A Christmas Without Christ

November 30, 2014

Have you noticed that every year people seem more intent on
secularizing Christmas?   They wish you a
“Happy Holiday” or “Seasons Greetings” they have presentations at school that
make no mention of the manger or the Wise Men let alone the Christ Child. 
Now I may be a little overly sensitive but somehow I think
that if the school tried to secularize Muslim or Jewish Holidays in the same
fashion that just wouldn’t be right.
Anyways maybe they are right, maybe, just maybe Christmas
has itself has become more of a cultural holiday and should have the various
religious elements removed so as not to offend those who might not practice the
Christian faith.
This morning we are going to take a look at what happens
when we take Christ out of Christmas.
Well the obvious thing is that we won’t be able to say Merry
Christmas anymore.  If we are going to do
this right the first thing we need to do is take his name out of the
holiday.  That’s why we celebrate
Christmas in the first place. 
Now a little background, some of you probably know that the
date of Christmas was originally used in pagan celebrations in Rome to
celebrate the passing of the winter solstice. 
The ancients knew that by this time in December that the shortest day
and longest night had passed, and with that came the promise of longer days,
shorter nights and eventually spring. 
Around 270 AD Emperor Aurelian capitalized upon the heathen
worship of the sun and co-opted it as a Roman holiday when he declared December
25th as the birthday of the Unconquered Sun.  
The date of December 25th as the celebration of Christ’s
birth was first seen in a Roman calendar dating from approximately AD 336.  But it would be almost another twenty years in
AD 354, at the beginning of the reign of Liberius as the bishop of Rome, that
the 25th of December had become the official date for the celebration of the
birth of Christ in the church.
But really.  You know as well as I do that it is very
unlikely that Christ was born during the winter months of Israel.  Those cold and wet winter’s nights, Why
not?  Good question in Luke 2:8 That night there
were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep.
The usual time for the sheep to be keep in the fields
surrounding Bethlehem is after the last of the winter rains in April and before
they start up again in November. 
But December wasn’t always the choice for celebrating Christ’s
birthday, in the two hundred years after the death of Christ Christians
celebrated his birth on January 6, April 19, May 20 and several other dates.
Forty years ago a British physicist and astronomer, David
Hughes, calculated that the date of Christ’s birth was September 17th 7 BC.  He based this on various scientific evidence,
including that of a conjunction of two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, in the
constellation of Pisces on that date.  He
concludes that this extraordinary celestial display was the “star” seen by the
distant wise men. 
But the truth is that we really don’t know when Christ was
born.  Historically it would have had to
have been before 4 BC which was the death of Herod the great, and because of
the weather patterns it is doubtful if it would have happened outside of that
seven month spread between April and November. 
But it really doesn’t matter does it? 
The fact is that if we are going to take all of the
religious symbolism out of Christmas we have to get rid of the Christ.  And that leaves us wishing people a Merry
—-mas.  And that really doesn’t work
either.  You understand that the word
Christmas is a combination of the words Christ and Mass and while the word Mass
comes the Latin Missa which simply means “The Meeting” historical it has
referred to the public celebration of the Eucharist in the Catholic
Church. 
Or very simply mass means church service, which of course is
rife with religious symbolism.  So I
guess we’ll just have to wish people a Merry ——.   You’ll
want to make sure people understand that you are saying Merry and not Mary,
otherwise you’ll be into the entire debate of Mary being the mother of Christ. I
guess we can leave them with the Merry because of the different spelling.
 So where does that
leave us, we won’t call it Christmas we’ll have to simply refer to it as the
Holidays and even that’s wrong because holiday is simply the diminutive of Holy
Day, so maybe we can just call it “Winterfest”. 
And instead of having a Christmas tree we’ll just have a festive
tree or a holiday tree.   
When we were meeting in the Lion’s Den in Bedford, each year
around this time decorations would magically appear.  There would be an artificial tree, some fake
holly and a few plastic bulbs.  That was
the extent of their Christmas decorations. 
The funny thing about the tree is that even though the city and the
Lions club were very careful to avoid any suggestion of religion in their
decorations, they definitely wouldn’t consider having a Nativity Scene, but
each year there was always an angel on their tree.  And angels are an important part of the
season for most people. 
We see them on trees and rooftops, they have become lawn
ornaments and gift tags, Christmas cards that don’t say anything about Christ
will have angels with trumpets on the cover. Go figure.  But you can’t just have angels without
realizing where the angels come from.
