Christmas Eve — December 24

File:Pierre-Louis Cretey - The Nativity - 89.15 - Detroit Institute of Arts.jpg
The nativity. Pierre-Louis Cretey (1640-91)

Bible connection

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. – Luke 2:8-16

All about Christmas Eve

Christmas is celebrated on December 25 and is both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. God bless you as you sort out the two millennia of associated traditions and practices which have proliferated around the world.

The evenings before major Church holidays have taken on significance of their own. The vigil on Christmas Eve is the culmination of the Advent time of waiting. We come to Bethlehem ourselves to greet the King as God comes to be among us.

European winter festivals

As the church became the dominant feature in many cultures, the celebration of holy days were expressed in the local language and elements of local cultural traditions were incorporated, repurposed, or given a deeper meaning.

The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the birth of Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many cultures rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the long dark nights were behind them and they could look forward to growing sunlight.

In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. So Nat King Cole sings, “Yuletide carols being sung by a choir.”

In Germany, people honored the pagan god Oden during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Oden, as they believed he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people and decide who would prosper or perish. Because of his presence, many people chose to stay inside. So Santa flying in on his sleigh from the North Pole is not completely surprising.

In Italy, where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north, Roman-influenced people celebrated the Saturnalia, a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. Beginning the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. In some places, slaves could become masters and peasants could command the city (a “Lord of Misrule”). Businesses and schools closed so everyone could join in the fun. So turning the whole Christmas season into a “holiday season,” even redefining the word “holy-day” as “vacation” or “party” is not unprecedented.

In multicultural Rome, also around the time of the winter solstice, some Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring children. Some historians suspect some members of the upper class celebrated the birthday of Mithras, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25 (but this is mostly false). It was believed that Mithras, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans (like Emperor Constantine before he switched sides), days devoted to Mithras were the most sacred of the year. So getting a tear in one’s eye at the sight of a child lit by the candle  they are holding, enjoying the wonder expectantly, appeals on many levels.

In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not widely celebrated. Around 200, Clement of Alexandria notes an observance. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Unfortunately, the Bible does not mention a date for his birth (a fact Puritans later pointed out in order to deny the legitimacy of the celebration). Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in Spring (why would shepherds be out herding in the middle of winter?), Pope Julius I (d. 352) chose December 25. As is common with other pre-Christian holidays, when the church dominated a culture, elements of those holidays were absorbed into Christmas. First called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the 500’s. By the end of the 700’s, the celebration of Christmas reached all the way to Scandinavia.

One does not need to leave one’s culture to follow Jesus. The meaning of Christmas is God with us, incarnate in time and space, in our history, in the Church, and in each of us. The longings represented by winter holidays of ancient times are met and fulfilled by the coming of Jesus Christ. “Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let Earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing!”

Christmas reinvented by Americans

The Pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, and other New England colonists were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Oliver Cromwell and the radicals who took over England and outlawed Christmas. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in the colonies they founded in New England. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston — anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.

After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill on June 26, 1870. This was the culmination of about 50 years of reinventing the celebration in the United States.

Illustration of “The Christmas Dinner” from Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book (1876)

In 1819, Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories which includes one about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Irving’s fictitious celebrants enjoyed “ancient customs,” including the crowning of a Lord of Misrule and others he invented.

In 1843, Charles Dickens created the classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. The story’s message: the importance of charity and good will towards all humankind, struck a powerful chord in the United States. The family was also becoming more sensitive to the emotional needs of children. Christmas provided families with a day when they could lavish attention (and gifts) on their children without appearing to “spoil” them.

As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday, old customs were unearthed. People looked toward recent immigrants as well as Catholic and Episcopalian churches to see how the day should be celebrated. Americans built a Christmas tradition all their own that included pieces of many customs, including decorating trees, sending holiday cards and gift-giving. Although most families adopted the idea they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries, Americans had really re-invented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of their growing nation.

Finally, what about Santa Claus? The basis of Santa Claus can be traced back to Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, a seaport in what is now Turkey. St. Nicholas (270-342) gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick, becoming known as the protector of children and sailors. Along with many miracles attributed to him, Nicholas was well-known for secretly giving gifts.

St. Nicholas first entered American popular culture in the late 1700’s in New York, when Dutch families gathered to honor the anniversary of the death of “Sint Nikolaas” or “Sinter Klaas” for short. “Santa Claus” draws his name from this abbreviation.

Two covers for the Saturday Evening Post by Norman Rockwell, the left one from 1920, the right from 1922

In 1822, Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore wrote a Christmas poem called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” more popularly known today by its first line: “’Twas The Night Before Christmas.” The poem depicted Santa Claus as a jolly man who flies from home to home on a sled driven by reindeer to deliver toys. The iconic version of Santa Claus as a jolly man in red with a white beard and a sack of toys was immortalized in 1881, when political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore’s poem to create the image of Old Saint Nick we know today. Coca Cola ads from the 1920’s forward sealed the public’s imagination.


A rather English depiction:

The Peanuts pageant

Saint Nicholas history in a read-along video from National Geographic [link]

From the makers of The Chosen — The Shepherd:

What do we do with this?

The holiday season in the United States is a well-known consumeristic extravaganza which vainly attempts to re-orient itself to be a family/friends holiday full of the “human spirit” of love and peace. There are many redemptive ways to join in.

It makes sense not to throw out the baby with the dirty bathwater of corrupted religion. Paul helped the Galatians sort out such things in his short letter. Try meditating on the profound meaning he reinforces:

My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father.  So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.  And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. — Galatians 4:1-7

Be a former slave who has been adopted as a child and heir. Be free of the elemental spirits and the burden of the law. We are living in the fullness of time.

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