many historians however, attribute Constantine's profession of faith as a political tactic intended to help reunify and solidify a failing Roman empire at the time. In 321 AD, Constantine also instructed that Christians and non-Christians alike should be united in observing the "venerable day of the sun", referencing the more eastern variation of sun-worship which Emperor Aurelian had earlier helped to introduce. Even when Constantine had dedicated the new capital for the Eastern Roman Empire as Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), which would later became the seat of Christianity in the Byzantine Empire over the next millennium, he did so wearing the diadem of the sun-god Apollo.
Constantine did institute and enforce that it was the duty of the church to ensure that God was properly worshiped and also what form of worship that this would consist of. More significantly, in 325 AD he summoned the Council of Nicaea, which was effectively the first Ecumenical Council (not counting the original Council of Jerusalem). This group deliberated to decide important doctrinal issues, such as which books to include in the official uniform copy of the Holy Bible, the decision against celebrating the Lord's Supper on the day before the Jewish Passover, and consideration for which other holy days should be observed (such as Christmas and Easter) and more specifically WHEN to observe them.
Towards the end of the fourth century (c. 386), John Chrysostom (Archbishop of Constantinople) is recorded as commenting in a sermon about the similarities between the "venerable day of the sun" and the date observed for Christmas as, "They call it the 'Birthday of the Unconquered'. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord?" By then, the December 25th date had been firmly established on the Julian calendar of the Romans as the date of Christ's birthday and the date for its observance by the Christian church.
What later became the Byzantine Empire (or Byzantium) was in fact the Eastern Roman Empire during the periods of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (395–1453 AD), which was centred on the new capital in Constantinople. It was the direct continuation of the Ancient Roman State and it maintained most of the original empire's customs and traditions. The precident had been set when Emperor Constantine I had transferred the capital of the Eastern Empire from Nicomedia (in Anatolia) to Byzantium on the Bosphorus to the Black Sea, which then became Constantinople, or the "City of Constantine" (alternatively the "New Rome"). As a greater distinction between the Western Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire ensued, a shift of cultural thinking and ideology also began to occur. The Roman Empire was finally divided in 395 AD after the death of Emperor Theodosius I (c. 379–395). This date also became very important as to the division of the Christian church between east and west, along with their separate religious practices.
Thus, the date of December 25th for the traditional observance of Christmas became more of a convention of the western empire and the Holy Roman Church. For the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church however, they began adhering to the modern Gregorian calendar (used today) instead of the older Julian calendar still being used by the Romans. This created a shift with a difference of dates, resulting in a change for the designated time to observe Christmas by Eastern Christianity. The original date in December was moved to the 6th of January and was then observed more in connection with the eastern church's Epiphany celebration ("vision of God" - the revelation of "God the Son" and the visitation of the Magi to the Baby Jesus). Today, as of the year 2011, there is still a difference of about 13 days between these calendars. So for this reason, currently the date of January 7th is used for Christmas by the members of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, such as the Armenian Apostolic Church, those churches within Ethiopia, Russia, the Ukraine, the Republic of Macedonia, the Republic of Moldova, and others that observe the eastern church's traditions.
As we can see from history, there is actually more of a variety within the Christian church as to when this sacred occasion should actually be observed. Regardless of the reasoning behind the selection of these dates, we should be conscious to focus on what it is in celebration of, more so than why a specific date may have been chosen versus another. Thus keeping Christ in "Christmas", instead of the more secular observance that it has become today. The historical facts should still otherwise be considered, especially where traditions and religious customs are concerned, as to "how" we celebrate this glorious time in relation to "why" we actually observe it.
The Christmas Tree
Although the argument surrounding the Christmas Tree's origins in pagan practices, seems to stem from the use of evergreen branches as being symbolic of "eternal things", the actual "Christmas Tree" as we know it, actually comes from early Christian traditions traced back at least as far as 15th century (in Estonia) and later in Northern Germany from the 16th century forward.
Before that time and long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.
In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on or about December 21st and is called the 'winter solstice'. In Pagan practices, many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become weakened. They celebrated the winter solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs were symbolic of longevity, which reminded the people that the Spring season and green plants would soon return.
The ancient Egyptians, who worshipped a sun god called 'Ra', also filled their homes with green palm rushes which to them was symbolic for the triumph of life over death. The ancient Babylonians likewise had a similar pagan ceremonial practice of decorating an evergreen tree with the ornamentation of precious metals, as it is also mentioned in the Holy scriptures:
Hear what the LORD says to you, people of Israel. This is what the LORD says: "Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them. For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter." (Jeremiah 10:1-4 NIV)
In European culture, the ancient Romans marked the winter solstice with the feast of 'Saturnalia', in honor of 'Saturn', the god of agriculture. During this time, the Romans also decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. It reflected that the farms and orchards would soon be green and fruitful again. This practice continued on into the early centuries of the common era. During the 'Dark Ages' of Europe (5th to 15th centuries AD), the Celtic Druids, also decorated their pagan temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life.
