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Monday, December 25, 2017

The Grinch Who Restored Christmas

Today, of course, is Christmas. It is the well established Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Many are surprised to learn that the earliest converts to the faith did not have a Christmas celebration. The earliest that we can trace the beginnings of celebrations around the birth of Christ is around 300 AD. A "feast calendar” dated 243 AD indicated that there were some celebrations in the third century and perhaps in the second century.

The actual date of Jesus' birth was certainly not December 25th. With shepherds in their fields watching their flocks by night, it’s more likely that Jesus' earthly arrival was in the fall. We definitely do not have a specific day to which we can point.

While various Protestant groups adapted the Christmas celebrations from their Catholic friends, it certainly wasn’t unanimous. The Puritans, who made their home in Massachusetts, had a law in colonial times against celebrating Christmas. There is another whole set of unusual stories about how various traditions were derived.

Today, the season we call Christmas in America and in other parts of the world has seen the emergence of another figure. He is likely as well known as the Christ child. He’s most often called Santa Claus.

Oddly, the character of Santa has some connection to the Christ child. Again, there are ample resources on the person of St. Nicholas—Sinterklaas as he became known in Dutch lore. We don’t really know much about the real St. Nicholas. It’s believed he was a bishop in Turkey; a generous and kind man who loved God.

The myths surrounding Sinterklaas and St. Nicholas have those figures traveling via a noble, white steed. The early 1800s in America brought a new myth: a Santa that traveled the world on Christmas Eve delivering gifts in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. History records author Washington Irving referring to St. Nicholas as "— riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children.” This can be dated to 1812.

Just nine years later, reindeer show up with Santa in a sixteen page booklet titled A New Year's Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III: The Children's Friend, by an anonymous author. And in 1823, the Troy Sentinel published the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas," commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas." Now the reindeer had names.

But Houston, we have a problem. One recent survey revealed that about 20 percent of Britons do not know that Christmas Day is a celebration of Jesus' birth. Almost one in 20 (5 percent) thought the Savior of the world was born over Easter. This information was revealed in a History Channel and survey.

Pew Research adds more disappointing news. Their recent survey found that while most Americans believe Jesus was born of a virgin, that number seems to steadily decline. And especially among millennials. Furthermore, the number of people who see Christmas as a religious holiday is also weak. Just 55% of those polled see it that way.

Bottom line, what had roots as a holiday given to celebrate the birth of Jesus has given way to a fictional hero named Santa. His storyline has increasing presence. (No pun intended.) And Santa has capitalized! Many mall Santas charge a good fee just to sit on the old man’s lap for a photo! Sheesh!

By and large, people who call themselves Christ followers have bought into this game. We hang stockings. We sign gifts from “Santa.” We take our kids to malls or places where faux Santas hang out. We sing the same inane Santa songs.

It makes me wonder. What if people of faith removed all the Santa related products, stories, and gimmicks from our Christmas celebrations. Would it not feel like a true Christmas? Can we survive without watching Elf during the season?

One thing is sure. Fictional Santa has changed over the years. He’s not the same. And his theology is bad. Keeping track of who is good and who is not for rewards.

I’m sticking with the real Jesus for Christmas. His message true. Timeless. Eternal. And consistent.

As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8, NKJV)

Merry Christmas!

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