The Christmas story is full of angels. It was an Angel who
told Mary she would have a child even though she was a virgin.  It was an angel who reassured Joseph that his
fiancé hadn’t been unfaithful and that the child she was carrying had been
conceived by the Holy Spirit.  It was
Angels who appeared to the shepherds with news of the Christ child being born
in Bethlehem
and it was an angel who warned Joseph and Mary that Herod wanted to kill their
child.
Probably the part of the story
that most of us associate with angels happened in the field with the shepherds,
we read about it in Luke 2:13-14 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the
armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and
peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
But have you noticed how in recent years angels have become
harmless nonreligious icons?  I’ve had
people tell me: “I’m really not religious but I believe in angels.”  Seriously, what they really believe in aren’t
angels, they are just really big fairies. 
So realistically, if you are taking Christ out of Christmas
then you have to get rid of the angel from the top of the tree.
So we get rid of that pesky angel off the top of the tree
what should we replace it with?  I know a
star.  What could be any more non-religious
then a star? Stars appear on the flags of half the countries in the world, they
cover the sidewalk in front of a Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and fill the sky
at night.  So there shouldn’t be any
problem with having a star on top of the tree, right? 
Well why do you think people put stars on top of their
trees?  Why not moons or a little
Jupiter, I think having a Saturn with its rings would be pretty cool. But no,
traditionally people have insisted on placing stars on their trees, how come?
It probably goes back to the Christmas story; you know how
the wise men followed a star
That was shining in the east
and it led them to Bethlehem where they found the Christ child. It’s found in Matthew 2:2 “Where is the
newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to
worship him.”
There have been different legends told about the wise men
and the star in the east through the years. 
One of those legends tells us that the star, with its mission complete,
fell into the well at Bethlehem, and that it is still there and can be seen
sometimes by those whose hearts are pure. 
Well the real star might be in a well in Bethlehem but if we
are taking religion out of the holiday season you are going to have to get rid
of the star on top of your tree.
Well I guess that leaves us with a tree without a top. 
Except . . . You ever wonder where the Christmas tree came from?  While the early pagan cultures from the
Romans to the Egyptians to the Celts used evergreens in their celebrations to
signify eternal life, the Christmas tree didn’t actually come into usage until
approximately the 16th century, and the home of the Christmas tree is Germany. 
Why was it used? 
History tells us that it became popular because of a medieval play about
Adam and Eve that was put on each year in December.  Part of the production was the paradise tree,
a fir tree hung with apples signifying the forbidden fruit in the garden.  So having a “paradise tree” in your house was
in the beginning a fad.  At the same time
though there was another tradition in Germany and that was the Christmas
pyramid, which was a triangular shelving unit that Christmas figurines, and
fruit and gifts were put on.  The pyramid
was decorated with a star, signifying the star of the east.  Eventually the paradise tree and Christmas
pyramid merged and we have the Christmas tree.
Now a number of years ago I had heard that it was Martin
Luther, a former catholic priest who became the father of the reformation and
the Lutheran Church, who started this tradition.  So I hunted and hunted, I read a pile of
books, church history, Christmas traditions, encyclopaedias, and finally I
found it, and I quote, “One legend says that Martin
Luther started the practice, according to the story, he noticed the starlit sky
as he walked home one Christmas eve about the year 1513.  He thought the stars looked as if they were
shining on the branches.  When he arrived
home, Martin Luther placed a small fir tree inside his house.  He decorated it with lighted candles.”
I would like to tell you that that exciting discovery came
from Encyclopaedia Britannica, or World Book, Church History Through the Ages
but the truth is that I came upon it in a definitive yet obscure reference
volume that many of you probably aren’t familiar with but that shouldn’t negate
the value of the material.  You see I
found my facts about Martin Luther in Charlie Brown’s
Fourth Super Book of Questions and Answers.
The problem is that any way you slice it the Christmas tree
has a religious background, so it’s gotta go. 
I guess if there’s no tree then Santa will just have to
leave his gifts in the corner, won’t he? 
Well that would be well and good if we could leave Santa in your non-religious
Christmas. You’re probably sitting there thinking “Surely you can’t make Santa
out to be religious symbolism?” 
Sorry. You see Santa Claus wasn’t always Santa Claus, that’s
a relatively new innovation, in the last couple of hundred years. The Santa we
know today had his beginnings in 1823 with Clement C. Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in which he described
Santa as “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf”.  But the story of Saint Nicholas didn’t
begin with Moore’s book, his roots actually go back 1700 years when a man by
the name of Nicholas was Bishop of the city or Myra. 
