Image source: SBCVirginia
I was probably 18 or 19, when I read the essay “Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus” written by the great C.S. Lewis. In it, Lewis spoke about Niatirb (Britain spelled backward), how they exhaust themselves in buying and other festive traditions during their Xmas Rush, then exhaust themselves more on Xmas day overeating and drinking. He wondered why these Niatirb “should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in.” This was the first time I read a criticism of Xmas and I was curious to learn more.
It was Roman Emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity and in 336 AD first celebrated December 25 in honor of the birth of Jesus. Then Pope Julius in 350 AD made this an official celebration of the Church. As Christianity became the official religion of all of Europe, the Christ Mass on December 25, in honor of the birth of Christ, became one of the biggest event on the Church calendar.
Why did Constantine pick December 25? This was the day after the Romans ended their 7 day festival of Saturnalia, their biggest party, with eating, drinking, and exchange of gifts; it was a public holiday where even slaves had time off, human sacrifice was presented at the temple of Saturn, and sex parties were organized every day. Constantine and the Church, felt it was their Christian mission, to convert the people from their worship of Saturn (the god of farming), to the worship of Christ.
In Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV) Jesus did say: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.”
December 25 has thus been a high point for Christian missions in the Church calendar. However, the ancient Roman Saturnalia, also celebrated as the Yule festival (Yule-tide) all the way from Germany to Norway, did not die and become extinct. People just carried on their feasting, drinking, gift giving, and sex parties during that period, alongside Church missionary activities – leading to what we observe today, the mixed Christmas and Yuletide celebrations.
Christ Mass on December 25 was sober and meditative, in contrast to the merry-mischievious-dark Saturnalia and Yuletide festivals. So how did ‘Merry Christmas’ come about, and what roles did the winter weather and the author Charles Dickens play in all of this? We will look into this next week, don’t go away!
Lord, thank you for the Christ Mass, a light into the world, Amen!