Gilded ribbons, tapered candles and decorated wreaths around the hearth. A return to a more traditional Christmas seems to be where our recession-weary minds are wandering. It’s time to remember and relive the good old days.
This is the approach the stores are taking as they stock their shelves: traditional colours, Victorian scenes, evergreen wreaths, popcorn strings – all the festive decorations necessary to bring some much-needed warmth back into our homes, and a few extra sales to their depleted coffers.
So: what can I do to make this Christmas as traditional, authentic and memorable as possible?
If Christmas is all about Christ’s birth, the first place to turn is the nativity narrative in the gospel of Luke. For a Christian, there is no better place to start.
So, what did the earliest Christians celebrate? If I was living in Palestine or the Diaspora as an early gentile or Jewish Christian, what would my home look like on Christmas day?
The sun would rise as usual on this wet winter morning. My family would also rouse themselves – grandma, grandpa, siblings, perhaps an aunt and uncle. It would be a full house – well, actually, a full upper room. On the main floor, the oven would soon be fired up for breakfast. The smell of wood smoke would mingle with the smell of our sheep’s fleeces.
It would all be wonderfully soothing – at least until the sheep kicked over the earthenware water jar and started their morning ‘baaas.’ In this old stone house during the cold winters, the sheep would be brought into the house to keep warm, and to warm the rest of the family at the same time.
A little hard on our olfactory senses – but very green in concept, truly a carbon-saving idea. But I don’t feel a need to become that traditional, even though my kids might disagree.
If the sheep were inside, then on that particular night the shepherds would not have been keeping watch over their flocks in the fields. And it would not have been a silent night either. Jesus, being a real baby, would have made a goodly amount of noise crying when he was born. More likely, it would have been quite a raucous night.
So, no shepherds at this time of year, and no silence. How about breaking open the presents and beginning the feasting and celebration? Well, in these houses, there would have been no presents or stockings hung with care.
When Christ was born, a group of magi (we don’t know how many there were) followed a star (no larger than other stars) and brought tribute to the newborn King – at a different time of year than December.
Hmm. Kingly tribute. Not a gift for the children, but a tribute to The King. The early Christians might have desired to give a similar gift to Christ – but would not have considered paying tribute to their children, regardless of how naughty or nice they were.
More likely, they would have been considering, as on every other day of the year, how they could give all that they had to their living Lord and Saviour – just as those in Acts did, selling everything they owned and sharing everything in common. That would certainly make for a memorable winter. Maybe I should consider this thought more carefully.
But before I sell my ancient stone house, my sheep and my other belongings, perhaps I would like to splurge a little. After all, my neighbours have been saving their shekels to purchase things for the annual celebration: food, drink and gifts. Surely, at the traditional core, there is room for merrymaking.
And here I find that I am on the right track. A little excess and merrymaking have always been traditional to the annual December celebration. But not condoned by the church. In fact, Constantinople archbishop Gregory of Nazianzus condemned this practice in 380 AD, already trying to keep the world out of a worldly celebration:
“Let us not adorn our porches, nor arrange dances, nor decorate the streets; let us not feast the eye, nor enchant the ear with music, nor enervate the nostrils with perfume, nor prostitute the taste, nor indulge the touch, those roads that are so prone to evil and entrances for sin …
“Let us not be effeminate in clothing soft and flowing, whose beauty consists in its uselessness, nor with the glittering of gems or the sheen of gold or the tricks of colour, belying the beauty of nature, and invented to do despite unto the image of God; Not in rioting and drunkenness … and let us not strive to outdo each other in intemperance …
“Let us leave all these … to the pomps and festivals of the Greeks, who call by the name of gods beings who rejoice in the reek of sacrifices, and who consistently worship with their belly; evil inventors and worshippers of evil demons.”
So why did the first generations of Christians not celebrate Christ’s birth? Because Christ’s death, burial and resurrection were their focus, along with his return. All four gospels share intimate details about the end of Jesus’ life, while only two discuss his birth. It appears that these birth accounts were only to give evidence that he was truly born of a virgin, and had fulfilled all the prophecies foretold throughout the Bible.
In fact, Jews of that day would never even celebrate a birthday. Birth accounts figure prominently in the Bible and early church; but celebrating birthdays is portrayed negatively in the scriptures. The most prominent birthday celebration (that of King Herod) resulted in John the Baptist’s head lying severed on a platter. Nothing to celebrate there.
So, back in the ‘good old days’ – the really old, long time ago days – there was no Christmas, not in December or any other month. Just cold weather outside, with lots of family and sheep indoors. The smell of a hot fire warming up breakfast. Perhaps, in that promised land, milk and honey might have been part of the daily fare. Maybe eggs from the hens. Simple. Poor. Perhaps persecution and death looming. Prayer would have started the early Christians’ day. Thoughts of Christ would have warmed their hearts as they worked. And, more than likely, they would have been praying for the salvation of their pagan neighbours – who would be celebrating their solstice festival on that December morning with trees, ribbons, candles and the like.
Dean Idsinga, a member of Aldergrove (B.C.) Fellowship Baptist Church, now lives near London, Ontario, with his family.