From Christmas trees to ‘Jingle Bells’, Christmas is ingrained in the societal fabric of Western culture. Full of signs and symbols, sights, smells, and tastes, Christmas is an event celebrated by most, yet rarely understood by even a few.
The Evolution of Christmas
As the word suggests, ‘Christmas’ has its origins in the celebration of the birth of Christ. The history behind the feast of Christmas is fascinating, but should not be considered controversial. In the 4th century, officials in the church attempting to convert Romans to Christianity combined the pagan festival of Saturnalia with the celebration of Christ’s birth. Over time, Christmas festivities began to incorporate other elements of pagan celebrations, such as mistletoe, Christmas trees, and the Yule log. Christmas also became the feast where Saint Nicholas of Myra (4th century) – a giver of gifts to less fortunate children – was celebrated. Taken together, Christmas has evolved into the holiday we know today.
Christmas has many theological layers, each one worth reflection. With the birth of Christ, the Word of God becomes ‘flesh’ and dwells among us. In other words, Christ identifies with and penetrates culture to its core, standing as its creator, redeemer, and judge. In Saturnalia, the Roman god Saturn stands as the light in the darkness of winter, bringing in the bountiful harvest in season. In Yule, Odin is honored with light, warmth, and feasting in the dark winter. With Christ, we find the true God of light and harvest. By including these pagan festivals in Christmas, Christianity made a definitive theological statement about the place of Christ in culture! So this Christmas, celebrate Jesus, buy gifts for your family and those who have less than you, and finally, let the light of Christ touch every part of your life.
Dr. Jay Smith (Ph.D., Trinity College University of Bristol) is President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics at Yellowstone Theological Institute. He is the co-author with Stanley Grenz of The Pocket Dictionary of Ethics (IVP 2003) and Created for Community Revised Edition (Baker Academic 2015).