The Viking culture of Scandinavia, likewise believed that evergreens were the special plant of their own sun god, Balder. The pagan observances of the winter solstice are the closest counterpart to the time that was later set aside and practiced by the early church as Christmas. These are the festivals that the religious observance in December is rumored to have been intended to replace, as the transition from pagan customs to that of Christianity occurred across Europe.
In later centuries during the Middle Ages of medieval Europe, the tradition of the "Christmas tree" we are all familiar with, had its origins in "mystery plays" that were held within some churches at Christmas time by the German people. These featured an evergreen "Paradise Tree" which was adorned with red apples, from which one was plucked to reflect the time of Adam in the Garden of Eden. It was also presented that this tree was symbolic of the "gift of eternal life", with the intention to reflect that the coming of Christ had restored us back to a state of grace from a condition of "paradise lost", and that through Him we would regain this eternal quality once again. This account is what later evolved into the German custom of hanging of red balls on the Christmas Tree as ornaments (thus replacing the apples).
The truth in the Holy scriptures however, is that the forbidden "Tree of Knowledge", NOT the "Tree of Life", was the one mentioned from the book of Genesis with apples in the garden. We will also find from Greek mythology, a story about the fabled hero Heracles (or Hercules in Roman myth), who was set on the quest of retrieving golden apples from a "tree of the gods". This tree resided in the "Garden of the Hesperides" (a wedding gift to Zeus and the goddess Hera), which was on a mythical island at the edge of the world that Heracles was required to find. As the myth promotes, these same apples would grant immortality to any mortal who consumed one. Coincidentally or not, we can find many of these stories from the pagan mythologies of ancient cultures that similarly correspond with accounts in the Holy Bible. Also to note, is that "golden balls" (golden apples) as Christmas tree ornaments are equally as popular and often used, just like the red ones.
Another widely held belief is that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, even added to the above German Christmas tradition. The story goes, that he was walking toward his home one winter evening while composing a sermon, and that he was awed by the brilliance of the stars twinkling amidst the evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles. This is credited as leading to the German custom of doing the same and that adding lit candles to the Christmas tree, is what eventually led to the manufacture of modern-day "Christmas tree lights" as decorations for this same purpose.
Throughout the 16th century, similar trees became widely popular and were decorated in town squares to celebrate the occasion. Soon many devout Christians were also bringing these trees into their homes as a customary practice. Ironically, another German tradition was where people built Christmas "pyramids" made of a wood frame while decorating them with evergreens and candles (reminiscent of the Egyptian practice?).
Originally in America, Oliver Cromwell who was well known to the Pilgrims, preached against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any other expression that desecrated "that sacred event." The New England Puritans, as led by their second governor, William Bradford, also tried to stamp out the "pagan mockery" of the holiday observance. This practice later became penalized in 1659, when the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law that made any observance of December 25th (other than a church service) a criminal offense, which included Christmas trees and the decorations associated with such.
In lieu of these things it is not surprising, like many of the other "festive" holiday customs, that use of the Christmas tree was adopted so late in America. This stern attitude continued until around the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants finally undermined the legacy of the Puritan influences. While most Americans had originally found Christmas trees as an oddity, the first record of one being found on display in the United States was as early as 1747, where Pennsylvania German settlements had established the use of community trees in celebration of Christmas. By the 1830s, these same settlers are also noted as having them in their homes, as "Christmas trees" had been a long held tradition of many German homes in Europe. As late as the 1840s, decorated evergreen trees were still seen as pagan symbols and not widely accepted by many Americans. These practices would however, take on a more secular transition over the next century and by the early 1900s, they had become the more commonly held practice for this holiday season.
This information is being provided not condemn one practice versus another in regard to "how" we decorate for the observance of this sacred holiday (as judgment is a right reserved for God), but to simply provide a more detailed and historical account of the topic. We should however be most mindful in what our traditions and decorations reflect. With Christmas especially, these things should ALWAYS be about celebrating Jesus Christ as our glorious savior and exemplify the edification of our supreme Lord God and His coming Kingdom. It should NOT be about anything else nor reflect a nature of a more secular, worldly, or otherwise non-"Christ-like" approach.
