This is the story of how we have come to celebrate Christmas today. The story starts with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth either in the year 6 BC or 6 AD. Both dates have pros and cons. The earlier one would have the baby Jesus born during King Herod’s lifetime (Matthew 2:1), before his death in 3 BC. Jesus would also be in his thirties (Luke 3:23) during the time Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea, from 26 AD to 36 AD. In 6 BC there was a conjunction of planets that could have been what the Magi saw (Matthew 2: 1-2). However, there was no census (Luke 2:1) that we know of taken in Palestine in 6 BC. We do know that there was a census taken in 6 AD while Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1). However if Jesus were born in 6 AD he would not have begun his ministry in his thirties and still face Pilate at a trial. Another date to consider would be 3 BC, but this date has problems too. All we really know is that Jesus didn’t say what year he was born in or what day. In fact, Jesus probably didn’t want anyone to make a fuss, and so he kept quiet about it. And this silence left the door wide open for people to make Christmas into whatever they wanted.
The earliest celebration of the birth of Jesus was called the Theophany or manifestation of God. Today we call it Epiphany and it is celebrated on January 6th, which was the beginning of the year in the days of the early church. The celebration included more than Jesus’ birth, it included the concept of God being with us always. This celebration was split into two holidays in the 4th century AD. At that time the Christmas celebration competed with the pagan celebration of the birth of the Unconquered Son which was placed on the winter solstice (the calendar in those days was off by four days). When the Roman Empire became Christian, December 25th became Jesus’ birthday. Epiphany was then considered the day Jesus was baptized and the Holy Spirit became manifest to all (Matt. 3:16). And Advent came about as a civil law that required all citizens to be in church for forty days before Epiphany! For over a thousand years Christmas was a midwinter religious celebration. But it changes dramatically in the last several hundred years.
Our modern celebration begins in the fourth century AD in the Turkish town of Myra. Bishop Nicholas was known for his generosity and kindness to children and after his death was canonized as Saint Nicholas. The day of his death, December 6th became a major holiday around Europe and people celebrated it by exchanging gifts. Protestants in the 16th century banned the celebration of saint’s days and so people moved the day of celebration to Christmas. German traditions have Nicholas giving gifts to children and a ghost-like Christ child hovering around him called Christkindl (Kris Kringle). Dutch settlers in New York brought with them the story of Sinter Klaas (Santa Claus) who was plump and smoked a pipe. And in the early eighteen hundreds in America Clement Clarke Moore wrote the words, “‘Twas the night before Christmas…” which cemented the story of Santa in the minds of every American. In his story St. Nick rides a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, is a jolly old elf and delivers toys to children through the chimney. Our modern Santa is dressed in red and white because in the 1930’s Coca-Cola used him to sell soda in the winter. And so there you have it - the story of how the birth of our savior and a kindly saint became tied up with gift giving and soda pop!
Isn’t this an amazing story! Isn’t it astonishing how St. Nick became Santa and was thrust into the Christmas story? I hope you can see that many of our Christmas traditions have very little to do with Jesus of Nazareth. Fortunately the core message of the religious celebration still survives in our churches today. And that is the message of God becoming manifest to people in a very real way. God came to our world, as a real living person to show us how much He loves us. And He lived His life as an example of how to serve our Father in Heaven as well as serve other people. This is the real message of Christmas. And the message is more important than all of the gifts and all of the celebrating in the entire world. It is my hope that as we are opening presents and drinking soda, we keep in mind a child in a manger who came to give us the gift of light and life.
Blessings, Pastor Bill