12/24/2013 12:40:00 PM Commentary Christmas always has been a mixed bag
J. M. Compleman, M.Div.
The first followers of Jesus in Judea, after his Ascension, were not celebrating Jesus' birth. They were still filled with wonder over his Resurrection and consumed with learning to live out the new life the Holy Spirit brought. They were simply Jews caught up in a new kind of relationship with their God. This brought them into conflict with Jewish authorities - the first to persecute them. As they moved away from the Jerusalem area into Antioch of Syria, "Christian" - originally a term of ridicule and scorn - soon became the name by which the world knew them. They spread around the Mediterranean shores to Rome where they became a target for persecution in the tangled politics of Rome.
In the 4th century, Emperor Galerius, the chief Roman persecutor, became ill and was persuaded to change his ways. On April 30, 311, he issued a pardon that allowed Christians to gather as Christians. "Christianity" thus was recognized as a legitimate religion of the Roman Empire. Galerius died five days later. This became the first of a series of edicts and power plays that resulted in the church's first Christmas celebrations.
The death of Galerius brought empire rule under jurisdiction of four ambitious District Military commanders who all wanted to be emperor. Constantine was the most determined, and able. He made a formal alliance with Licinius, his last rival, to stop Christian persecution; their churches, cemeteries and properties would be returned. Known as the Edict of Milan, it is often given credit for the end of Christian persecutions. Constantine emerged the victor in battle with Licinius to reign supreme. In 324, Constantine decreed that all soldiers should worship the "Supreme God," the Unconquered Sun, on the first day of the week. Christians already were practicing a Sunday Worship. Soon they had state provided and sanctioned worship buildings where their gatherings became more formally regulated. The gatherings were called a "Mass."
When the growing Christian "church" at last wanted to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they chose the day in December following the solstice that was celebrated as the day of the re-birth of the Unconquered Sun! They gathered to celebrate a "Christ Mass."
The Unconquered Sun, and the Son of God celebrated on two consecutive days. Imagine the confusion created in people's minds. Jesus' official state birthday became celebrated for 12 days beginning on Dec. 25 with the Christ Mass, and ending on Jan. 7 when the coming of the Magi with gifts was celebrated (Little Christmas). There was no Christmas until there was a Christ Mass. Saying the two words together soon became Christmas. The Holy Spirit, with whom the church began, was tragically neglected-no longer needed or desired in a "state church."
To all this was added the immortalizing of 3rd century Bishop Nicholas of Myra, who wore a red cloak and left anonymous gifts. He has his own day of celebration, Dec. 6, in addition to gift deliveries on Dec. 24-25. Passion Plays for illiterate medieval Europe established a permanent place for dramatization of Jesus' story and nativity displays. Luther's evergreen tree with candles, which must have a star on top- or is it an angel? -Is still with us. Printing gave us new and traditional stories to read, cards to be sent. Different ethnic groups added their own special days and food.
Beginning in the 1800s, new additions became increasing fanciful, with elves and flying reindeer. We have used music to celebrate it all, sacred and secular - a many-splendored thing in itself. Finally, it has become the centerpiece of a series of "cash-cow" holidays for merchants and entrepreneurs.
I invite any readers with Christmas issues to do the research; learn the history and make choices appropriate to you and yours. Smile as the rest of the parade goes by.
Jesus is best honored and celebrated by how we live out his example and love one another, which the first Believers and followers of Jesus well understood.