The following article is dedicated and credited to my professor Dr. Bruce Forbes of Morningside College.
Christmastime is here. We see all the lights and the decorations, Christmas trees, and the nativity scenes. We've seen the "Keep Christ in Christmas" campaigns and have heard from "Happy Holidays" vs. "Merry Christmas" people.
I recently sat through two lectures about the history of Christmas, and I've realized that both the religious Christmas celebrations and the cultural Christmas celebrations can coexist.
Dr. Bruce Forbes of Morningside College, who personally is my favorite professor (sorry Dr. Tinklenberg, you're a close second), has written a book, Christmas: A Candid History, about the history of the holiday and where it comes from. As I sat through his lecture, Dr. Forbes connected the dots between the cultural and religious histories of Christmas, and now it all makes sense to me.
Let's start with how European cultures fought off the wintertime blues – they threw a mid-winter party, of course.
These mid-winter parties were filled with drinking, food, lights, family, decorations... does any of this sound familiar? It fell around the winter solstice when the days finally started getting longer again. It was a great time, and people were just trying to make it through a depressing season.
So, when did Christians get involved? Well, in the 300s. We don't know an actual date but we know it was at some point within that century. Did it happen because Constantine converted to Christianity and people thought that maybe they should, like, tone down the partying? Maybe. It's possible that in Roman culture -- with a party for the solstice and a party for the new year -- they plopped Christmas right between the two.
Skip ahead a few centuries, and we have people who no longer want to celebrate Christmas, particularly the Anglican church. And for about 100 years, they didn't. Businesses were open and kids still went to school on Christmas. Puritans did not celebrate the holiday because they believed it was too "worldly." In the colonies, or in certain places, people were fined or thrown in jail for celebrating the holiday.
John Wesley, founder of the United Methodist tradition, lived during this time. He never once preached a Christmas message. In fact, it was in the 1800s that people again began to celebrate Christmas. Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" was the type of Christmas he desired to have, not the Christmas he celebrated. And it was because of this book that traditions began to change.
I know that Santa is based off of Saint Nicholas, who is known as a generous saint. There are so many stories, and the image of him has transformed over time. If you wish to learn more I highly recommend Dr. Forbes's book. It's on Amazon, and makes a great gift. It's written for a general audience, which is probably the best part about it.
No, Christmas isn't a truly pure holiday. But it's OK to celebrate it both within the culture and as a Christian because the two contain my favorite parts of the season. As a practicing Christian, I still love the cultural side of it too.