At Christmas time, tradition and nostalgia appeal to many people. As I look back on over 50 years of Christmas memories I can reflect on the way my family celebrated Christmas as a boy and the changes we have made, first as Ann and I got married, then had our own children and now to new adaptations as we see our granddaughter growing in awareness of the season.
Many Christians recognise that most longstanding Christmas traditions have pagan origins and so have adopted the catchphrase 'putting Christ back into Christmas'. Did you know that the first Christians did not celebrate Christmas at all? In fact it was approximately 300 years after Christ's resurrection and ascension that his birth was celebrated for the first time. This took place on 25th December 336 during the rule of Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor. A few years later Pope Julius I declared that the 25th December would the official date for celebrating Jesus' birth. Until that time the focus of Christian celebration had surrounded his death, resurrection, ascension and promised return.
There are many theories as to why the 25th December was chosen but a significant factor is probably the fact that there were many Pagan midwinter festivals celebrated around the time of the winter solstice. Instituting a major Christian festival at that time provided a way to distract people from their pagan origins and focus on Christ.
Some Christian groups have reacted to this knowledge and advocated abandoning celebrating Christmas. Whilst I respect the sincerity of their position, refusing to celebrate something that has no biblical or early church precedent, I think it misses an opportunity. During December children up and down our country are rehearsing their Christmas productions which will be performed in school halls and church buildings. A lot of the details will lack historical accuracy (see the True or False? Christmas quiz) but at the centre of many productions will be the truth that Jesus was born just a little over 2,000 years ago.
Even though the PC brigade will pressure people to celebrate the Holiday Season or Winterval there is still a significant understanding in our culture that recognises that Christmas has something to do with Jesus. By participating in traditions such as Christmas trees and Santa Claus we have an opportunity to build a cultural bridge that enables us to talk about Jesus. My plea would be that we don't stop at the baby in the manger but that we point to the truths that were important to the early church. Whatever the season Christ taught us to celebrate his death and resurrection in the sure and certain hope that the ascended Christ will come again to judge the world. Yes the baby was born to be the Saviour of the world, but it was as an adult man, rather than a tiny baby, that Jesus accomplished his glorious mission. It was on the cross that he cried out 'it is finished'. It is for that reason that the cross rather than a manger is the universal symbol of Christian faith. Let's unashamedly stand under that banner.