Posts Tagged With: Christmas

Rethinking the Nativity

Time for our yearly Christmas history post that I’m sure you’ve been waiting for. It’s always interesting to track down the origins of holiday traditions. Now that Christmas is upon us, many have displayed their Nativity scenes with the usual stable, wise men and donkey. Some interesting facts:

  • The Bible doesn’t state how many wise men there were. Three is divined from the number of gifts. Some traditions list many more Magi.
  • We Three Kings tells us they are from the Orient. Some people may think this means the Far East, i.e. Japan and its neighbors. True today, but not back then. These terms referred to Persia (centered in modern-day Iran).
  • Nowhere does the Bible record Mary riding a donkey, as many images depict. That comes from the Protevangelium of James 17:2: “He [Joseph] saddled the donkey and seated her [Mary] on it; and his son led it along, while Joseph followed behind.”
  • While the “no room in the inn” and Christ being humbled by being born in a barn account is an inseparable part of Christian culture, is it correct? Would Joseph find no relatives and friends in the town of his origin? Did not Mary know people nearby as well? In fact, Luke doesn’t use the Greek word for a “commercial inn,” but the word katalyma, which means “a place to stay.” Luke also defines this as “guest room” in Luke 22:10-12. So they very well may have been with friends or family.
  • The Bible simply reads “manger” as to where Jesus was placed. Assumed to mean that he was in a stable, but very early traditions state that a cave was being used. The mother of Constantine, Helena, had a church built over a cave, the Church of the Nativity. This is all probably wrong. Consider that a “manger” in Middle Eastern homes was in the home itself. This gives us an entirely different Nativity story. We have one where Joseph wasn’t irresponsible in getting his pregnant wife somewhere safe in time (Technically Luke doesn’t state Christ was born the night of arrival in Bethlehem, as commonly misconstrued).
Categories: Bible, Traditions | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Today, being Christmas Eve and all, here are some past posts on Christmas history:

The Aztec Christmas Flower

Nativity Trivia

What was the Star of Bethlehem?

Christmas Past

Categories: Traditions | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The Egg Nog is In the Stores, So Christmas Must be Here!

I realize many people think Black Friday was the beginning of the Christmas season (or when stores first rolled out decorations before Halloween was over). I have been known to declare Christmas here once the egg nog starts appearing in stores. Well, it really began last Sunday — the first day of Advent. At least in large sectors of the Christian world this is when it starts and continues to January 6th (remember the 12 days of Christmas?). This is all in the background as the Retail Apocalypse gets bigger and earlier each go-around and has become Last Ditch Attempt to bail out the economy before the new year (though how much is the economy really helped with all that new personal debt?). Christmas has become so overwhelmed by all this that many people wonder — if they stop and breathe while running on the way to buy that cheap, no-name flatscreen — what happened to Christmas?

It’s a bit of dark irony that this religious holiday has become the icon of materialism and the yearly personal bailout program of retailers. No, I’m not against gift giving. I find myself trying to bail out Barnes & Noble (with my Amazon card?). Gifting has become part of the celebration of sharing love and friendship. Even the weeks of crazed frenziness add to the atmosphere. But when you wake up the day after and ask, “What happened?” and everything is over, did you ever stop to ask “Why?” or “Have I really celebrated Christmas or just become a pawn of marketers and retailers?”

I realize some people get worked up at slightest hint at questioning their Christmas motivations or methods. You’re free to do whatever you want, but I’m just asking you to think about why you do what you do. We are told that spending drives the economy. It does, but so does saving (banks invest your money, usually in items with more long-term value than toys and obsolete electronics). Writer Charles W. Sasser hit the nail on the head when he wrote:

I looked around and observed how many of my friends held eight-to-five jobs they could barely tolerate. The average American owned two cars, a house with a 30-year mortgage, a color TV set and a stack of bills on luxuries and ‘necessities’ long worn out and discarded. It seemed to me that he did not work to enrich his life. Instead, he worked to support his possessions, all the while feeling compelled to continue to buy and buy in hopes of ever new and more wonderful possessions making him happy.

