When traipsing through shopping malls decked in tinsel, assailed by vacuous festive music and ringing tills, Christians often grind their teeth over the consumerist orgy that Christmas has become.
How did the real meaning of Christmas become swamped in untrammelled consumption and indulgence?
It all seems so divorced from the humble birth of Jesus in a stable about 2000 years ago. Yet it shouldn’t really be a big surprise that Christmas has become an excuse to worship at the temple of Westfield, when we consider that its roots are in pagan merry-making, feasting and gift-gifting.
The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia was a midwinter holiday of feasting, drinking, singing in the streets naked, clapping hands, gambling in public and making noise. Over time it expanded from a single day holiday on 17 December to a seven-day jamboree.
Christmas may also owe a debt to two other pagan festivals which occurred on December 25 – natalis soli invicti (the Roman “birth of the unconquered sun”) and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness”, a popular deity among Roman soldiers.
Even the Christmas tree, though popularised in the 17th century, derives from the pagan practice of bringing greenery indoors to decorate in midwinter as a harbinger of the rebirth of spring.
If the whole world seems to shut down during Christmas today, the same was true during the Saturnalia. Schools, courts and businesses were closed and rigid social conventions were upturned. For example, masters served their slaves during a feast and adults would serve children. Slaves also were allowed to gamble.
“…even the demure art of carol singing has a dark past in the Roman revellers who would go from house to house while singing naked!”
Families threw dice to decide who would be the King of the Saturnalia festivities. When someone was picked as king, they could issue capricious demands such as “Sing naked!” or “Throw him in cold water!” The first century Roman emperor Nero is recorded as playing the role in his youth. We can see the same kind of rowdy intoxication at some of today’s Christmas parties. And even the demure art of carol singing has a dark past in the Roman revellers who would go from house to house while singing naked!
In England, in 1647, Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell made it a punishable offence to celebrate Christmas, prompting pro-Christmas riots.
Anyone who laments the boisterous excesses of Christmas might sympathise with the Puritans of colonial Massachusetts, who outlawed it for about 25 years in the 1600s. In England, in 1647, Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell made it a punishable offence to celebrate Christmas, prompting pro-Christmas riots.
It’s not surprising that people through the ages have loved to cheer themselves up with feasts and festivities at the northern winter solstice – the darkest time of the year when the agricultural work is finished and spring still far off.
Scholars agree it is unlikely that Jesus was born in December.
It’s possibly more surprising that early church leaders decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the northern winter, when contemporary theologians believed April, May or November was the much more likely timing of his birth.
Scholars agree it is unlikely that Jesus was born in December because shepherds would not have been out in the fields watching their flocks by night so late in the year (since they brought their sheep home in the autumn).
Certainly, there is no biblical mandate for exchanging gifts, as the Wise Men presented gifts to Jesus, not to each other.
…there was no such thing as Christmas for the first three centuries of Christianity.
The lack of a biblical directive to mark Christ’s birth continues to disturb small Christian sects such as Last Trumpet Ministries and the Restored Church of God, which oppose the celebration of Christmas.
As Christianity Today noted in a 2008 article, there was no such thing as Christmas for the first three centuries of Christianity. Any observance of Christ’s birth was lumped in with the feast of Epiphany on January 6.
Some early church leaders opposed the idea of celebrating Christ’s birth. Christian theologian Origen (c185-c254) preached that birthdays were for pagan gods and it would be wrong to honour Christ in the same way as Herod or Pharaoh.
[Christmas] was a way of allowing pagan converts to Christianity to continue to enjoy their traditional festivities.
It wasn’t until the fourth century that church leaders in Rome commandeered December 25 as the date for a new festival to replace worship of the celestial sun with worship of the Son of God.
Some commentators believe that celebrating Jesus’s humble birth was seen as a way of countering a popular heresy that Jesus had never existed as a man but as a sort of spiritual entity. Certainly, it was a way of allowing pagan converts to Christianity to continue to enjoy their traditional festivities.
The first Christmas was celebrated in 336, after Emperor Constantine (previously a worshipper of sol invictus, the sun god), declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Most Eastern churches eventually adopted December 25, but the Armenian church celebrates his birth on January 6.
A further complication arose in the 16th century when Pope Gregory devised a new calendar, which was unevenly adopted. The Eastern Orthodox and some Protestants retained the Julian calendar, which meant they celebrated Christmas 13 days later than their Gregorian counterparts.
The consumerist-capitalist Christmas we know today was a Victorian invention.
Not all Christmas traditions celebrated by Christians have pagan origins, though. In his book The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum, history professor at the University of Massachusetts, shows how the consumerist-capitalist Christmas we know today was an invention of the Victorian era of the 1800s.
He traces the consumerist carnival that Christmas has become to 1823, when the poem A Visit from St Nicholas, better known as ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, was published. It popularised Santa Claus and had a huge impact on the scale of gift-giving.
This more consumerist and family-oriented vision of Christmas was promoted by the Episcopalian merchants of the day as a way of taming the social chaos of a raucous festival that included roving bands of poor wassailers who extorted food and drink from the wealthy.
Perhaps, Nissenbaum suggests, excessive spending is the modern equivalent of the revelry and drunkenness that made the Puritans frown.
“I love that spirit – sanctifying the secular instead of running away from it or trying to ban it!” – John Dickson
As historian John Dickson has noted, the way Christmas is celebrated in Australia is hardly less likely to please God than Halloween.
“If there are grades of sins, I reckon the Aussie worship at the shopping mall in the build-up to Christmas and the consequent neglect of the poor until we’ve paid off the credit card are much more ‘satanic’ than allowing our kids to dress up as goblins or characters out of Harry Potter,” the historian and author wrote in an article for the Centre for Public Christianity.
Dickson, who co-founded CPX, believes that Halloween is no more “evil” than Christmas.
“In fact, the two festivals have a bit in common. Both started out as pre-Christian, pagan celebrations. Both were ‘rebadged’ by the church. And both have subsequently become heavily re-secularised.
“It’s commonly known that 25 December was originally a celebration of the ‘Unconquered Sun’ at the time of the Winter Solstice (in the northern hemisphere). It was a happy feast in Roman times.
“When Christianity became dominant in the West in the 4th and 5th centuries people were uncomfortable with celebrating the Sun instead of the Creator. But believers didn’t cancel a huge existing party. They chose to sanctify it as the ‘birthday’ of the unconquered Saviour of the world.
“No one was suggesting Jesus was actually born on that date. This was just an attempt to Christianise culture. Personally, I love that spirit – sanctifying the secular instead of running away from it or trying to ban it! It speaks of an open, confident and generous version of faith. More of that, please!”More