We celebrated my 75th birthday this year! It was time for me to go through many pictures of family, friends, and vacation, and decide which ones to keep. I ran across a small black and white picture of my first real birthday party. I must have been about 5. The picture showed my little brother, and several friends who wore broad smiles and happy expressions. In my arms I held a doll, obviously a birthday gift. Birthdays are celebrated as benchmarks of our lives. At 12 I joined the church; at 16 we learn to drive; at 18 we graduate from High school and so on.
Scholars believe that the first recorded birthday party is in Genesis 40:20. Around 3000 BCE the Pharoah at that time ordered a feast be held to celebrate his birthday. Other civilizations including the Chinese used birthdays to predict the future through astrology. Judaism and early Christians regarded astrology as a pagan practice and a celebration of ego, and basically ignored one’s birthday for centuries.
2000 plus years ago in the village of Bethlehem, Judea, the Son of God was born. His birth was recorded as having taken place in a cave or barn or stall with his joyous parents and according to Luke, sheep, shepherds, and angels singing “Glory to God in the highest.”
Christians began to celebrate Jesus’ birthday during the reign of Emperor Constantine. December 25, 336 was recorded as the first celebration of Christmas or Christ’s Mass. The Roman Catholic Church also called this day “the Feast of the Nativity.” Many cultures around the world had festivals during December. They were celebrating the Winter Solstice, the Festival of Lights, the Roman festival of Saturnalia( a festival of merrymaking and gift giving), Celtic stories of Balder, a Scandinavian god, struck down by a mistletoe arrow, the celebration of the birth of the god, Mithra and others. Scholars debate that the date was chosen so that Christians would not rejoice with pagans; however, some of our dearest traditions have been converted from pagan celebrations.
Some of the traditions of Christmas that have been added are interesting. Scandinavians (and Hallmark actors) still kiss under the mistletoe; St Nicholas, is a 4th Century figure from Lycia (now Turkey) who threw gifts into homes of the poor. In the 8th century AD, St. Boniface, an apostle to Germany, said an evergreen is a symbol of the everlasting Christ, therefore we have Christmas trees. Some say Martin Luther added candles to the branches to represent stars. We began to sing Christmas Carols around the 13th century in Europe. Instead of the 18th century the Dutch “Sinter Klaas”, described as a “rascal” who wore a blue three-cornered hat, red waistcoat, and yellow stockings, America began to change the image of Santa. Washington Irving (1783-1859) is credited with creating Christmas as we know it. In 1822 Clement Moore in “T’was the Night Before Christmas,” a poem written for his children, described Santa as a plump, bearded, jolly guy. He named his reindeer and described Santa giving gifts to children. The invention of the television also helped to make Santa Claus the legend he is today.
Now in the 20th and 21st centuries in our effort to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ, we have given over to celebrating ourselves with gifts, stress, consumption, gluttony, legends, and other artifacts derived from pagan festivals. Our meager gift to Christ might be to visit Church on Christmas Eve.
Jesus did not want us to worship Him but wanted us to know His Father as He did. Jesus carried THE message of the ages. You will “love your God with all your heart, mind, and soul…and your neighbor as yourself.”(Matthew 22:37-40). I see nothing wrong with our celebrating Winter with gifts and family gatherings, and merriment, if we don’t confuse what Christmas has become with the true meaning of the birth of the Savior of the World.
I haven’t decided what to do with all these pictures. I believe Jesus would have enjoyed my birthday party, if He and I were 5 years old. Its time we all grow up and realize that the way we celebrate Winter is OK, but the way we celebrate Christmas may not honor our Savior’s birth.
Many people write and document the history of our Christmas traditions and several of the historical facts in this article originated with these sources:
Dan Graves, MLS in an article written for Christianity .com
“How Washington Irving Shaped Christmas in America” National Endowment for the Humanities Magazine. Fall 2016, Volume 37 #4
“Famous Holiday Poem” Family Friendly Poems.com