One of the sacred myths about Christmas is that it has been around forever. In fact, Pope Julius I put the Feast of the Nativity on the Church calendar in 345, using the date that Romans had been using (December 25) to celebrate the birth of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, and part of the 12-day Saturnalia festival, which began on the winter solstice (December 21) and lasted until the last yule log burned out. The feast had its ups and downs through the centuries, but was usually observed with the traditional celebratory rites of Saturnalia (think Mardi Gras) until Charles Cromwell and the Puritans outlawed it all together in 1645 England. Indeed, Christmas was illegal in Boston from 1659 until 1681, and anyone caught celebrating was fined. (As always, it’s interesting to note that unlike our Puritan brethren in Boston, Captain John Smith was the first to enjoy a Christmas eggnog in 1607 Jamestown.)
Two events revitalized Christmas as we know it today. Washington Irving published The Sketchbook of Jeffrey Crayon, Gentleman in 1819, which was a series of stories set in England and featured Christmas as a time of family, friends, good will toward all, and gift-giving, particularly to the poor and to children. At about the same time, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, which requires no further comment. The literary works redefined Christmas for all but the most conservative American Christians, and Christmas became a national holiday in 1870. Interestingly, the Salvation Army has been deploying Santa-clad volunteers at Christmastime since 1899. American commercialism used the sentiments of Christmas to promote their products throughout the 20th Century (John Macy actually wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” as an enticement for potential customers.) Immigrants brought their own Christmas customs with them, thus making us think that Christmas trees, Christmas cards, and most important, Christmas presents have been part of our culture since God was a Boy, so to speak.
All of this is to say that what we think of as ancient may be nothing more than recent commercialization of a very minor feast in the life of the Church. And of course, we’re looking more at the trappings of the event than at the event itself: the Incarnation (literally, enfleshment) of God. The ancient carols bear witness to this singular event in creation. In the 5th Century, Caelius Sedulius wrote,
From east to west, from shore to shore,
Let every heart awake and sing the holy child whom Mary bore,
The Christ, the everlasting king.
Behold, the world’s creator wears the form and fashion of a slave;
Our very flesh our Maker shares, his fallen creatures all to save.
Even earlier, St. Gregory, Bishop of Nazianus, proclaimed in 361, “That which He [Jesus] did not assume, He did not redeem,” meaning that incarnation (full humanity) was as critical to God’s identity as full divinity. We’ve been observing the feast of the Nativity for almost 1700 years, just about 200 of which have been in the form most of us recognize as Christmas. As John the Baptist takes his final Advent bows and clears the stage for the arrival of the Incarnate Lord, we do well to take one last look at what he is doing: he is a living symbol, pointing away from himself to a larger reality. Perhaps we can allow the evergreens, the candles, certainly the gifts, and the music (at least most of it!) to point away from itself and toward the One who lives forever, who is Light, who gave so freely of Himself, and who loves a good angelic carol as much as the next person. The One who became one of us to make us one with Him.