Holy Christmas

December 25, 2006
There was no feast of Christmas during the first two centuries of the Christian era. Our festival followed the model of pagan festivals observing the sun’s birth on the winter solstice.

This information may stun Christians but it comes from Christian researcher Hugo Rahner, brother of Karl Rahner, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. He wrote that in 354 CE a calendar entry for December 25 listed the birth of Christ along with the birth of the sun.

Following pagan example, Christians bowed to the east to honor the rising sun. Church Fathers accepted this, calling Christ the true sun, the light coming into the darkness, the "Dayspring from on high." Up to modern times, the preferred place for the altar in Catholic churches was the eastern side.

Light imagery, such as “Light from Light” in the Nicene Creed, is sprinkled in our Christian liturgy. References to holiness “from on high” also reflect pagan cosmology, which imagined gods and goddesses living up in the heavens. Sun gods were popular then, and pagans accepted Christ as one of them. They called the Lord’s Day of Christians the Day of the Sun, giving us the name “Sunday.”

During the dark days of December, it’s easy to understand the huge importance of the sun to people with no electricity. As the ever darker days switched to ever lighter days, people rejoiced. Like the pagans of old, we like to light up the night, but their bonfires have given way to our electric lights.

The first celebrations of Christmas did not happen on December 25. They began on January 6, today the feast of Epiphany in the West. That used to be the winter solstice until a calendar adjustment moved it to December 25 and a later adjustment to December 21. This is the reason our Christmas comes a few days after the solstice. Eastern Orthodox believers still celebrate Christmas on January 6.

Not all Christians celebrate Christmas. In American colonial times, Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, and Presbyterians opposed the festivities because of their pagan origin. As this history suggests, the date of Christmas has no connection with the day Jesus of Nazareth was born. There is no possible way to know what that was. But believers aren’t the only ones who thrill at the story of an exceptional child born in humble surroundings.

During my childhood, Christ Kindchen, the Christ Child, brought Christmas. (Pronounce the German words with a short i.) When kids in school noticed that the Santas in town were fake, I wondered how they could ever have believed they were real. Our family miracle was much more believable.

We celebrated Christmas through most of January, reveling in Christmas music by singing and harmonizing with piano and radio. In my youth it was still possible to hear the sacred music of the season after Christmas Day, and I miss that.

Why do people stop Christmas music and throw out the tree on the day after Christmas? Apparently there’s no point in celebrating any longer when spending for presents is over. Commerce has spoiled what used to be a sacred time of year. Media reports on Christmas are all about earnings. What a distance we have come from observing the holy course of nature and a holy birth!

I suspect many of us hate the buy-and-spend frenzy but don’t know how to stop it. As more people get sick of the commercial merry-go-round, I hope they will find the courage to withstand materialistic pressures and to give in meaningful ways.

Do we hear outrage over this sacred season being exploited for money? No, we hear complaints about saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” As if Christians were the only ones with festivals around the winter solstice!

If we really cherished Christian values, we would joyfully include all religious traditions in our celebration. Spiritual meaning is what makes Christmas taste good.

We can make the good taste last. Let’s stop buying useless junk that degrades nature and reflect on the precious child inside every human being.

November 22, 2007

Now comes the season called Christmas. But how un-Christlike the pressure to buy, buy, buy! As waning light and dormant earth direct us inward, let us withdraw from manic consumerism to treasure the quiet values of Christmas.

Since I heard about the following way to prepare for the feast, I’ve shared it often. Yvonne and Jim Sexton reluctantly agreed to be identified “if good can come about because of it.” Here are Yvonne’s words.

“About seven years ago, while thinking about the commercialization of Christmas and my weariness about the whole season, I decided to try to raise our grandchildren's awareness of the REAL message of Christmas. I floated the idea with Jim and he liked it, so we began what has become a treasured tradition in our family.

“In November we send each grandchild a check for [it could be any amount, say from $5 to $1000]. They are asked to find someone in need and make a difference in their lives. They can choose a project, individual, family, whatever. We encourage them to get personally involved if it is appropriate. Then they are to share their encounters, always respecting privacy of persons if appropriate.

“Every year we have a Christmas party [with] a ritual around this experience. We begin with an opening prayer and a darkened room. A table has been prepared with many votive candles, one for each grandchild. One by one the kids tell their story of searching for a project or person in need.”

Each story is followed by lighting of candle and song. Yvonne adds, “We have 19 grandkids, so this is quite a lovely scene. There are tears shed and it becomes deeply moving.” They finish with a little concert of Christmas carols featuring grandchildren on piano, violin, and viola.

The idea is spreading to other families and schools. A granddaughter at Maple Grove High School described the tradition in an English paper, and her teacher got the story published in a local paper.

The grandchildren know how lucky they are. One wrote, “Thank you, Grandma and Papa, for giving me this opportunity to help those in need.”

Yvonne confessed, “One year I was a little late with the letter and check and I got a call from one of the grandkids saying, ‘We're going to do our special Christmas thing again, aren't we Grandma?’”

A poem by the sixteenth century mystic John of the Cross has graced the Sexton family ritual. It imagines the Virgin “pregnant with the holy” asking for shelter. “Then under the roof of your soul, you will witness . . . the Christ taking birth . . . for each of us is the midwife of God.”

Whatever our spiritual background, let’s liberate ourselves from the dictates of consumerism and give birth to the holy.


Anonymous said…
O what a lovely post and great idea to live the true meaning of Christmas . Thank you so much for sharing the story.

Peace and Many Blessings!

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