I’ve noticed Christmas takes a lot of heat these days for being such a “gross deviation from its Christian traditions.” (I’m not sure who I’m quoting there.) Some of this disenchantment, I think, rightly has its place, but I also thought it might be helpful to offer a refresher on the so-called “secular” parts of Christmas, which actually come from some very religious beginnings:
Santa Claus Nicholas was a man living in Turkey during the fourth century. He became bishop of Myra (Byzantine Empire, if that means something to you) and later was a saint (Saint Nicholas = Saint Nick). He is famed for selflessly giving generous gifts to the people of his land, including dowries to three young ladies so that they would not have to resort to prostitution. The Dutch translation (Hey, I’m Dutch!) of this man’s title is “Sinterklaas,” which is where we get the title “Santa Claus.” This “secular figure” has extremely Christian roots and values and was an amazing evangelist for Jesus.
Decorated Christmas trees While Mary, Joseph, and company probably didn’t throw up a Christmas tree in the stable/cave, the evergreen tree is purposeful to the season. Because it is “ever green,” it is meant to connote a sense of both everlasting life (like Christ Himself) and perseverance through trial (winter — a season of “lack”). Candles, lights, and shiny décor have historically always been used to emphasize/celebrate the items they adorn. So, if the evergreen is a symbol of Christ’s life and His perseverance through trial, the lights and ornamentation are meant to draw extra emphasis to that Christian truth. (Note: Candles + Christmas tree = one big candle.)
Star on the tree This symbolizes the star that the Magi (the Bible never says there are three FYI, and they probably were astrologers, not kings) followed to come to Christ’s birth. The star is a heavenly symbol used in many religions as a guiding force to a greater Truth, and in this case, we place it atop a symbol of ever-lasting life (the tree). This is analogous to us putting a crown of thorns on top of the vertical post of a cross at Lent. It speaks to a consequence of the symbol on which it rests.
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Presents Not only is this symbolic of the Magi’s gifts to Christ’s family, but also the idea that Christ is the Ultimate Gift to us from God, and so we should “pay it forward.” We give gifts as if to say, “because God has given me a gift (Jesus), I want to give you a gift, so that you know that He’s done the same for you.” In this vein, the Christian understanding of gift-giving at Christmas is truly and totally about the “thought that counts,” not the actual present. So the hideous pink bunny suit from Aunt Clara means, “Jesus loves you.”
Xmas This is not a secular way of avoiding the word, “Christmas.” The word Christmas is a combination of two words, “Christ” and “Mass.” (Our Catholic brothers and sisters still call worship, “Mass”.) In Greek, the word “Christ” is spelled, “Xpristos,” so the “X” is just a shortened Greek way to say “Christ.” Xmas is still “Christ’s worship.”
Stale Fruit Cake Biblical scholars have discovered that both fruit and cake do just fine on their own and don’t need to join.
Will VerDuin, associate pastor
Evangelical United Church of Christ, Highland