Christmas: From pagan rite to global holiday

Sunday December 24 2017

Christmas

Customers of Village Market, Nairobi County, admire a Christmas tree on December 24, 2017. The Christmas tree has become a symbol of life. PHOTO | ERIC WAINAINA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By Fr LAWRENCE NJOROGE
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Though Easter is the oldest Christian celebration, it has been overtaken as a popular festival by Christmas.

Church historians can trace elaborate three-day Easter ceremonies back to the very origins of Christianity in Jerusalem of the First Century AD.

Christmas liturgy as a celebration to mark the feast of God-becoming-man or the incarnation appears for the first time in the annals of Church history only in the Fourth Century.

One of the earliest references to the term Christmas is by the monk Venerable Bede (673-735) in his book Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

It is not too difficult to understand why Christmas overtook Easter as a popular festival.

RESURRECTION

Human beings can easily relate to the birth of a child because it is a natural event they experience and in which they participate.

The very birth of a child raises the probability of the survival of the species.

It is a pivotal part for the sustainability of society. But, let’s face it.

The idea of a fellow coming back to life from the dead is not an ordinary human experience.

People don’t know how to relate to such a claim. At best it belongs to legend or myth.

It is a matter of belief, not of common, human experience.

FAMILY
Worldwide, Christmas is a time for taking a break from ordinary routine, to rest and travel, eat and have fun.

Christmas is not complete without family and friends.

Psychologically, it provides an atmosphere to prepare “to shed the old year” and usher in a new one, full of hope and promise.

During Christmas, the mood becomes festive, almost carnival.

Nobody knows the exact date of the birth of Jesus. According to the late Prof Richard P McBrien of the University of Notre Dame, there are several theories how the date of the birth of the Messiah came to be fixed.

PAGANISM
During the early conflicts between old pagan religions and newly-arrived Christianity, one of the festivals promoted in the Third Century AD by the Emperor Aurelian was the celebration of the birth of the unconquerable sun-god (dies natalis Solis Invicti).

In order to counter the pagan feast, the church in Rome began to mark the birth of Jesus confessed as “the sun of justice who will visit human beings from on high” (Luke 1:78).

Another theory put forward by Bible scholars and Christian astronomers argued that John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah and the greatest human being ever born according to Jesus (Luke 7:24), must be conceived during the autumn equinox, 21/22 September.

Great personages such as kings, priests and prophets, it was believed, were conceived either during the autumn equinox or around the spring equinox in March.

HUMAN LIFE

The Baptist was exactly six months older than the Messiah (Luke 1:26).

Jesus, therefore, was conceived around March 25 and, voila, must be born on December 25.

Thus the son of God was born on the very day that the pagans imagined to be the birthday of the sun-god.

These theories underscore the fact that human life is in large measure guided and celebrated through the natural cycle of seasons.

And seasons are determined by the movement and dances of the heavenly bodies.

Though born in the cradle of Christianity, Christmas has become increasingly secularised and commercialised.

CAPITALISM

Persons who couldn’t care a fig whether or not baby Jesus was truly God born to us as a child, will still celebrate Christmas happily.

Noel is now a secular festival, thanks largely to the interests of capitalism.

Christmas provides the near ideal opportunity to boost and maximise sales of wares and services.

For capitalism, the magic of the market has the target of increased sales as reflected in the bottom line of profit.

Some of the elements of Christmas in popular culture include the crib, the singing of various forms of jingle bells as Santa Claus or St Nicholas or Father Christmas traverses the country to deliver gifts to children and, of course, Noel is incomplete without the Christmas tree.

WORSHIP
Many scholars credit the Vikings and the Germans for given the Christmas tree to Christianity.

The story goes that early Germans performed pagan rites under trees before the missionary St Boniface arrived from England to claim them for Christ in the Eight Century.

The good man Boniface attempted to stop worship around trees and even personally cut down several oaks around which pagan worship took place.

When his efforts bore little fruit, he changed tact and arranged that evergreen trees could be cut down and brought to places where the birth of Jesus Christ was being celebrated.

Centuries later, the reformer and former monk Martin Luther made a liturgical innovation.

Henceforth, Christmas trees could be decorated with a star and candles to signify Christ as the light to the nations.

REFORESTATION
Of late, there is a new interpretation of the Christmas tree.

Given the current and real crisis of environmental degradation and the reality of global warming, reforestation has become a world-wide and national priority.

The tree, and especially indigenous species, is emerging as a symbol of life.

The tree evokes the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:1-2) with its tree of life.

There is resonance with the Resurrection Garden (Jn 20: 15) where Jesus rose from the dead.

The Christmas tree has not only become a symbol of life, but also a challenge regarding what the world needs to do to save planet earth from the menace of environmental abuse.

Prof (Fr) Lawrence Njoroge, a priest of the Archdiocese of Nairobi, is a Professor of Development Studies and Ethics at JKUAT, where he serves as Catholic Chaplain. [email protected]