Other Christmas Customs
We will just briefly reflect on some of these other traditions as to their inherrant similarities with what we have shown pertaining to Christmas above. We won't take the time in this writing to go into further detail about the myths surrounding "Santa Claus" or old "Saint Nicholas", or the many other icons and topics associated with Christmas, as it would take too much time at this point. We would however like to point out that these things likewise have really nothing to do with the birth of Jesus or the true meaning of Christmas in a sacred and spiritual sense.
Holly Wreaths and Mistletoe
Wreaths have much history and symbolism associated with them. They have been used as festive headdresses as attire in ceremonial events in many cultures around the globe. They are usually made from evergreens, symbolizing strength and longevity, as evergreens last even through the harshest of winters. The ancient history behind wreaths dates back thousands of years and much of the their symbolism lies within the Greek and Roman mythologies, such as the 'laurel', which was the divine headdress worn by the god Apollo and was commonly used as a symbol of achievement or status.
Holly is an evergreen variety of plant that is frequently used in wreaths and other Christmas decorations. In many species the different parts of the plant can be toxic but the leaves of several varieties show high levels of caffeine and were used in the past by indigenous peoples for the manufacture of ritual and narcotic beverages. The red berried holly plant was also sacred to the ancient Celtic, Norse and Germanic peoples. It was revered for its protective qualities and bushes were planted around homes to ward against lightening and poisoning. Holly was also believed to have the power to capture evil spirits that tried to enter homes. These plants were symbolic of strength, protection, good will and eternal life. They were frequently used to decorate the interior of homes as well and were often given as gifts during the "Yuletide" celebration, as made into amulets for attracting good luck. Practicing Druids would bring holly boughs into their homes and sacred places as a shelter for the elves and faeries who would supposedly join them throughout the festival. People would also hang wishes written on parchment from holly branches in the hope of their fulfillment by these forest spirits.
When early missionaries began to convert the Celtic people to Christianity, they found that incorporating the pagan traditions into their religious practices helped to facilitate the process. Holly soon became a Christmas symbol and according to one Christian myth, it had sprung up from under Jesus’ feet as he walked in the garden. Holly leaves then became symbolic of the crown of thorns placed on Christ with the berries representing the drops of blood from his wounds. The holly tree thus became known as "Christ's thorn" and its boughs were referred to as "the righteous branch". Christmas carols such as "The Holly and the Ivy", and "Deck the Halls", extol the holiday use of this otherwise pagan plant.
Mistleote is found prominently in Greek mythology and is also believed to be the 'Golden Bough of Aeneas', a mythological ancestor of the Romans. In cultures across pre-Christian Europe, mistletoe was seen as a representation of divine male essence (and thus romance, fertility and vitality). According to Pliny the Elder (1st century Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher), the Celtic people considered mistletoe to be a remedy for barrenness in animals and an antidote to poison. It was also held in pagan Druid beliefs as a special "sacred plant" which was a symbol of life and fertility. When Christianity started its spread across in Europe after the 3rd century AD, the religious or mystical aspects of mistletoe were slowly integrated to an extent into the new religion. In some way, this may have led to the widespread custom of kissing under the mistletoe plant during the Christmas season. The earliest documented case dates from 16th century in England as a popular and customary tradition at that time. This practice was later integrated into Christmas with the story of St. Nicholas meeting his true love under a mistletoe sprig. Mistletoe had became commonly used as a Christmas decoration throughout Europe, though such use was not introduced to North America until the 18th century.
This is one that keeps sticking in my head because when I was younger and growing up, it was never really explained what the expression "Yuletide" even meant, other than it was just another way of making reference to the "Christmas season" and that time of the year. This is actually the case and is a truthful claim, with the exception that "Yuletide" itself has nothing to do with the "Christ" aspect of Christmas, other than reflecting the time of the year that this holiday is customarily observed.
Yule or Yuletide ("Yule-time") is a winter event that was initially celebrated by the indigenous clans of Germany and other neighboring peoples as a pagan religious festival. For example, the ‘Wheel of the Year’ is a Neo-pagan term for the annual cycle of the Earth’s seasons. It consists of eight festivals, spaced at approximately even intervals throughout the year. Yule is the designated period that is centered on or around 'Midwinter' (the winter solstice) being commonly observed by a celebration "for a fertile and peaceful season", which consisted of fertility rights and sacrificial offerings made to the gods. It is a celebration lasting for 12 days, beginning on the date of the winter solstice and is reflective of what was originally the week-long festival, honoring multiple gods by the ancient Romans, which also surrounded the worship of Saturn or 'Saturnalia' (another pagan counterpart to the Christian observance). Yule is likewise recorded in early Scandinavian history as the 12-Day lawless festival of "Jul" (Yule). Scholars have also connected this occasion to the "Wild Hunt", along with the Norse god of Odin and increased supernatural activity.
