Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Why We Celebrate Christmas

This a post I wrote for my friend +Matthew Clayton and his blog series, The Christmas Series, on his blog Loving Christ With Your Mind. He asked me if I would like to contribute; I said yes, and I got stuck with the posts for Christmas Day and New Year's (yay. :P). So, here's my post for Christmas day, titled "Why We Celebrate Christmas." God bless, and happy holidays!

. . .

Here in America, Christmas is an annual thing. Stores set up their Christmas layouts; people buy Christmas trees. Some even decorate their houses or yards—illuminating them with bright lights throughout the night.
But what if I told you that not everyone celebrates Christmas? This might be hard to imagine—especially if you’ve grown up in America—but Christmas isn’t an international celebration. Some Americans don’t even celebrate.
For example, if you visited India, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Israel, you’ll most likely find that in these countries Christmas isn’t very widespread. Why not? Well, Christmas is supposed to celebrate the birth of Jesus and His arrival into our world. Most Indians are Hindu, and simply have no reason to celebrate Christmas. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are Muslim countries, and Israel is largely a Jewish nation. So it would make sense that most people in these countries wouldn’t celebrate Christmas.
Even here in America, not everyone celebrates. Most Muslims, Hasidic Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Sikhs don’t celebrate Christmas, as they see no reason for it or it conflicts with their faith. People of these religious groups are in the minority when compared to the large number of professed Christians in America, but it does show that Christmas isn’t a total nationwide celebration—like many assume it is.
But what if someone asked why you celebrate Christmas? Assuming that you do, how would you respond? What would you say?

I imagine most of you would answer something like, “Because it’s the day that Jesus was born and came into our world,” or “We celebrate it because Christians like us have been doing it since Jesus’ time.”
I admit, before I started researching Bible history and learning more about the Bible, I used those answers too. Something else that might surprise you is that both those statements are actually false.

Let’s say you time-traveled back to the first-century. You’re staying at Thessalonica and bump into the Apostle Paul while heading to the market. It’s three days until Christmas; you ask Paul what he’s planning to get Silas and Timothy. All you get back is a blank, confused look.
Why the look of confusion? Christmas wasn’t celebrated back then.

In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday. Almost no one celebrated Jesus’ birth—probably because no one knew when it was. It wasn’t until the fourth century when church officials, under Pope Julius I, decided to institute Jesus’ birthday as a holiday. However, there was problem. The Bible doesn’t tell us exactly when Jesus was born. (It probably wasn’t anywhere near December though. Why would shepherds be out in the middle of winter?)
In spite of this, Pope Julius I chose December 25th as the official holiday for Christ’s birthday, which was celebrated with a great feast. It’s commonly believed that the Pope did this to parallel a widely celebrated pagan holiday known as Saturnalia—the celebration of the Roman god Saturn—that began in the week of winter solstice and ended in January. Also, December 25th was the birthday of the Roman god Mithra, which the Pope probably hoped would make Christianity more “appealing” to pagans.[1]

Originally called “The Feast of Nativity,” the celebration of Christ’s birth had spread as far as Scandinavia by the eight century—four hundred years later. However, after the fall of the Roman Empire and the plunge into the European Middle Ages, the celebration of Christmas changed. Christmas went from a peaceful feast to a drunken carnival-style celebration. It stayed this way until the 1800s, when the Americans completely reinvented the holiday.[1]

The early 1800s were a time of class conflict and turmoil in America. Unemployment was high, and riots from disenchanted social classes hit their peak during the Christmas season. Around this time, authors Washington Irving and Charles Dickens reinvented Christmas in America and England. Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol shifted Christmas from a wild, carnival-style celebration; to a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday centered on family, giving, and showing kindness to others. With families becoming less rigid and more sensitive to emotional needs of their children, this new view of Christmas grew in popularity. Parents could now give their children the attention—and gifts—they desired without coming off as “gushy” or “spoiling” their children.[1]

The once dead holiday was brought back to life in America. At first, people looked towards immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches for how the holiday was to be celebrated. However, over the next hundred years, Americans added their own unique traditions to Christmas: decorating Christmas trees, giving gifts to each other, and sending holiday cards. These were all part of the new, reinvented Christmas—the same Christmas that much of the world still celebrates today.[1]

Okay, great! But was does all this have to do with why we celebrate Christmas?

A lot, actually. See, many people do or don’t celebrate Christmas because they think it was always celebrated how we see it today. But as you can see above, that notion is wrong. Why should we celebrate then? What’s the real purpose of this holiday? The answer comes from Philippians 2:6-8.

Philippians 2:6-8
Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)
who, existing in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God
as something to be used for His own advantage.[
Instead He emptied Himself
by assuming the form of a slave,
taking on the likeness of men.
And when He had come as a man
in His external form,
He humbled Himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death—
even to death on a cross.

The entire meaning and message of Christmas is summed up in those 68 words.

Many people have forgotten this. They look at the gifts and the Christmas trees, the parties and the TV specials, and they think that’s what Christmas is all about. If that’s you, then please just hear me out for one second.
Christmas isn't about any of that. The holiday isn’t about Santa Claus anymore than it’s about Saturn or Mithra. Neither does it revolve around gifts and presents, as those traditions were just added recently. What’s Christmas truly about then?  Again, it’s all in Philippians 2:6-8.

One could easily argue that today, this just isn’t the case. Christmas was been secularized, industrialized, and commercialized beyond belief. Many people are acting just as self-centered and carnal as they have all year. The holiday seems to be more focused on what’s under the Christmas tree or who has the best decorations than is on Christ.

Well, those statements are partially right. We, the Christians have let this get out of control. We need God back in our holidays. My brother likes to talk about how modern society and certain organizations practically hate it when people associate Christmas with Christ, or anything religious in general. But we need to push past this fear of opposition and let people know the truth. What’s more important, what people think or what God thinks?

Jesus is the reason for Christmas, and no one should deny that. As Christians, as witnesses for Christ; we should be the ones reminding the world of this. Please understand there’s a big difference between standing up for Christ and just being rude (respect and gentleness are two of those differences. -1Pt. 3:15 NIV). At the same time, however, we need to be bolder in standing up for our faith and our God—despite whatever opposition it might cause us to face.

Ultimately, Christmas is what you make it. I don’t know what you’ve been told, or taught, but when it’s all said and done the choice falls on your shoulders to decide what this day means to you. No one or thing can define what Christmas truly means to you personally. That’s strictly between you and God. Even if you don’t believe in Him, it’s still your choice. And when it comes to Christmas, you only have two real choices.
A)     Christ
B)      Other

I’ll be praying that you’ll make the right one. :]

 Merry Christmas and God bless!

1. Source: "Christmas."

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