It’s almost Christmas, and at my house we’re about to unpack the boxes in the attic full of special decorations we only use this time of year.
Down through the years my wife and have accumulated loads of stuff. The Christmas tree decorations are my particular favorites—everything from the first bauble we bought as a newly married couple over thirty years ago to the set of loopy ceramic penguins that always presides over our home from the most visible position on the tree.
Then there are the manger scenes (maybe a half dozen), lights, seasonal candles, table runners, china and various knick-knacks we’d never show in public any other time of the year. Like everyone else I know, at Christmas we pull out all the stops and make our home as festive as the holiday itself—all green and red and smelling of pine.
The rationalistic, material world we live in doesn’t have a language adequate to describe the wonder of Christmas, so we turn to symbol, tradition, actions and objects to describe what words cannot say. Even non-believers understand the principle: “Silent Night, Holy Night” can still stir the heart of the most jaded skeptic.
For those of us who embrace the Christian faith, though, the traditions and symbols of the season pose a different problem: Many of the ways we celebrate Christmas don’t have Christian origins. Some in fact, can actually be traced to decidedly pagan practices.
Christmas trees? Forget about finding any Christian origin to them. They originated in either ancient Rome as a symbol of a god’s victorious return from battle or with Germanic tribes in pre-Christian Europe as a sign of divine favor.
Santa Claus? While his roots go back to a Greek Orthodox saint, St. Nicolas, the reality is that his current incarnation bears much more resemblance to American consumerism than to any Christian ideal. The real St. Nicolas wouldn’t have been caught dead in a mall entertaining greedy children on his lap.
The day we celebrate the birth of Jesus, December 25, is nowhere attested in Scripture and has an unsettling proximity to the winter solstice, a sacred holiday for many nature religions.
What about the practice of exchanging gifts? While it’s hard to nail down a specific source, it’s clear that some ancient Roman religious rites included the giving of gifts. Some would say that when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire in the fourth century, he simply adopted many such Roman practices into the celebration of Jesus’ birth.
I don’t want to sound like Ebenezer Scrooge, but the facts don’t lie, and the truth is that we celebrate our Lord’s birthday in many ways that are, well, suspect. The secular world, of course, could care less. But for those within the faith, we should at least ask ourselves the question: Are we doing the right thing in observing Christmas the way we do?
One particular event from the biblical account of Jesus’ birth sheds light on our problem. It also provides a broader context for understanding modern Christmas symbols and traditions as well as a deeper appreciation for the ways the Christian faith fulfills and supersedes everything that came before.
Around the time of Jesus’ birth, according to Matthew 2:1, “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.” These were the famous three wise men that always show up in Christmas pageants. Actually, though, they weren’t just wealthy visitors from Persia. “Magi” was (and still is) the title of priests in the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, a faith that predates Christianity and Islam and was even around when the Jews were putting their religion into its modern form during the Babylonian exile.
The gospel of Matthew reports that the priests followed a great star from their homeland all the way to Israel. Then, when they found the baby Jesus, “…they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasuries and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11)
In presenting Jesus with such fabulous and expensive gifts, the pagan priests were not only showing a heart for God’s truth, they were also making a theological statement. They were demonstrating the superiority of Jesus to their old religion. I know that’s not the politically correct way of describing the scene, but there’s no other way to understand what happened there. Whatever insights and partial truths their old beliefs might have held were fulfilled and transcended by the Christ child. The old world of paganism was finished. God’s new truth had arrived.
What all this means in practice is that the stuff we do to celebrate Christ’s birth, all the symbols, traditions, ornaments, decorations and practices, serve a higher purpose than we realize. They’re not pagan practices that we should abandon. Instead, in the partial truths they embody, they point us to the fulfillment of the truth in Jesus. When I decorate a Christmas tree, that doesn’t mean I’m worshiping a nature god. It means the beauty of the tree points my heart to the greater beauty of Jesus. When I give a Christmas gift to someone I love, I’m not invoking an ancient Roman deity. I’m recreating in a small way the gift God gave me in Jesus.
Like the wooden feeding tough in which the Christ child lay, the wide and varied ways we celebrate Jesus’ birth serve as a framework in which we can better grasp the wonder of the season.
I’ll keep my ornaments and continue to decorate my tree. I’ll hang a wreath on my door. I may even light a few candles—a hazardous step for a Baptist preacher. And I’ll keep hanging in my hallway the portrait of Santa Claus my son painted in the third grade. Those traditions don’t distract me in the slightest from the real meaning of the season. If anything, they help keep it in the forefront of my life.