Putting Christ Back Into Christmas? A Christmas History Lesson and a Look at Advent Traditions

Amid the hustle and bustle of Christmas advertising and selling and buying and partying, we are often reminded as Christians to "put Christ back in Christmas" or to "remember the reason for the season." While I am thankful that we choose to use Christmas to remember the birth of Christ and His coming for us, I am also aware of the history of the Christmas holiday. And the fact is... Christ wasn't in Christmas to start with.

The history of Christmas and Advent traditions
 Early winter celebrations

Let's have a little history lesson. Hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, many cultures celebrated the winter solstice. In the dark of midwinter, they would rejoice in the fact that the longest days of dark were behind them and that they could look forward to the spring and summer to come. Some cultures celebrated by honoring nature and the rhythms of nature. Some worshiped their gods. The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia in the midwinter, honoring their god Saturn, the god of agriculture. During Saturnalia, the object was to eat, drink, and be merry. They also celebrated the birth of their god Mithra on December 25. Mithra was the god of the unconquerable sun.

The birth of Christ?

In the early years after the birth of Christ and during the spread of Christianity, the Church celebrated only the holiday of Easter as sacred- the commemoration of Christ's death and resurrection. In the 400s AD, Pope Julius decided to adopt December 25 as the birth of Christ. The Bible doesn't give a date for Christ's birth, and many historians think it would actually have been in the spring because of the shepherd in the account. But the Church wanted to adopt and transform the celebration of Saturnalia. The basic idea was that all of these cultures already had a midwinter celebration, so why not adopt this celebration and change the focus to celebrate the birth of Christ. This idea quickly spread, and throughout the Middle Ages, the midwinter celebrations began more and more to focus on the birth of Christ. The focus was still often on raucous celebrations and parties which would be attended after a church service that honored Christ's birth.

Christmas outlawed

Interestingly, the Puritans in early America did away with the holiday and even outlawed the celebration of Christmas. Because Christmas had focused on spirited celebration and feasting and parties, it did not fit with the Puritan way of life. It wasn't until the end of the 1800s that Christmas truly became a celebration in America, and even then, it wasn't intended to be a time of busy celebration but was intended to be a time of peaceful, family times. (You can read more detail about the history of Christmas and how we came to adopt some of the traditions we have on the History Channel website. It is a very interesting wealth of information.)

Christmas and the culture

And so, when we talk about "putting Christ back into Christmas", we aren't exactly accurate in a historical sense. Christmas is based on a time that was a worldly, pagan celebration. The church took that celebration and adopted and transformed it to be a time they could use to celebrate Christ's birth. When we look at the society we live in, it shouldn't surprise us that their focus is not on Christ. It shouldn't come as a surprise that a worldly culture would choose to celebrate Christmas in a worldly way with parties and celebrations and buying and selling.

But, even as the early Christians did, we can choose to transform the midwinter celebration into the holiday of Christmas (which comes from the words "Christ Mass.") We can choose to use this time to focus on Christ as God's gift to us. It isn't the "real meaning" of the winter holiday historically. But Christians are meant to transform the culture, and we can when we choose to use this holiday to bring our focus back to Christ.

Advent traditions

For our family this means that we don't expect the general culture around us to celebrate Christ's birth. The culture around us is worldly and so will celebrate buying and selling and feasting and partying. But we can choose to be counter-culture. And so we use this month to primarily celebrate Advent- the time of year when we look forward to the celebration of the birth of Christ. The word "Advent" has to do with waiting for the arrival of something, anticipation. We have a variety of traditions that we do each year to look forward to the celebration of Christ's birth on Christmas Day. Was Christ born on December 25? Probably not. But we can choose that day to focus on the gift God gave us when He sent His Son for us.

Do we go to parties and give gifts? We do some of this. We try to use this time of year to focus on family and on Christ and His gift of eternal life. We try to transform the idea of the holiday into a way to honor Christ's birth. Two of our favorite Advent traditions are the Advent wreath, which I blogged about here, and the Jesse Tree. You can find more information about it here. Both of these traditions help us to focus on the promise of Christ throughout Scripture and the completion of that promise in the birth of Christ.

As the world around celebrates Christmas, a midwinter holiday, we can choose to lead our family into a focus on Christ, not because that's historically the meaning of Christmas, but because we choose to transform the culture and use this holiday to focus on Christ.


What are your family's favorite Advent traditions?



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