In this era of fake news, “truthiness,” and prevarication counts, I thought it prudent today to do a little seasonal fact-checking. Christmas: Is it fake or real?
Let’s start with the date of Christmas–December 25. Is that what it says on Jesus’ birth certificate? Date of birth: December 25, year 0? Um, no. In a decree issued by the Roman emperor Constantine, Christmas was first celebrated on December 25th in the year 336. For us living in 2017 that would be like setting a date retroactively for an event that occurred in 1681. A few years after Constantine’s edict, Pope Julius I officially set December 25th as the date of the “Christ Mass,” to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
Why December 25th? There are lots of possibilities. December 25th is just a few days after the winter solstice…which means that after the “longest night” the days were getting longer again. The coming of light into the world was cause for great celebration among pagans…which meant there already was a tradition of partying hard at the end of December. As often happened during Constantine’s reign, setting the date of Christmas on December 25th could well have been an intentional Christianizing of an already established pagan celebration.
So, if the date for Christmas was set for all these other reasons, when was Jesus really born? The answer is….we don’t know. The best guess is that it was in the spring or the fall. It’s doubtful shepherds would have been “watching their flocks by night” in the dead of winter. Some scholars speculate that Jesus was born during one of the big Jewish religious celebrations– both Passover (in the spring) and Sukkoth (in the fall) would have brought many Jewish people to Jerusalem…which would have been an optimal time for the Roman government to take a census. Bottom line, though, is that while December 25th might be a good time for a celebration, it’s doubtful Jesus actually was born on December 25th.
Did you know the Pilgrims–from whom the Congregational stream of the UCC descends–outlawed Christmas celebrations? Here’s an explanation from Wikipedia.
Christmas celebrations in New England were illegal during parts of the 17th century, and were culturally taboo or rare in former Puritan colonies from their foundation until the 1850s. The Puritan community found no Scriptural justification for celebrating Christmas, and associated such celebrations with paganism and idolatry. The earliest years of Plymouth Colony were troubled with non-Puritans attempting to make merry, and Governor William Bradford was forced to reprimand offenders. English laws suppressing the holiday were enacted …but were repealed late in the 17th century. However, the Puritan view of Christmas and its celebration had gained cultural ascendancy in New England, and Christmas celebrations continued to be discouraged despite being legal. When Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870, the Puritan view was relaxed and late 19th century Americans widely fashioned the day into the Christmas of commercialism, spirituality, and nostalgia that most Americans recognize today.
So, Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25th and many of our ancestors in faith didn’t even celebrate it, thinking it too raucous–and pagan–a celebration. It’s been officially celebrated in our country only since 1870. And we haven’t even gotten to the virgin birth, angels singing to shepherds, no room at the inn, or the precise arrival time of the magi. Based on this quick survey, if Christmas were on Snopes, it would be debunked.
So, what are we doing here? Why are we having three worship services today? Why have we been purchasing gifts? Why will we be gathering with family or friends tomorrow? Why are we offering gifts to people we don’t even know during this season? And the biggest question of all–why do people put up all those decorations in their yards…like our across-the-street neighbor who has a big lighted star hung high on a tree or our other across-the-street neighbor who has reindeer made out of tree limbs lit up within an inch of their lives?
There are so many layers to Christmas traditions there’s really no way to make an accounting of them. And connecting traditions to the actual birth of Jesus? A lighted star I get, but lit-up reindeer or a blown-up Santa on a motorcycle? In reading the Advent and Christmas stories in the Bible, I haven’t come across a single motorcycle ridden by a single Santa.
But maybe today isn’t about unpacking the truthfulness–or truthiness–of every Christmas tradition. Maybe today is about cutting through all the Christmas falderol-de-la-la-la and getting down to the truest, most authentic meaning of the Christmas story.
It begins with Gabriel making his rounds. In the choir’s anthem, we heard about the angel’s visits to Zechariah—father of John the Baptist—and Joseph. Today’s reading begins with Gabriel’s visit to Mary. Gabriel tells Mary about all that’s going to happen–her pregnancy, her giving birth to a son, naming that son Jesus. When Mary seems overwhelmed, Gabriel tells her that her relative, Elizabeth, also is with child.
Mary quickly heads to Elizabeth’s house. That’s where she sings her song, which includes these lines:
Your mercy reaches from age to age
For those who fear you.
You have shown strength with your arm;
You have scattered the proud in their conceit;
You have deposed the mighty from their thrones
And raised the lowly to high places.
You have filled the hungry with good things,
While you have sent the rich away empty.
It’s clear that in this story, Mary understood the mission of her son to be closing the gap between rich and poor, to making sure the hungry are fed and well-represented in the common life. It’s clear that the Mary of Luke understands the work of her son to be the work of love. Jesus was coming to act the world into wellbeing.
Like the meme that makes its rounds this time every year says: “Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you.” Exactly.
At the Blue Christmas service a couple of weeks ago, Trish reminded us that the moment at which we get fed up with all the Christmas folderol-de-la-la-la is the precise moment when Christmas gets real for us. As Mary sang—and as we know from our own struggles—Christmas becomes authentic when we recognize that God chooses to meet us, not in palaces or festive parties, but in the struggles of life…in the pain and hunger and fear and sadness. Parties are fine, singing and gift-giving, being with family….all of that is important…but if we really want to experience Christmas, we’ll feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love our enemies, and do unto others as we’d have them do unto us.
Of course, partying and feeding the hungry don’t have to be mutually exclusive activities. (That loving your enemies business might get a real workout at some family gatherings tomorrow. J) I’m not suggesting that we not enjoy all Christmas Day festivities tomorrow.
I do think, though, that Mary’s song invites us to look at all the festivities through a deeper lens—the lens of love. As we share Christmas dinner tomorrow, as we sing songs and open presents, as we party with the best of them, we might pause for a moment to give a thought for those who are hungry or naked or guilty or unwanted or ill. And in our thinking, we might imagine how we might love the hungry, naked, guilty, unwanted, or ill. If we imagine how we might act others into wellbeing and, especially, if we actually begin to do it, I suspect that’s when we’ll experience a most authentic Christmas of all.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2017