Most of us, to one extent or another, have let ourselves to be dragged into this wonderful world of stuff that we let people (usually strangers) convince us we absolutely need. The rough economy has done little to remind people that this is one of the reasons that they (and the government) are in such a mess. Many churches and charities are trying to scrape together money, yet billions seem to manifest themselves during Christmas for shopping. This is all a far cry from Christmas’ origins. What other religious holiday has become so commercialized? Corrupted?

I would have thought sacred days other than Christmas would have been exploited to their fullest by now. Then again, Black Friday has been starting on Thanksgiving as of late. And I wonder why non-Christians celebrate Christmas. It would be like me celebrating Hanukkah just to get more gifts or not to feel left out. I guess we all like the “Hanukkah song” and its hard for people not to get caught up in the Christmas traditions. One can completely scrub all religious content from Christmas if they wish, and that’s fine. Still, what do people tell themselves, after all “Christ” is even in the name? Can’t get by that one.

Christians aren’t without fault here either. Really, who let one of their primary holidays spiral out of control? What other holiday is comparable in what this one has become? Yes, many Christians still try their best in all of the secularization to worship and remember what Christmas is all about. I tend to think we can all do a bit better. The issues of Christmas are only an extension of our other problems.

It brings me amusement that some groups will protest or boycott stores not saying “Merry Christmas” or for using generics like “Happy Holidays.” These things used to bother me too until I thought about these protests a bit: Basically they’re saying that we will gladly participate in the retailers’ secularization of Christmas if they would only use the right codewords.

Retailers aren’t celebrating the holidays, they are using them as tool to make money. Nothing wrong about making money, but I don’t much care about what they do so long as they aren’t purposefully attacking Christmas. Though some could argue, and with some truth, that their abuse of Christmas has gone too far. Perhaps we don’t want them to use “Christmas” in their advertising. Let them come up with something like Winter Fest or Empty Your Bank Account Month.

So maybe we should step back, take a moment and think about how we approach and celebrate Christmas and the Advent season. I like how the folks over at Advent Conspiracy approach this. They’re not saying stop buying your gifts, only remember what motivates you to buy them in the first place.

Once you do that, you will experience Christmas as intended. And some of those intentions apply whether or not you retain the day’s (or season’s) religious origins. It can be a time to reevaluate your life, put other people first and figure out where you are going.

You got over four weeks. Don’t blow it.

[This is an updated post from 2011]

Categories: Traditions | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What was the Star of Bethlehem?

Planets, stars, novas or even UFOs, all have been presented as the source of the account in the Gospel of Matthew. He was the only gospel writer who felt it necessary to include the star, which make many wonder if it really happened. Like many of these topics, one can choose to be quickly dismissive or delve deeper.

The latter is what Michael R. Molnar does in his book The Star of Bethlehem. It’s one of the most complete studies of the topic I have run across and draws out many overlooked details in the biblical account and from history. Some additional studies from a science-faith think tank can be found here, but Molnar’s book would be a great study for this Christmas season.

If you want more Christmas lore, try Revelation of the Magi by Brent Landau. This is a translation of a once popular, now largely forgotten, apocryphal Christian story. It’s a fascinating account for students of early Christian history and Christmas traditions. Does it add any truth to the gospel account? Maybe, maybe not. It has the style of fiction rather than historical reporting.

Now Landau’s speculations about the story and the biblical account are, at times, poor theology. He thinks the infancy accounts have no value and supposedly the “majority” of scholars agree. It didn’t take me long to find many who disagree with that. He also seems to be promoting some sort of pluralistic variety of Christianity by somehow concluding this Magi text points to all religious beliefs coming from Christ. It’s sad that some “scholars” seem to ignore scholars who don’t agree with them and try to dumb down Christianity (I’m not saying other religions don’t have any truths in them, but pluralists like to pretend everyone is the same). So don’t buy Landau’s book for the theology. If ancient texts interest you, his translation of the Magi text is a good read.

