Two newspapers had reported that a secondary school in Pickering, Yorkshire, caused outrage in the local community by “banning” Christmas for its students. It emerged that what had happened was that the school had stopped all its Christmas activities until the students could give an account of why Christmas was celebrated. When they did that to the school’s satisfaction, the celebrations were reinstated.
It is worth thinking about how our present-day celebrations of Christmas began. In the early centuries of the Christian Church there was very little emphasis on celebrating the birth of Christ. The main Christian festival was Holy Week and Easter, remembering his Entry to Jerusalem, arrest, trial, death and Resurrection. But when Christianity became the “established” religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, it came face to face with popular and deeply rooted mid-winter festivals everywhere.
Hans Lietzmann, in his “A History of the Early Church” (volume 2, published by Lutterworth Press in 1961) says: “January 6th was familiar as a festival day: in particular the night of January 5 and 6 was regarded as sacred. A night ceremonial was observed in Alexandria in the temple of Kore with flutes and singing, reaching its height ‘at cockcrow’ early on January 6. The point of the mystery was joy that ‘today at this hour the virgin (kore) has given birth to the Aeon’, the personification of eternity. On the same night, there was another mystery: the waters of the Nile gained miracle-working power. These waters were drawn in pitchers by the Egyptians, and kept in the house as a defence against every evil. January 6 had a third significance for the pagan world. During the previous night, Dionysos appeared on earth and, in many places dear to him, changed water into wine. The festival of December 25 developed out of the sun-feast observed on this day. In the fourth century BC, the “birthday of the sun” [was] fixed, in eastern sun-cults, on December 25. When the Sol Invictus [The Unconquered Sun] became the protective deity of the Roman Empire, his birthday grew into a festival of the first rank.” (Emperor Aurelian made it an official state festival in 274 CE).
Faced with these popular and much-loved festivals the Church was wise enough not to try to abolish them, but instead turned them into celebrations of Christ’s birth, baptism and first miracle at Cana. All this suggests that attempts to assert that “Jesus is the reason for the season” are misplaced. It might be more realistic to recognise that the Church “borrowed” Christmas from the pagan world- and perhaps the world is now taking it back again.
Rather than arrogantly insisting that Christmas is “ours”, and the mark of a purely “Christian” society, it might be better to see that we share the season’s festivities with people of other faiths and none, and that incarnation means that God’s love is born into the real world, and not the world we would like to create in our own imaginations.