Is Christmas a pagan holiday? What about Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and the advent of… Advent? Get answers to all these questions in this episode, which is an excerpt from the new holiday guide, Seasonal Celebrations.
Grab Seasonal Celebrations in print or ebook here: https://phyliciamasonheimer.com/product/seasonal-celebrations-paperback/
Welcome to Verity podcast. I’m your host, Phylicia Masonheimer, and I am here to teach you how to know what you believe, to live it boldly, and to communicate it graciously to the world around you. I believe that women are ready to go deeper in their faith than ever before, and they don’t have to go to seminary to do it. I am so glad you’re here, and I hope you’ll join me on this journey because every woman is a theologian.
Hello, friends. A few years ago, as I was answering theological questions close to the holidays, I received countless questions about the origins of Christmas and our celebration of the holiday today. Since this is one of the high holidays in Christianity, I knew it was important to research the actual history of this day, how it got to where it is, and how to discern the celebration of it. If you listen to my all saints day and Halloween episode, you know that this is the approach I try to take with any and all Christian it’s important to me that I teach those who are listening to me how to discern for themselves with the information that I present. I hope that this is a jumping off point for you to do your own research, but that you will look directly at the church’s documents and the people within the church for their sources on these holidays.
These holidays are meant to point to the person of Jesus Christ, and to exalt him. Our culture has adopted, paganized, and materialized many of these holidays, but that does not mean that that is how they began or how they need to stay. And so in this episode, I’m going to be reading to you from my seasonal celebrations guide, which launched in the November shop. In the seasonal celebrations guide, I have an entire section on the history tree of Advent and Christmas. And so in this episode, I’m going to be reading what I have already written, so my tone will be a little bit different than it may be in other episodes.
You can grab the book in the shop if you go to phyliciamasonheimer.com. It’s called seasonal celebrations, and it contains not just the Christmas and advent celebration guide in history, but also all of the information that was in the all saints day and Halloween episode, as well as the Easter episode and the Valentine’s Day episode. You’ll also get a Saint Patrick’s Day celebration guide in the history of Saint Patrick too. So it covers almost all of the high Christian holidays except for Lent and Pentecost.
Without further ado, let’s talk about Christmas. If you did not grow up in a liturgical church, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and the like, the concept of a liturgical calendar may be new to you, but it is not new to history. From as early as the 1st century, Christians were gathering to celebrate truths of the faith starting with Sunday, considered the Lord’s day as early as the end of 1st century and legalized under Constantine in 313 AD. Very quickly, Easter was added to the celebration, and by the 5th 6th centuries, advent had developed mostly in the Western Roman Catholic church. In the Eastern church, the biggest holiday after Easter was epiphany. Epiphany is a celebration of Christ’s incarnation and baptism. As Western and Eastern churches synchronize festivals, the 12 day epiphany festival was born. It lasts from Christmas Day through the New Year. And as a bonus, you can grab our epiphany card set, our Christmas tide cards, in shop at phyliciamacetheimer.com.
So what is Advent? Dietrich Bonhoeffer said the celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect and who look forward to something greater to come. So what was the advent of advent? Sorry. I had to. Some scholars believe Advent came after the development of epiphany. Since epiphany focused on Jesus’ incarnation, baptism and first miracle at Canna. The focus was not on his birth so much as on his revelation to humanity. Even the word adventus, which is Latin for coming, was in reference to the 2nd coming, not the first.
Around 6th century, advent was connected with the birth of Jesus, which was celebrated on December 25th. Today, some orthodox and eastern churches celebrate advent with a 40 day fast beginning on or around November 15th. Christmas, Christ’s mass, is a name taken from the Catholic celebrations of his birth, and it is an inherently Christian holiday. Though it has been thoroughly adopted and adapted by culture, the holiday has been in observance since the 3rd century of the church. Now let’s explore some answers to a few common questions about Christmas.
First, why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th? The western church’s date for Christmas is December 25th, the date most of us know today. But in the east, the traditional date of celebration was January 6th, the conclusion of epiphany. How did the early church fathers come to these dates for Jesus’ birth when the Bible doesn’t specify it? Scholars believe the church fathers Chose these dates because of Jesus’ presumed conception date. The 14th of Nissan, Passover, is the date of Jesus’ death, but it was also believed to be the day of his conception. In 200 AD, church father Tertullian notes that the 14th of Nissan is equivalent to the Roman calendar’s March 25th. Fast forward 9 months, and what do you have? Baby Jesus. In the east, they use the same process, but slightly different dates. Scholar Andrew McGowan writes, In the east too, the dates of Jesus’ conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nissan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners use the 14th of 1st Spring month, Artemisias in their local Greek calendar, April 6th to us.