Instead of non-stop rushing around this month, take some time, sit by the Christmas tree, and learn about the history and traditions that surround us this time of year.

Categories: Ancient Documents, Bible, Mysteries, Traditions | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Christmas Starts Today

Not on Black Friday. See my old post on Christmas here.

Categories: Traditions | Tags: , | Leave a comment

History…or Something of Christmas Cards

In my latest entry on Christmas history I was going to discuss Christmas cards, but it’s not that exciting. The tradition started in the 1800s and for more you’ll have to Yahoo! it. It is, however, a great tradition, beyond being the yearly end-of-year bailout for the USPS.

It lets people know you are still alive, not having made contact since the previous year. Some say the electronically-connected society we live in is making this tradition obsolete. Afterall, everyone is constantly texting, Facebooking and what ever other -ing they do (blogging would be another). For some, perhaps. For others, even with all of this stuff they still can’t seem to find the time to communicate. Others have lost the ability to function socially face-to-face with other humans entirely.

Christmas cards force people to remember how to use the mailbox and perhaps dust off some handwriting skills. Or at least use the printer. Of course there is the age-old dilemma, “Do we send one to people who didn’t send one last year?”

It’s kind of funny during the season of love that our loving side and belligerent side still find time to argue. Sure, we may reason, “Why bother when we haven’t heard from them in months?” I say that is the best reason to send them out.

On the other hand, I don’t want to bailout the USPS and the mess they created, but hey, it’s about the only time of year we buy stamps anymore.

So if you haven’t yet, you still have time to buy some cards and stamps and let people know you are still holding up somewhere.

Maybe it might even make someone happy.

Categories: Traditions | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Rethinking Christmas

I realize many people think “Black Friday” was the beginning of the Christmas season. I have been known to declare Christmas here once the egg nog starts appearing in stores. Well, it really begins today — the first day of Advent. At least in most of the Christian world this is when it starts and continues to January 6th (remember the 12 days of Christmas?). As I did last year (here and here), we will take a look at the history behind some Christmas traditions over the next month.

But first, what happened to Christmas?

It’s a bit of dark irony that this religious holiday has become the icon of materialism and the yearly personal bailout program of retailers. No, I’m not against gift giving. It has become part of the celebration of sharing love and friendship. Even the weeks of crazed frenziness add to the atmosphere. But when you wake up the day after and ask, “What happened?” and everything is over, did you ever stop to ask “Why?” or “Have I really celebrated Christmas or just become a pawn of marketers and retailers?”

I realize some people get worked up at slightest hint at questioning their Christmas motivations or methods. You’re free to do whatever you want, but I’m just asking you to think about why you do what you do. We are told that spending drives the economy. It does, but so does saving (banks invest your money, usually in items with more long-term value than toys and obsolete electronics). Writer Charles W. Sasser hit the nail on the head when he wrote:

I looked around and observed how many of my friends held eight-to-five jobs they could barely tolerate. The average American owned two cars, a house with a 30-year mortgage, a color TV set and a stack of bills on luxuries and ‘necessities’ long worn out and discarded. It seemed to me that he did not work to enrich his life. Instead, he worked to support his possessions, all the while feeling compelled to continue to buy and buy in hopes of ever new and more wonderful possessions making him happy.

Most of us, to one extent or another, have let ourselves to be dragged into this wonderful world of stuff that we let people (usually strangers) convince us we absolutely need. The rough economy has done little to remind people that this is one of the reasons that they (and the government) are in such a mess. Many churches and charities are trying to scrape together money, yet billions seem to manifest themselves during Christmas for shopping. This is all a far cry from Christmas’ origins. What other religious holiday has become so commercialized? Corrupted?

