Background of Christmas
Merry Christmas! It’s a cozy group. The college students are away. Some familiar faces are back for the break, like Peter. It’s good to have you, brother. I have a two-part series about the meaning of Christmas. For today, I am going to explain a bit about the traditions surrounding Christmas and then I want to explore the Christmas story through the eyes of each of the 4 gospel writers. Next week, we will wrap up the Christmas account and then get ourselves ready for the new year.
Read Matthew 1:20-25.
Let’s start with a bit of Christmas tradition. Is Christmas about Jesus or is it about Santa and getting gifts? Answers? Any volunteers? Kids?
Doesn’t it feel like Christmas is both? Well, it feels like two holidays because it is. Christmas is actual a merging of two different holiday traditions.
The early church didn’t celebrate Christmas because they didn’t think birthdays were a big deal. Much later on, the Catholic church instituted a special worship service to remember Jesus’ birth, hence the Christ-mass. That’s one holiday. But you also have the tradition of Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th. Who is Saint Nicholas? Jolly old Saint Nicholas was a real person. He was a saint, actually a bishop in Greece during the 4th century. He was bishop around the time when Constantine was the Emperor of Rome. Saint Nicholas loved Jesus. His parents died when he was young and left him with a lot of money. And so Saint Nicholas would go around the neighborhood and toss a few coins in through the windows where poor children lived. He is called SAINT Nicholas because later he was recognized by the Catholic church as the patron saint of children.
His generosity toward needy kids caught on so on the night before Saint Nicholas Day, Dec 5th, kids throughout Europe would set up stockings and shoes in hopes that Saint Nicholas would pay them a visit and leave something for them.
So Dec 6th was the fun, festive holiday and Dec 25 was the solemn holiday, the Christ-mass. How did they get put together? The Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther and other church leaders decided, we’re Protestants, we don’t believe in recognizing saints. There is no longer a veneration of the saints. Instead, we believe in a priesthood of all believers. We all have equal access to God. There is no need to go through priests or saints to access God. God is accessible by all through Jesus, our Great High Priest.
You can blame Baptists and other Protestants. We as Protestants canceled the fun tradition of Saint Nicholas Day. But by the 16th century, Saint Nicholas Day was already too popular so it was hard to get rid of it. The kids of course loved getting toys. So what do you think happened? Those fun traditions of Saint Nicholas got lumped together with the Christ-mass. No wonder Christmas feels like two holidays in one because it is.
Every country and culture dealt with this dilemma of Saint Nicholas Day merging with the Christ-mass differently. It’s a bit hard to imagine the Christ child as a baby walking around with a sack of toys over his shoulders. The Germans tried their best to keep their focus on Christ and so they called the Christ child, Christkindl, which in America turned into Chris Kringle. No longer Christ, but Chris for short. In England, they came up with a new name, Father Christmas. In Holland, they said, our kids love the fun, festive tradition, forget this merging of two holidays, we’re going to keep Saint Nicholas Day on Dec 6th.
The Dutch came to the New World and landed in New Amsterdam, which is modern day NY, and they carried over with them traditions from their homeland. They celebrated the tradition of Saint Nicholas coming to give gifts for the needy kids. And on Dec 5th, the kids would be running around town, shouting, Sinterklaas is coming, Sinterklaas is coming. And to American ears, what does that sound like? Santa Claus.
Fast forward to the 1820s, there was a children’s book that was written that added to the mythology of Santa, that he lived at the North Pole and he had a labor force of magical elves who made all the toys and the toys would be delivered on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer.
This is why Santa and Jesus are vying for our attention during this holiday season. Two holidays rolled up into one. What we mustn’t forget is that Santa and the gifts and the reindeer all originated from a real person named Saint Nicholas who loved Jesus so much that he gave up his wealth to provide some joy for those in need. And to this day, you have volunteers for the Salvation Army dressing up in Santa suits to collect donations for the poor. All because of a man named Nicholas who was greatly impacted by a man named Jesus.
Okay, there is your Christmas trivia for this year. Interesting, right? I bet you didn’t know a lot of that. Enough of Santa. Let’s focus on the birth of Christ.
Context of First Christmas
What was the context of the very first Christmas? Was it a happy first Christmas? Yes and No. It was a life-changing first Christmas for a few. It was a terrible first Christmas for many others. And for the vast majority, the first Christmas came and went. It made no difference. It was just another day. Life-changing impact, terrible impact and no impact. 3 groups of people.
This first Christmas was just another day for the vast majority of the nation of Israel. Christ coming into the world made no difference.
For some Jewish parents, it was one of the worst days of their lives. Why? Because a crazed ruler named King Herod heard rumors of a coming Messiah who was to be one day king of the Jews. And he heard that and must have thought, hey, I’m the king of the Jews. That’s my jurisdiction. So he concluded, I got to take this threat out. I have to kill this baby before he grows up and challenges my throne. His plan backfires and when Herod realizes that he was outwitted by the Magi and that baby Jesus got away, Herod was furious. And so he orders that all Hebrew boys under the age be killed. He’s basically throwing a tantrum. He’s a heartless, narcissistic, paranoid little kid who makes everyone around him miserable so that he can feel better about himself. For some Jewish households, this was their first Christmas. It’s the worst tragedy imaginable. Losing your child.
It’s eerily similar to what happened in Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary a couple of weeks ago. Imagine what Christmas will be like for those families who lost their children recently and then you get a better idea of what the first Christmas must have been like for some of these first century Jewish families.