Three Common Questions About Christmas
If you have a young child in your life, you know they all possess a particular gift: asking questions. And, if you’re an adult like me, this makes you realize just how much you don’t really know.
No, I don’t know off the top of my head how clouds form, or how songs are actually transmitted through radio waves, or whose job it is to come up with street names.
This especially applies to Christmas. All it takes is an inquisitive child (or our own wandering minds) and the questions pile up faster than discarded wrapping paper on Christmas morning.
Good questions too, because the more you think about our traditions at Christmas, the more curious it all becomes.
So, let’s take a quick look at three common Christmas questions. We won’t be able to cover everything here, but hopefully this is a helpful start that may save you a frantic Google search at a family gathering. And perhaps it’ll inspire a deeper appreciation for all that is behind what we celebrate this time of year.
1. Why is Christmas on December 25?
Before we get to that question, we need to ask whether Jesus was actually born on December 25.
The quick answer: we don’t know. He could have been. The Bible doesn’t mention a date for His birth, or even a time of year.
Some have speculated Jesus may have been born in the spring because of the shepherds in the story who were watching their flocks by night. Winter nights in Judea are very cold and not an ideal time to be outside with sheep. But, there is evidence lambs were kept in fields in the winter for temple sacrifices, so it’s hard to know for sure.
So why is Christmas celebrated on December 25? The date isn’t arbitrary. Early Christian leaders chose March 25 to commemorate the angel Gabriel's visitation to Mary. So, if you do the math, December 25 is nine months from the divine conception to His birth.
There were cultural influences too. The date coincided with the winter solstice and pagan festivals celebrating the Roman god Saturnalia. Having the celebration on December 25 provided a Christian alternative to those celebrations.
This leads me to an encouraging thought. Long after the Roman empire and these pagan celebrations faded, the message of Jesus has remained and flourished. Back when Jesus was born, who would’ve thought the legacy of this peasant boy would outlast this dominant empire, eclipse their gods, and overtake their cultural celebrations? The idea would have seemed crazy back then. But today, no one thinks of Saturnalia on December 25. Instead, it’s the date remembered around the globe for how God became a baby to die for the sins of the world, including mine.
2. How did Christmas trees become a thing?
I love Christmas trees. When I was a kid, we would go to a tree farm, cut a fresh one down, and put it up in the house. Anytime I smell fresh pine today, I’m transported back to those early December memories. While we have a fake (okay, “artificial” sounds nicer) tree today, I love the tradition, the look, the feel, and the memories…and I miss my real tree, even if the dropped pine needles are a pain.
But when you stop to think about it, putting up a tree in our house for a month of the year is a bit strange, isn’t it? So, how did Christmas trees become a thing?
Evergreen branches have been used as seasonal decorations since ancient times. They were part of pagan winter solstice festivities for the Romans, and northern Europeans would cut down whole evergreen trees and put them in boxes inside their houses. Because of the cold and barren landscapes that come with winter, evergreen trees symbolized life and vitality.
In the 1500s, evergreen trees began to be associated with Christmas. Most historians believe this shift happened as a result of medieval plays which became part of church worship. These plays, celebrating the nativity, would incorporate a “paradise tree” to depict the garden of Eden (partly because Christmas Eve was also considered the feast day of Adam and Eve). Apparently, these plays were more than festive. They became so rowdy that local governments banned them from happening! As a result, people had to set up paradise trees in their own homes, and the tradition stuck.
While the symbolism for the evergreen trees has varied throughout the years, it’s not hard to connect it to Jesus. His love is “evergreen”: always present, constantly refreshing us, even in the coldest and bleakest of times. Though we are dead in our sins, Jesus brings us life and light. It’s a powerful symbol… along with a great aroma!
3. Who was Saint Nicholas, really?
There are so many stories, legends, and images of Santa Claus that it’s easy to forget that Saint Nicholas really did exist.
He probably didn’t wear a red suit, though he most likely had a beard.
Born in the fourth century in modern-day Turkey, Nicholas was a dedicated Christian and church leader. He was famously generous, especially to children. Although he had been born into a wealthy family, Nicholas was an orphan, which is probably why he cared a lot for the well-being of kids.
Since he was a bishop in Myra, a busy port city, Nicholas would put gifts for the needy on ships that would sail all around the Mediterranean.
Legend also has it that at an important church leader gathering in 325 AD at Nicea, Nicholas punched Arius, another church leader, who was teaching that Jesus wasn’t divine. (They don’t tell that one in Christmas stories!) Clearly, he was passionate about Jesus.
This strong, generous man of great conviction left a massive legacy…and formed the basis of a legend that grew and grew.
No matter how we feel about Santa Claus today, the Saint Nicholas of history is someone worth remembering and admiring as a Christ follower who lived to give and who loved Jesus with all of his heart.
Join us in celebrating the season at our annual Christmas services! For times and locations, look here.