Christian meanings for Christmas traditions
By Ken Horn
Christmas is a Christian holiday. Though many non-Christian traditions have grown up around this celebration of the birth of Jesus, there are still many remnants left of its original intent. Nativity scenes, the singing of carols, and other traditions are reminders of its true meaning.
Many traditions that don’t seem to have any connection with the Bible’s Christmas story actually began — or were adapted — to point to Jesus. Knowing a little bit about the symbolism of Christmas traditions helps us understand what Christmas is really about. Here are the stories behind some of our Christmas traditions.
The date: Was Jesus really born on Dec. 25?
In ancient Rome, there was a pagan festival celebrated on this date. Courts and schools were closed, there was no military activity and slaves were even freed temporarily.
When Emperor Constantine became a professing Christian, he was influential in instituting the Christian feast of “the birthday of the Sun of righteousness” (Malachi 4:2) as an alternative to the pagan festivities then in practice. This points to the Christian triumph over paganism. By the end of the fourth century, the “Feast of the Nativity of Christ” or the “Christ Mass” was celebrated throughout most of the Christian world.
Secular traditions and excesses eventually dominated, causing Christians to be wary of the celebration. In the 1640s, Puritans in England actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas.
Today some Christians in other parts of the world celebrate Christmas on Jan. 6. We don’t know when Christ was actually born. But it is good to have a set time to honor such an important event.
The Bible says, “Some of the Lord’s followers think one day is more important than another. Others think all days are the same. But each of you should make up your own mind. Any followers who count one day more important than another day do it to honor their Lord” (Romans 14:5,6, CEV). It is not the day, but the honoring of Christ that is important.
Santa Claus: A fourth-century bishop in Myra, Turkey, was named Nicholas. He supported the doctrine of the Trinity at an important church council. He also was extremely generous and loved children. Legend says he rode a white horse and threw coins through open windows to impoverished families.
After his death, he was eventually sainted by the Catholic church and from then on was known as Saint Nicholas. On the eve of Saint Nicholas Day (Dec. 6), some came to believe he visited children with admonitions and gifts, in preparation for the gift of the Christ child. Some even thought he had a companion who carried switches and promised sweets to good boys and girls, but threatened punishment to the bad. (That’s the source of, “You’d better watch out, better not pout … .”) This legend spread throughout the Old World. In other countries he became known as the Christmas Man, Father Christmas, Father January or Grandfather Frost.
The Dutch added customs, such as leaving hay for his horse (later hot chocolate and cookies in the U.S.), and putting out a wooden shoe to be filled by “Sinter Klaas” (the source of our stocking tradition).
When the Dutch settled in New Amsterdam (now New York), they brought these traditions with them. In America, Sinter Klaas became “Santa Claus.” The mythos grew here. The red suit today’s Santa wears is actually a poor copy of the bishop’s clothing the original Saint Nicholas would have worn.
The name Kriss Kringle is a corruption of Dutch words meaning Christ child (who some said brought gifts on Christmas Eve). By 1842 Kriss Kringle was identified with Santa Claus.
On Christmas today the focus should be on the true story of Christ more than the legend of Santa Claus.
Christmas tree: The use of the evergreen probably began in the eighth century when Saint Boniface brought Christianity to Germany. One variation of this story says he cut down a so-called sacred oak tree to convince the pagans he was preaching to that it was not sacred. When it fell, behind it he found a small fir sapling and dedicated it to the Holy Child.
In the 16th century, Martin Luther popularized decorating trees. One night while walking home shortly before Christmas, he felt a strong love for God and His creation. He placed tapers on a little evergreen to symbolize the forest and the stars.
The custom of decorating the tree spread throughout Europe, reaching England in 1841 and the U.S. in 1851. A young pastor named Schwan in Cleveland, Ohio, created a furor by bringing a lighted tree into his church. People thought it was a pagan custom. Later research proved this to be a Christian tradition.
Today, the evergreen Christmas tree represents the Holy Child in His everlasting nature — and the eternal life available to all through Christ.
Presents: Merrymaking and gift giving were originally a part of the ancient Roman celebrations. Only in the last century or so has the tradition of gift giving increased to current proportions. Previous Christian celebrations focused on a giving spirit, with token gifts of food and so forth. The commercialized giving of today neglects the true association of gifts with Christmas. The Christ child received gifts from the Wise Men. We must not forget to give to Him.
The best gift you can give is yourself — a commitment to serve Jesus Christ with your whole life. Another Christian way of giving at Christmas was stated by Jesus himself: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). We should not exchange gifts, but give them. Giving to the needy is one way to do that.
Today: Though these and other customs have obscure origins, their importance is in what they mean today. Christmas is about the Son of God who came to earth to save sinful man. Let’s do our best to keep Christ in our celebration of Christmas.
Ken Horn is editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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