I love the month of December and the Christmas season. The weather cools and the days grow shorter as winter solstice approaches. People decorate their houses with lights, wreaths, and strange plants called poinsettias. We do odd things that are unique to the season, like drink eggnog and pay money to bring dead trees into our homes. I rather enjoy both the eggnog and the trees. To be honest, though, I find the weeks leading up to December 25th a bit bewildering.
In my lifetime, I have watched the Christmas season start earlier and earlier. It seems that no sooner have we thrown away the excess Halloween candy than we begin to see Christmas decorations in the stores. Everything seems to be red and green, lights begin to go up, and the radio is playing Christmas music. Some begin to plan their Christmas cards that often have a picture of their family and their dog and say things like Noel. Others, with either a stronger environmental conscience or just a dislike of licking envelopes, send their Christmas greetings via email.
I do look forward to my grandchildren’s musical at the local elementary school and I eagerly crowd into the tiny auditorium to take pictures of the little darlings as they sing. The program, however, seems awkward to me. There are no songs about Jesus, only about Rudolph, Santa, roasted chestnuts, and snow. I find myself wondering if everyone has forgotten whose birthday it is and what we are celebrating. Increasingly, the season less and less resembles a Christian holiday as our secular culture strips Christmas of Christ, leaving us with only vague religious sentimentality.
Tension grows in my household as Donna and I discuss what sorts of presents to purchase for our family. How much money should we spend and what will the recipients like? These discussions rarely result in peace on earth. Fortunately, my mailbox is flooded with lots of very helpful advertising on the myriad ways I can save money at various stores. We also tend to be busy with lots of social activities. I love a good party, concert, or a Christmas parade, but find we are out a lot of evenings. December feels fun but very busy. In fact, it can be so frantic that when we sing “Away In A Manger,” the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay, I find myself envying the tranquility of the scene. By Christmas Eve a snooze in some hay sounds pretty good to me.
How the church in different parts of the world and in different periods of history has prepared for Christmas can be a bit confusing too. Each country and period has its own unique observances and traditions. Ancient Roman Christians tended to observe the Advent season with lots of celebrating while their brethren in much of the rest of Western Europe fasted. By the eleventh century, though, Rome fell in line with the rest of Europe where Advent meant no feasts, no recreational travel, no marital relations, and no weddings. Humbug!
In Syria and Lebanon, believers begin to observe the Christmas season on December 4th, Saint Barbara’s Day. The Armenian Orthodox Church begins the Advent season on Saint Philip’s Day, November 15th and its members observe considerable days for fasting. In Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands the season begins on Saint Nicholas’ day, December 5th. In this rather peculiar tradition, Saint Nicholas, strangely accompanied by a little demon, brings gifts to children who set out shoes or socks for him to fill. The Swedes start Christmas observances a little later on Saint Lucia Day, December 13th. Like our own Christmas preparations, all of these various customs are a combination of mythology and faith.
These traditions, along with a dizzying array of other feasts, holy days, and special observances during the Christmas season. are an uneasy blend of pagan holdovers and Christians attempting to observe Christmas as a holy day. As a result, the Reformers of the sixteenth century frowned upon and eventually suppressed many of the special feasts, veneration of saints, and religious protocol that surrounded Christmas. The New England Puritans went so far as to enact laws that forbade Christmas celebration! Seeing it as residual Papist idolatry, a heavy fine of five schillings was punishment for anyone caught merry-making.
Many of what we think of as traditional Christmas carols are actually not very old. Most were not sung in the church until the second half of the nineteenth century. Some of our traditional Christmas carols were not even songs at first. The words that would become Hark The Herald Angels Sing were first penned by Charles Wesley as a poem in 1739. It wasn’t until 1840 that Felix Mendelssohn wrote a tune that was later adapted to fit Wesley’s words that we sing today. Isaac Watts wrote the words for Joy to the World in 1719. Again, it was over a century later, in 1839, that the carol was set to music by Lowell Mason.
It can all be a bit perplexing for the contemporary Christian. What traditions to keep? How to celebrate? Where is the dividing line between secular and sacred? How much to spend? How busy should our schedules become? Let me offer a word of simplicity in the midst of what, for many, is a confusing time of year. Christmas, as observed by believers, commemorates the most profound event in human history—the entry of God into our world in the form of a baby. Quiet your hearts with this simple and profound mystery that God took up his dwelling in our world in a tabernacle of flesh. In the din of all that will accompanythe season, contemplate a baby, who is actually God. Ponder God’s initiative in the great drama of salvation.
The excitement, tensions, disappointments, and joys that accompany Christmas build to a climax on December 25th and then stop suddenly. The decorations will come down, schedules will return to normal, and we will breath a sigh of relief because it will be another year until the season is upon us again. Yet for the Christian, our joy is not found in a particular season, but in a particular person, the God-man Jesus Christ. He inauspiciously entered the world as a baby, grew to be a man, and then paid a ransom on the cross which enables those with faith to become new creations and a part of God’s family. Thank God for Christmas!