Ed Jones, Pastor
The celebration of Christmas started in Rome about 336 (but it did not become a major Christian festival until the 9th century). Many Christmas traditions, such as decorating trees, started in Germany and later spread to other parts of the world, notably England and the United States.
The English term Christmas (“mass on Christ’s day”) is of fairly recent origin. The earlier term Yule may have derived from the Germanic jōl or the Anglo-Saxon geōl, which referred to the feast of the winter solstice. The corresponding terms in other languages—Navidad in Spanish, Natale in Italian, Noël in French—all probably denote nativity. The German word Weihnachten denotes “hallowed night.” Since the early 20th century, Christmas has also been a secular family holiday, observed by Christians and non-Christians alike, unfortunately devoid of Christian elements, and marked by an increasingly elaborate exchange of gifts. In this secular Christmas celebration, a mythical figure named Santa Claus plays the pivotal role.
The early Christian community distinguished between the identification of the date of Jesus’ birth and the liturgical celebration of that event. The actual observance of the day of Jesus’ birth was long in coming. In particular, during the first two centuries of Christianity there was strong opposition to recognizing birthdays of martyrs or, for that matter, of Jesus. Numerous Church Fathers offered sarcastic comments about the pagan custom of celebrating birthdays when, in fact, saints and martyrs should be honored on the days of their martyrdom—their true “birthdays,” from the church’s perspective.
Christmas began to be widely celebrated with a specific liturgy in the 9th century. Roman Catholic churches celebrate the first Christmas mass at midnight, and Protestant churches have increasingly held Christmas candlelight services late on the evening of Dec. 24. A special service of “lessons and carols” intertwines Christmas carols with scripture readings narrating salvation history from the Fall in the Garden of Eden, to the coming of Christ. The service, inaugurated by E.W. Benson (Archbishop of Canterbury, 1883-96) and adopted at the Cambridge University, has become widely popular.
Toward the end of the 18th century, the practice of giving gifts became well established. Theologically, the feast day reminded Christians of God’s gift of Jesus to humankind, even as the coming of the Wise Men, or Magi, to Bethlehem suggested that Christmas was somehow related to giving gifts. The practice of giving gifts, which goes back to the 15th century, contributed to the view that Christmas was a secular holiday focused on family and friends. This was one reason why Puritans in Old and New England opposed the celebration of Christmas and in both England and America succeeded in banning its observance.
We are certain that Christ wasn’t born on Dec. 25. There is some evidence that the “star” may have appeared above Bethlehem on or near that date. Regardless of the history and practices associated with Christmas, we at Fellowship at the Ranch Church pray you and yours have a blessed and joyous day.
Ed Jones pastors Fellowship at the Ranch Church at Robson Ranch. This nondenominational church meets at the Robson Clubhouse on Sunday mornings, at 10:30 a.m. For information, visit Fellowship’s website: www.fellowshipattheranchchurch.com.