Yule had also typically been celebrated with gatherings that involve a feast and "gift giving" or the exchange of presents. It was later absorbed into and equated with the Christian festival of Christmas celebrated on December the 25th. In fact even today, terms with a derivative equivalent to "Yule" are used in Nordic countries for the Christian Christmas (along with its religious rites). Customs such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing, and others stem from the same original pagan practices. Today Yule is also used to a certain extent in many English-speaking countries to jointly refer to Christmas. This observance is accepted as the origin for the practice of gift giving during the "Twelve Days of Christmas" as well as the popular Christmas carol by the same name. Non-religious people treat Yule as an entirely secular tradition and a number of modern Neopagans have also introduced their own religious rites surrounding this winter celebration.
So what does all this actually have to do with a biblical observance of Christmas?
You would have to agree that it seems apparent and in spite of our best intentions, that most of the holiday traditions we have adopted and even the decorations associated with the same, are actually a mixture of "old world" customs and pagan traditions with "new world" Christian influences. I for one grew up with and had always enjoyed the customary Christmas practices and traditions that most Americans have observed in the modern era. I am typically a "modernist" and also not subject to extremism. But as my understanding about God becomes more clear and my "walk with the Lord" improves with time, I find that a more conservative or "cautious" view is the better practice. This tends to especially be true when reviewing where we are NOW in the Biblical time line and its chain of prophetic events, especially where this pertains to the return of our Lord in these final days of our age. It therefore seems to become more crucial at this point that we look closely and seriously into how we practice our faith and honor the Lord.
I would say that we should take careful consideration as to the intent of our customs and what observances are deemed as appropriate for these holiday traditions. Given a choice, we should be reflecting those things which represent the occasion with such qualities and attributes that are in alignment with Christ and what He represents. Either way, we need to keep the focus on Jesus the Messiah and with practices that only bring glory to the Lord God, not detract attention away from Him. If our holiday decorations and customs do not reflect this, then we are actually moving further away from God, not closer towards Him.
Unwrapping Christmas - Exposing the Lies Surrounding the Birth of the Lord Jesus Christ
Whatever to Do?
It is not our place to recommend or enforce what people should individually practice in observance of their faith. That is solely between them and the Lord God as our creator. However, it might be a better practice in these "latter days", to be doing everything we can to praise and honor our Lord God. Being more cautious and mindful about which holiday observances we should practice and what type of decorations are deemed as appropriate, may prove to be the more prudent conduct otherwise. This does not mean to imply that our "works" determine our status, as far as our relationship with the Lord and the fact of our salvation being based in faith alone, is concerend. But we are cautioned in the Holy Scriptures about the "tolerance" of practices which may compromise our beliefs. We are also warned about how the allowance of secular customs can plant improper seeds, which may inadvertantly undermine the foundation and principles of our faith altogether over time. Therein is where the real damage may be done.
"Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? ...Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever?" (2 Corinthians 6:14-15 NKJ)
We can only go by what the Holy Spirit reveals to us through the Word of God and what He prompts us to do accordingly. The Lord also knows what our education on these topics has been and what our real understanding of His truth may be. He knows what is honestly in our hearts and minds and how this relates to the way we honor him. The Lord convicts our consciences through His Holy Spirit. It is only through such, that we can determine what His divine will for us may be. These things in consideration are all that we have to go by, in what His divine word tells us and what He reveals to us through it.
"...Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way." (1 Corinthians 12:31 NIV)
It is only through a clear conscience that we can most properly serve the Lord God. So with that, we are left with all these things to ponder. His peace will ultimately work its way in our hearts and minds accordingly. It is through our relationship with the Lord as we improve on our "walk with Him", that by prayer and careful consideration all these things can be revealed to us. If there is ever any doubt or we do not have complete peace over a matter, as far as what we have learned or how we have been taught, then that likewise could be a clue as to His truth and will in the matter as well.
"Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:6-7 NKJ)
In conclusion, I would say that we should be doing everything we can to honor the Lord our God. I relaize that many of the viewpoints listed above may not be held as popular, but as the title suggests, in retrospect, maybe we should all take on a more serious evaluation of our Christian faith.
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD. (Isaiah 55:8 NKJ)
Treat the entire year as a celebration of the FREE GIFT that God has given us in Jesus the Messiah. We should be remembering "Christmas" all the time and give even more special notice to the holy days and festivals which are described in the Bible, while avoiding the trappings that the secular world (and other origins) have placed around these sacred times -AMEN?
Thank you - and have a most joyous celebration ALL YEAR in Christ Jesus!
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