Sure, I wonder why non-Christians celebrate Christmas. It would be like me celebrating Hanukkah just to get more gifts or not to feel left out. I guess we all like the “Hanukkah song” and its hard for people not to get caught up in the Christmas traditions. One still has to wonder what do people tell themselves, after all “Christ” is even in the name.

Christians aren’t without fault here either. Really, who let one of their primary holidays spiral out of control? What other holiday is comparable in what this one has become? Yes, many Christians still try their best in all of the secularization to worship and remember what Christmas is all about. I tend to think we can all do a bit better. The issues of Christmas are only an extension of our other problems.

I find it amusing that some groups will protest or boycott stores not saying “Merry Christmas” or for using generics like “Happy Holidays.” These things used to bother me too until I thought about it a bit:

“Basically we’re saying that we will only participate in your secularization of our holiday if you use the right codewords.”

Makes the boycotts sound stupid when it’s put that way, doesn’t it?

Retailers aren’t celebrating the holidays, they are using them as tool to make money. Nothing wrong about making money, but I don’t much care about what they do so long as they aren’t purposefully attacking Christmas. Though some could argue, and with some truth, that their abuse of Christmas has gone too far. Perhaps we don’t want them to use “Christmas” in their advertising.

So maybe we should step back, take a moment and think about how we approach and celebrate Christmas and the Advent season. I like how the folks over at Advent Conspiracy approach this. They’re not saying stop buying your gifts, only remember why you are buying them in the first place.

Once you do that, you will experience Christmas as intended. A time to reevaluate your life, put other people first and figure out where you are going.

You got over four weeks. Don’t blow it.

Categories: Critical Thinking, General, Traditions | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

The Aztec Christmas Flower

The Poinsettia was introduced from Mexico in the early 1800s by Joel Roberts Poinsett. Franciscan friars had been using them in their Christmas decorations. The star-shaped leaf of the plant was said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem. The red leaves (yes, they are leaves) represented the blood of Jesus. Legends had arisen of a young girl involved with miracles occurring with the plant. Long before that the Aztecs had used them to make dyes and medication. They also used them in their human-sacrifice rituals, the leaves being a reminder of those who were sacrificed. Interesting to ponder that this symbol of Christmas was once part of such a terrible tradition from long centuries ago. Though, ironically, we still make the blood association. The plant’s supposed poison qualities, however, are a myth (doesn’t mean it’s edible, however).

Categories: Ancient America, Native Americans, Traditions | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Christmas Past

Most people don’t realize that during Christmas they are surrounded by symbols that reach back into history. Take the Christmas tree, for example.

Centuries ago, Vikings and other peoples brought the evergreen into the house to bring life to the long winter. Today, we bring it in at the beginning of winter where it freshens the house before we are trapped inside until spring.

The tradition would be adapted by Christians, using the living tree to show the birth of Christ. Often topped with a star or angel and at times equated with the Tree of Life. Many traditions arose, from originally hanging it upside down, to Martin Luther supposedly coming up with lighting the true. But Christmas trees didn’t really catch on in America until the mid 1800s.

Some still don’t like the idea that it was once used by pagan cultures. However, the standard by which ex-pagan symbols are good and which are not is not always consistent. Many forms of crosses were used in various cultures (some like the Celtic cross were absorbed) and the Easter bunny had some mystical origins. What it once was doesn’t mean it is that now (the genetic fallacy for you logic buffs). Old signs and practices were occasionally appropriated, assuming they could be redefined in a way that could be used. In other words, some old tradition of launching people over a cliff wouldn’t fit in.

At this point the Christmas tree has become a fully Christmas tradition. Though many people who aren’t Christians still put up one as not to miss out on the gift-giving. Just want the perks of the religion and not the religion. Kind of like if Christians celebrated Hanukkah just to get more gifts.

So think about that as you gaze at your tree. There stands something that reaches back into centuries of traditions among thousands of people in many cultures. A piece of history, a message from the past, right in your living room.

[For more Christmas history, check out Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas.]

Categories: Traditions | Tags: , | 2 Comments

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