April 6th is, of course, exactly 9 months before January 6th, the eastern date for Christmas. In the east too, we have evidence that April was associated with Jesus’ conception and crucifixion. This idea of patterns in history repeated significance on the same date has roots in Judaic teaching and rabbinic commentary. This may be why the early Christians assumed Jesus’ conception on Passover and therefore his birth on December 25th or January 6th. It is worth noting that Christmas was celebrated by the eastern and western churches until the Puritans in the United States. The Puritans removed many church traditions in reaction to Catholic corruption, including both Easter and Christmas. The United States did not truly celebrate Christmas until the 1860 and 70’s because of the Puritan influence.
So where do Christmas trees come from? Though some people postulate that Christmas has druid or Roman influence, especially Christmas Tree traditions. The tree’s origin is most likely in medieval German meaning. Christian plays performed on the feast day of Adam and Eve, which falls on Christmas Eve, Used an evergreen tree decorated with apples in the story. In 1419, a guild in Freiburg put up a tree decorated with apples, Flower paste wafers, tinsel, and gingerbread. In paradise plays that were performed to celebrate the feast day of Adam and Eve, which fell on Christmas Eve, A tree of knowledge was represented by an evergreen fir with apples tied to its branches. Flanders finds documentation of trees decorated with wool thread, straw, apples, nuts, in pretzels. The oldest Christmas tree market is thought to have been located just over the southwestern German border in Strasbourg and Alsace, which was back then part of the Rhineland, now in present day in France, where unadorned Christmas trees were sold during 17th century as Weihnachbaum, German for Christmas tree. Flanders says the 1st decorated indoor tree was recorded in 1605 in Strasbourg decorated with roses, apples, wafers, and other sweets according to her research.
Some scholars even credit Martin Luther with the 1st Christmas tree based on some of his writings. Others look to saint Boniface who existed even earlier as a missionary to Germany as the originator of the tradition, but the medieval German play tradition bears the most merit. Christmas trees reached cultural popularity when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were pictured in a magazine decorating an evergreen tree with their family in 1841. Though trees had reached the United States before then, mostly through German immigrants, Albert is responsible for bringing the tradition from Germany to England and increasing their popularity in the US as well. Fun fact, Thomas Edison’s assistant, Edward, invented Christmas lights, and they were first mass produced in the 1890’s.
Is Christmas a pagan festival? I’ve touched on this briefly already, but the origins of Christmas find their dawn in rabbinic commentary on the significance of Passover, early church teachings on the conception of Jesus, Saints day celebrations near the presumed date of Jesus’ birth, the epiphany celebrations in early January. Many times, the church would assign Christian holidays on or near Pagan ones to actively redeem and Christianize them. Some Christian groups misunderstand these holidays, and they accuse the church of developing the Christian holiday out of the pagan one. In reality, the Christian holidays were a means of educating pagan cultures in the life of Jesus, bringing holy celebrations into places that had never known Christ. Occasionally, Christians made the mistake of combining pagan practices with Christian ones as is the case with Halloween. But for the most part, the Christian holidays were practiced distinctly and separately from the culture around them. Christmas is such an example. Only in the last century has Christmas become increasingly materialistic.
What are the origins of Santa? One such cultural adaptation to Christmas is Santa Claus, The jolly white bearded character originally known as Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas day is in early December. Nicholas was a wealthy young man who lost both parents to illness and instead of living on his wealth, donated it to the poor and needy. He became a bishop and later the patron saint of children in the church. His day was commemorated with gift giving until Martin Luther suggested gift giving be moved to Christmas day, December 25th, to celebrate Christ’s birth. This may be because Luther removed All Saints Days from the liturgical calendar except for those celebrating the biblical saints. In 16 forty seven, Oliver Cromwell announced Saint Nicholas Day to be popish or associated with Catholicism. And because of the church of England split from Catholicism, Saint Nicholas fell out of favor.
Traditions with Saint Nicholas were imported to the United States very early, but they were not fully endorsed because of the Puritan influence. Some scholars believe the Puritan’s staunch opposition to Christmas in general left the day open to non Christian behaviors of drunkenness and revelry. In the early 1800’s, a revival of Saint Nicholas as patron saint of children began again, this time in the form of Santa Claus.