If we were to pull up our trusty map here, we would discover
that Myra is situated here, on the coast of Turkey.  Tradition tells us that Nicholas was born
into a wealthy family and was orphaned as a child because of the plague.  He became a priest in his late teens and was
known for his generosity. During the Roman persecutions of the Christians he
was imprisoned and wasn’t released until the Emperor Constantine became a
believer.
Legend tells us that he took gifts to the children of poor
families and would deliver them by dropping them down their chimneys.  One story tells of how Nicholas heard of a
family with three daughters who couldn’t marry because they had no dowry.
Nicholas snuck into their home and left gold coins in the socks the girls had
left hanging on the mantle to dry.   
Guess back then it wasn’t a matter of marrying for looks or
love it all boiled down the money, and it also means that Christmas Stockings
have to go as well.
After his death the Church pronounced him a Saint and when
Christmas started being celebrated, St. Nicholas became a part of the
celebration.  So, if we have to ditch
Santa and the tree we’ll have to replace them with something.  Maybe a Festivus Pole, you know, from
Sienfield, A Festivus for the Rest of Us.
It really doesn’t matter if we
have a Santa or not I guess, as long as we have gifts right? All the presents
wrapped up with pretty paper and bows and placed by someone who has no
religious connections at all in the corner of the living room under an aluminum
pole where the tree used to be. 
But what would prompt people to
give other people gifts in the middle of the winter?  In Nova Scotia we now have a new holiday in
February but you probably won’t buy a Tim’s card for your letter carrier to
celebrate “Nova Scotia Heritage Day”.
Let me read you a scripture, Matthew 2:10-11 When they
saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the
child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they
opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and
myrrh.

Gifts have been around
since as long as Christmas has been around. 
And even though those first gifts may not have been practical they were
all significant.  Gold was the traditionally
the gift given to a King.  We are told
that in Persia it was customary that no one could approach the King without
first presenting him with a gift of Gold, good work if you can find it.  And so we need to remember that the child in
cradle was also the King of Kings.
The second gift was
frankincense, which was a type of incense that was used in temple worship, as a
matter of fact it’s mentioned in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament as
a type of sacrifice.  And so this was a
gift for a priest, one who would open the way to God for the people.  It’s interesting that in Latin the word for
priest is Pontifex, which literally means “bridge builder”, and Jesus did what
none of us could do, he built a bridge for us to God.
The third gift was Myrrh
and it was mixed with aloes by the Jews to embalm their dead.  I wonder if Mary remembered the gifts when
her son was crucified?  I wonder if she
still had the myrrh?  It must have been
one of the very first prepaid funerals.
A couple of years ago on a
Christmas Eve a gentleman gave me a little frankincense and a little myrrh,
which I know keep in my office. 
And so the gifts were
brought to a child who would be King, Priest and who would die for the
world.  No one of these gifts would have
been sufficient to fully describe who Christ was, instead it took all three.
So each year when we open
our presents we are remembering the gifts that were given to Christ 2000 years
ago, and you know what that means don’t you? 
Sorry, if you are secularizing Christmas it means no gifts.
So what do we have left,
we’ve taken away the Christ and the mass, the angels the stars, the tree, we’ve
had to get rid of Santa, stockings and all the gifts.  Guess it’s going to be a pretty boring
Winterfest morning.  
But I suppose that we
could always sing. Of course we can’t sing “Away in a Manger”, or “The First
Noel”, or “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, or “Joy to the World”, or any of the
other traditional music. 
I marvelled that when I
worked in retail they told us not wish people a Merry Christmas because it
might offend someone who wasn’t from the Christian background and then they’d
play Christmas hymns for two months.  I
guess you take what you can get.
However if you are serious
about secularizing Christmas all the songs you will have left will be about
reindeer and snowmen.  And if you sing
about snow men you won’t be able to pretend that he is Parson Brown, and if you
sing about reindeer you won’t be able to sing about Santa.  But we can give you the reindeer and the sled,
so maybe a snowman could drive the sled.

Ok, here’s the truth.  This year and for many years to come the
world will not celebrate Winterfest they will celebrate Christmas, with both
Christ and Mas, Churches will be packed on Christmas Eve as people who haven’t
darkened the door for 12 months gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Trees will have angels and stars, and in
memory of a bishop named Nicholas Santa will deliver gifts to children all over
the world just as the Magi gave gifts to the Christ child. We’ll sing our
carols and the most pagan amongst us will celebrate the birth of Jesus in
Song.    And that’s good because as Jesus
said Luke 19:40 He
replied, “If they kept quiet, the stones along the road would burst into
cheers!”