Published on December 10th, 2015 | by John Locke2
WHY CHRISTMAS? (REVISITED)
THE WISDOM TIME CAN TEACH…IF WE BUT LISTEN
I was once an annoying, modern-day Scrooge.
Not that Christmas is changing for the better in our modern, hyper-commercial world. It hasn’t. Probably won’t. Doesn’t matter. Like so many things in life, the change that makes the real difference, is within each of us.
Here’s the deal:
CHRIST’S “MASS” OR CELEBRATION
A quick look back (history is not treasured, so says the poet, for the sake of the dead, but the salvation of the living). Christmas, or “Christ’s Mass” (Christ’s Celebration), was not something that early Christians would have accepted. Why? Because birthdays were awfully pagan in practice and tradition. Celebrating the birthday of the Gods, or of Caesar, the emperor, was not something any Christian would embrace. It legitimized an age-old pagan, anti-Christian practice. It said, in effect, if these gods of stone or metal had birthdays, then, like humans, they must be living, breathing beings. Therefore, birthdays only legitimized gods of stone and gold.
Obviously, and immediately, Christians saw red, so birthdays were definitely out.
Therefore, the early Christian fathers determined to purposely “forget” the day, the month or the season, even the year, of Jesus’s birth. It wasn’t recorded anywhere. If it was, it was buried and forgotten or actually scratched from the record. By two or three centuries after the fact, no one knew or could remember, and according to early Christian historians, no one cared to know.
Then came Constantine the Great.
When he converted from paganism to Christianity (to unite his struggling Roman empire), everything changed. Church leaders, who had previously been hunted and martyred, now found themselves suddenly on top of the heap, rubbing shoulders with Roman elites, with senators, with generals, with the wealthy movers and shakers. What had once been a guaranteed life of persecution and poverty was now the most sought after and honored, even prospered, profession.
And most lucrative (many priests, in fact, were lining their pockets) in the known world.
CAN ONE PERSON CHANGE THE FUTURE?
Amazing what one man (or woman) can do to what we know as “history.” (Constantine’s mother embraced Christianity at about the same time as her emperor son and did much to spread the new faith throughout the Empire.)
By the fourth and fifth centuries of the Christian Era, church leaders had split into essentially two categories—The first, the religious hierarchy of power and corruption, and the second, the hierarchy of piety, or true and humble Christian conversion. The first kind built their dynasties on wealth, fashioning gaudy-grand churches displaying pomp and ceremony and seeking political power first and foremost. They became the “most honored among men.”
The second group, however, lived generally simple, faithful, humble lives, serving the poor and downtrodden, determined to live out their days walking in the path Jesus walked, true and faithful Saints of the Most High.
THE BOTTOM LINE: KILLING PURE CHRISTIANITY
So, exactly how does this have anything to do with Christmas?
With the principal control in the Church found among the power-brokers who lived lives of ease, immorality and splendor, as burdens on the backs of the poor, came a rigid, bureaucratic, power-hungry form of Christianity—harsh, unforgiving, and oh-so-serious. These early Church tyrants looked upon the people’s “sin” with punishing, absolute rigidity, yet in their own corrupt lives, were breaking every commandment ever uttered by God and the Prophets.
SOMETHING HAD TO GIVE
In effect, these church parasites were killing Christianity. The masses, the poor, were being alienated and jaded by their harsh, inflexible leaders, and by the financial burdens, and continual fear, placed upon them primarily to keep the masses in-line. Something had to give. And it did.
Enter Nicholas of Levoy.
When telling his story it’s hard to separate fact from myth, but I don’t think that’s so important here, as you will see.
Nicholas was born in what is today modern Turkey (Asia Minor). In the early Middle Ages, Asia Minor was the very center of Roman-Christian wealth, power, and dominance. Of course, later these Byzantine Christians would be overrun and conquered, and converted, by various Turkic Tribes, mostly Muslims, who would then erase Christianity from much of the Middle East and Asia Minor. (They tried to do just that from all of Europe…but that’s another story.)
Nicholas could see that the Christmas celebration, now embraced following the Roman hierarchy’s conversion, had evolved into an elitist and hypocritical—and oh-so boring—rite. The Priesthood stuffed the celebration with religious pageantry and self-serving aggrandizement, designed to further prop up the elites, which of course further alienated the poor and the common folk. And the children were nearly always excluded, pushed away as a nuisance from the sacred goings-on. Nicholas thought this an abomination. After all, Jesus had said “Let the little children come unto me, for such is the kingdom of heaven.”
ST. NICK’S STRATEGY – TURNING THE CHILDREN TO CHRIST
Nicholas, who became the Patron Saint of Children, could see that the Church’s “Christ-mass” celebration had become just another official holiday to benefit the rich and powerful, at the expense of the poor and downtrodden. He had a better idea. A man with a mission, Nicholas (Saint Nick) would change the world for the better—one good deed at a time.
His strategy, a good one, was to refashion Christmas to bless the poor and suffering, the humble, and especially the very young, turning them towards Christ, not driving them away. So St. Nick, and others, did just that, over a period of centuries.
