Published on March 15th, 2015 | by Rick Robison0
I was once an annoying, modern-day Scrooge.
Not that Christmas is changing for the better in our modern, commercial world. It hasn’t. Probably won’t. That doesn’t matter. Like so many things in life, the change that makes the real difference, is within each of us.
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,” or 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 ever embrace. It legitimized 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.
Immediately Christians saw red, so birthdays were 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. By two or three centuries after the fact, no one knew, 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 the top of the heap, rubbing shoulders with Roman elites, with senators, with generals, with the wealthy. What had once been a guaranteed life of persecution and poverty was now the most sought after and honored profession.
And most lucrative (many priests, in fact, were lining their pockets).
CAN ONE PERSON CHANGE HISTORY?
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.)
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 Christian conversion. The first built their dynasties with wealth, gaudy-grand churches, pomp and ceremony, seeking power first and foremost. The “most honored among men.” The second group, however, lived generally simple, faithful 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.
So, 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 on the backs of the poor, came a rigid, bureaucratic form of Christianity—harsh, unforgiving, and oh-so-serious. These 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. In effect, they were killing Christianity. The masses, the poor, were being alienated and jaded by their harsh, inflexible leaders, and by the financial burdens, and fear, placed upon them. 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 rite. The Priesthood stuffed the celebration with religious pageantry and self-serving aggrandizement, which further alienated the poor and the common folk. The children were usually 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 – TURN THE CHILDREN TO CHRIST
Nicholas, who became the Patron Saint of Children, believed that the Church’s “Christ-mass” celebration had become just another official holiday to benefit the rich and powerful, at the expense of the 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, the downtrodden, 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 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 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 oblivion.)
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.
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.) That was then. 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.
Jesus blessed those around him, healing, providing sustenance, and lifting human burdens. One could argue that Christ set our modern child-centered Christmas celebration in motion when he beckoned the children to come unto Him “for such is the Kingdom of Heaven,” he said, in effect chastising the adults around him to change their perspective and bless, teach, and serve the children, thus saving future generations.
Christmas for the children, and the poor, was a revolutionary concept in world history. Jesus, we know, came to right wrongs, to correct falsehoods. Once he was gone, men began, by littles, to again corrupt the system, to in effect, apostatize. St. Nicholas determined to right the wrong, for throughout most of history children have never been considered real people. They were the property of their fathers. 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 the ancient Jews, children held more importance, but still were often pushed aside and suppressed, unless of royal lineage.
Christ changed it all. St. Nicholas further cemented children as central to Christianity’s future growth and well-being, and spread more humane cultural practices throughout the land, infusing a growing compassion within the faith and culture that has become the hallmark of Christianity.
So, why Christmas today? I believe to bring families together, to help those in need, to proclaim to the world the joy of the birth, death, and resurrection of the Savior, preparatory for all mankind, as the ultimate gift to mankind.
But primarily to win our newest citizens—the children—for Christ.
St. Nicholas knew this must be done from an early age or it would not happen. A joyful, happy Christmas would help eliminate the boring, the stoic, the unreachable, and the resulting depression 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 changed that dynamic 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.” We must not let them. Such will only further corrupt and jade our society, 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. We will once again be forced down that 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 where that road leads us.
Keep a sharp eye!