So how should I talk to my kids about Santa? If you grew up with Santa Claus, the idea of Celebrating without him might be a little bit intimidating or maybe make you a little bit sad. If you currently use Santa as part of your Christmas celebrations and you wish to stop you might be wondering how to transition to a more Christ centered holiday. Josh, my husband, and I both grew up without Santa. And my first encouragement to you is this, Christmas is just as exciting and fun without him. Santa isn’t harmful to your kids’ faith necessarily, But it also isn’t necessary for your kids to love Christmas, to think it’s magical, and to have so much joy in the season. We have just as much magic and fun and joy with our kids, and I loved Christmas as much as anybody else growing up without any kind of idea that Santa was real. Now this doesn’t mean we avoid Santa or we don’t participate in local Christmas events, but just that we’re honest with our girls. Santa’s not real, and we don’t pretend that he is.
But if you choose to do Santa, be sure you are discipling your kids in the true meaning of Christmas, the Christmas story and the gospel. Make sure they understand the difference between Santa and Christ and ensure that the focus of the holiday is appropriate as you synthesize the two. If you choose not to do Santa, utilize a story of Saint Nicholas and even his saint day to teach the kids how his character points to Christ. I would also encourage having a conversation with your kids about Santa and culture. In our home, we have decorations with Santa on them, and the girls know who he is. We don’t portray Santa and his cultural adaptations as evil or wrong. We even watch the Tim Allen movies. I love Polar Express, but we do articulate the truth about Santa, and we focus the holiday on Christ.
This is more simple to us, and it helps them have a foundation that is clear in our home. Lastly, I do suggest talking to your kids if you are not doing Santa, talking to them about other families who do practice Santa. What we say is other families and kids like to pretend Santa is real. While we know Santa is not real, we do not need to tell other people that. Their parents will tell them at the right time. If you are transitioning your kids from believing in Santa to a more Christ centered holiday or just, you know what, you’re done with the charade and you want to tell them, I suggest sitting the kids down and explaining that daddy and mommy have been playing a game for the last few years because it brought the kids joy. And it was a fun game to pretend. But now you’re going to be telling them the true story, And they have the ability to be grown up enough to hear it, and that may help the transition to commend their grown upness and their ability to know the truth about Santa.
Don’t make it more emotional on your end than it needs to be. A lot of kids are not as devastated to learn the truth as you may think. Invite them to help create new traditions, like setting up a nativity set, hiding a baby Jesus on Christmas day, or a Jesse tree. Invite them to participate in other activities around the holidays. We have so many fun crafts and things that we love to do as a family that make my girls excited about Christmas, including decorating the house and baking orange slices and stringing them up. There’s so many fun things that we can do.
I want to add 1 activity as we conclude this episode that I think is really fun. And since this episode is going out right after Thanksgiving, you would have time to prepare it. It’s called a Jesse tree. And some of you are familiar with this. Some of you are not. But either way, it’s amazing, and I highly recommend it if you have the time. So this is a way to teach kids the prophecies about Jesus and how he can be seen in the entire Old Testament. You can make a Jesse tree or you can buy one on Etsy. I always made one. It was like a branch that you put in some quick cement And in, like, a pot like a clay pot, and then you hang ornaments on the tree as you go through the month of December leading up to the birth of Jesus. And each ornament represents someone in Jesus’ family tree. He is the branch that grew from the stump of Jesse. And Jesse is King David’s father. So it’s a neat way to teach our kids the lineage of Jesus and the importance of the Old Testament. And I have a link in the celebration guide on how to make a Jesse tree, how to do a Jesse tree, but you can also just get a whole kit from Etsy. And there’s blog posts all over the Internet about how to do a, Jesse Tree. If you are interested in getting the print version of This episode, this entire episode was made up of the information I share in seasonal celebrations. It includes a celebration guide for all of Advent, they are weekly celebration guides, so week 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then a Christmas Eve celebration that includes true readings and scripture memory, a Christmas hymn to sing, and then a craft or activity.
I have designed this to be used whether you’re a 22 year old who is having your roommate with you on Christmas or whether you’re a mom, A family with really young children, I wanted it to be something that could be used in either case. So the celebration guide’s very simple, weekly format, and then it includes all of the history I’ve shared with you as well as book lists for adults and kids at Christmas and a holiday activity bucket list that we personally use with things like driving to look at Christmas lights, attending a live nativity, baking Christmas cookies, etcetera.
So, Hopefully, this episode was helpful to you. If someone has questions about Christmas and its history, you can send them this episode to share with them or recommend the seasonal celebrations guide. It comes in a print edition and an ebook edition on the Every Woman a Theologian website at phyliciamasonheimer.com. As always, thank you so much for listening to Verity podcast. If you have questions about the other Christian holidays, feel free to listen to the episodes on Easter, Halloween and Saint Valentine’s Day, all of these are included in the seasonal celebrations guide as well. Thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode of Verity podcast.
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