PARALLELS FOUND IN JUDAISM
Parallels can be found in various Jewish holiday celebrations, and how they evolved into more child-friendly traditions that Jews observe today. For example, many Jewish families hide in the house and yard various gifts for the children during some holiday gatherings, using the fun of the activity to further explain the sacred nature of the event. Jewish children quickly make the connection between their joy with family members as linked to these sacred gatherings.
As well, Islam’s most sacred holidays (Ramadan-Iftar, and Eid al-Kabir) include traditional gift-giving, feasting, and family togetherness, all practices which further strengthen the children in their faith and empower and solidify the family unit.
Countless religions and traditions have, throughout humankind’s long history, died deserved deaths, almost all due to their inability to teach the value of such traditions to their children. (In fact, we are always but one generation from divine oblivion and secular, hedonistic triumph.)
St. Nicholas, and others since, have mustered the wisdom to incorporate a multitude of practices, many not originally Christian, into the Christmas tradition that have blessed individuals, families, and children for many centuries, evolving into the celebration we have today.
PAGAN PRACTICES, BOUGHT-OFF AND RE-TOOLED
It is true that some of these traditions were adopted from ancient pagan practices and popular pagan rites. (December 25th was originally the pagan Winter Solstice extravagance of Saturnalia. There’s no historical or scientific evidence that Christ was born anywhere near December.)
That was then. This is now.
Today Christmas focuses on Christ, and on good families, good friends, good food, and lots of fun, with gifts to remind us to thank God, to give generously to others, to serve the poor, to bring love and cheer, and to follow the example of the Savior.
Is Christmas perfect? Of course not. There are many aspects that we would like to see changed within our own culture. But indeed, this should not be blamed on the concept of Christmas, but on the failings of our own materialism, upon greed, and upon our native selfishness. By design, we inhabit an imperfect world, populated by the frail and fallible. We live lives of “quiet desperation” (Henry David Thoreau).
BLESSING THE LITTLE CHILDREN – SAVING THE WORLD
Jesus blessed those around him, healing, providing sustenance, and lifting human burdens. One could argue that Christ set in motion our modern child-centered Christmas celebration when he beckoned the children to come unto Him, saying, “For such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” He was, in effect, chastising the adults around him to change their perspective and bless, teach, and serve the children first and foremost, thus saving future generations from spiritual calamity.
THE “BURDEN” OF CHILDREN: APOSTASY FROM ETERNAL TRUTH
Christmas for the children, and the poor, was a revolutionary concept in world history. Children were a nuisance and a burden, they were non-citizens and virtually powerless. Jesus, we know, came to change such destructive falsehoods. Once he was gone, however, men began, by littles, to once more corrupt the system, to in effect, apostatize from eternal truths.
St. Nicholas determined to right the wrong, for he knew that throughout most of history children have never been considered real people. They were the property of their fathers or their male owners; they were powerless. They had few, if any, rights and were considered of minimal value in Roman society. Children were sometimes sacrificed to pagan idols. Infanticide was practiced by most ancient peoples, particularly of female babies, or of the deformed or sickly. To many people children were but one more commodity to exploit.
To the ancient Jews, however, children held more importance, but still were often pushed aside and suppressed, unless of royal lineage.
Again, Christ changed it all. And St. Nicholas further cemented children as central to Christianity’s future growth and well-being, spreading more humane cultural practices throughout the land and infusing a growing compassion within the faith and culture that has become the hallmark of Christianity.
SO…WHY CHRISTMAS TODAY?
Christmas in our modern and increasingly secular—even anti-Christian—world today, I believe, is more essential than ever.
Christmas has, perhaps unlike ever before, the global power to bring families together, to help those in need around us and in far-off lands, and to proclaim to a fearful, even hostile world, the peace and joy of the birth, death, and resurrection of our Savior and the salvation He offers to all without restriction.
But Christmas today, as in the days of St. Nick, is still primarily designed to win the hearts and minds our newest citizens—the children—for Christ…if we will but practice this celebration as it was intended.
St. Nicholas knew that this must be done from a child’s early age or it would not happen. He knew that a joyful, happy, festive Christmas would help eliminate the boring, the stoic, the unreachable, and the resulting exploitation and abuse that the early priesthood leaders were inflicting on their members, especially upon the women and children.
Christmas, when practiced properly (see Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life), has smashed that early selfish and exploitive dynamic, changing the world forever. Of course, we can only hope it’s “forever,” for today the forces of Secular-“Progressivism” are neutering and de-Christianizing this blessed tradition, attempting to gut and discard these hard-fought traditions, made so very dynamic by such men as St. Nick (and, of course, Jimmy Stewart!).
The anti-Christmas crowd wants instead a “Winter Solstice Celebration,” or “Winter Holiday,” in effect a “New Pagan Saturnalia,” a new (old) religion. We must not let them. Such will only further corrupt and jade our society, accelerating our moral decline and alienating not just the children. Into the vacuum left by a retreating, beaten and abused Christianity, will step the most mercenarial, exploitive, hate-filled, and self-serving forces on earth.
There is no such thing as a “moral vacuum.” It is always filled by something.
And since history always repeats itself, we will once again be forced down that familiar road to the same corrosive state that St. Nicholas stood against over a thousand years ago.
If we pay even superficial attention to history, it ought to be obvious to everyone where that road leads.
Keep a sharp eye!