I have always wondered how some of the Christmas traditions came into being. Hence I was pleasantly surprise to find a good piece of article in the in-flight magazine of AirAsia which explains the origin of some of the Christmas practices. The following is a selected list of answers I get from the article:
The Christmas Wreath:
Christmas or Advent wreath appeared only in the 16th century – being circular shape to represent God who has no beginning and no end, and the evergreen used to decorate signifies the everlasting life which Jesus brought to His believers.
The Nativity Scene:
Introduced by St Francis of Asisi nearly 800 years ago to combat commercialism of Christmas at his time.
The Christmas Tree:
Introduced by Martin Luther in 1510 as he decorated a tree with candles ‘to recapture the beautiful sparkling stars amidst the evergeens’. It would have remained a German tradition had it not because of the marriage between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Germany, which saw the tradition setting its foot in the British Isle. By then the Americans still consider decorating a fir tree to celebrate Christmas a pagan practice.
The Christmas Carols:
Songs written to celebrate the birth of Christ emerged in the 4th and 5th century in Latin. It was only in the 13th century that carolling became a common practice. In those days, in the context of feudal rules, the poor would sing to the wealthy for supper.
We can trace the origin of Santa to St. Nicolas, who was a kind monk who cared for the needy and poor.
I have not done any research on the above but I believe the article has got the facts right. If the above are true, it intrigues me in a number of ways. Firstly, if I imagine myself as 2th century Christian, not only that there is no wreath, no Santa, no carols, no Christmas tree, no Nativity Scene, there was actually not Christmas (Christmas day as the day to commemorate Christ’s birth came after 2th century)! Secondly, in the course of history, various cultural elements have been added into the celebration of Christmas, and it seems to me that this process has enriched the festival and in each case above, had a good Christian intention. However as times go by their meanings were lost and people tend to adopt the tradition without knowing the meaning behind it. More alarmingly, is that the Christians often find it unnecessary to unveil the true meaning of these traditions. Worse,some would shunned these practices and condemn them as pagan practices. As a Chinese believer I do not think that I need to follow some of the practices of the Western church. However, I would have no problem celebrating the joy of Christmas with the Westerners as they express their celebration via their own cultural elements – be it fir tree, wreath or carols. If possible I would also seek relevant expression from my culture which I could relate to the Christmas meaning, so I could also use them to celebrate Christmas meaningfully.
I have finally written a short review for Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices at Amazon. It is published in full below:
Good Summary but needs to Look Deeper and Wider!
This book is a good resource for anyone who wonders why and how some of the current practices in the church which are not directly mentioned in the New Testament have into being. This book is arranged systematically and in general clear and well written. However, it is still lacking in a number of ways.
Firstly, the author(s) seems to be judging these so-called pagan practices without taken into consideration of biblical theology. For example, one would wonder if Old Testament metaphor of the shepherd can be totally neglected as the role of the modern pastor is examined. The author has completely disregard the above when he criticises the modern role of the pastor, taking into consideration only the New Testament text. (A helpful book to compensate this is Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible (New Studies in Biblical Theology)).
Secondly, the book fails to take into consideration of the fact that contextualisation of the Christian faith is ‘the way it has always been’ in the course of history. A casual study on Bosch’s Transforming Mission or Lesslie Newbigin will help to inform us this. Though not perfect, but the following quote more or less capture the missional dimension that is missing in this book – ‘Christianity is, sociologically speaking, certainly one religion; it is the ancient paganism or, to be more precise, the complex Hebrew-Hellenic-Greco-Latin-Celtic-Gothic-Modern religion converted to Christ more or less successfully.’ (Elwood, ed. What Asian Christians are thinking, 361 as quoted in Jones, Wainwright, Yarnold.Sj, (eds) The Study of Spirituality OUP, 1986, 555). The author fails to see that New Testament was not written in a cultural vacuum and we today cannot live apart from our culture.
Thirdly, limited by his own preferred ecclesiology and background, the author writes with much in favour of the Anabaptist and home church tradition (which are also cultures). Though he has by at large kept the balance he has occasionally allowed this bias to cloud his judgement. Thus some of his conclusions are harsh. For example, he has maintained that churches are not supposed to have a large building but has not consider the paradigm shift typical of the modern cell church where the large building is never considered ‘the church’ but a gathering of all home cell group (churches).
So although the author’s points are clear he would have done better by highlighting the dangers of some of these practices in diluting true Christian values without making harsh but inaccurate criticism of others. Nevertheless I have enjoyed reading this book and find it helpful as a general resource for anyone who is interested in critically evaluating church practices of today. If you would like to have a list of allegedly ‘pagan practices’ in the church look no further. However, I would recommend it only to those who are already aware of the shortcomings I mentioned above. If you have no idea about the three weaknesses above I suggest you look them up before reading this book.
‘A private truth for a limited circle of believers is no truth at all. Even the most devout faith will sooner or later falter and fail unless those who hold it are willing to bring it into public debate and to test it against experience in every area of life. If the Christian faith about the source and goal of human life is to be denied access to the human realm, where decisions are made on the great issues of the common life, then it cannot in the long run survive even as an option for a minority.’
Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, 117.
‘The church could have escaped persecution by the Roman Empire if it had been content to be treated as a cultus privatus—one of the many forms of personal religion. But it was not. Its affirmation that “Jesus is Lord” implied a public, universal claim that was bound eventually to clash with the cultus publicus of the empire. The Christian mission is thus to act out in the whole life of the whole world the confession that Jesus is Lord of all.’
Lesslie Newbigin, , The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, 16–17.
Newbigin’s criticisms above were directed towards the Western society at his time where faith is driven into everyone’s private space from the public arena. Today the situation might be slightly different. People are happy to share what they think about truth and faith, but the tendency now is to form unofficial or casual groups, often even driven by common felt-needs where similar understanding of ‘truth’ or ‘faith’ are expressed and lived. As a result, we have now various groups adhering to their own version of Christian faith, forming their own subculture, satisfied with their own little ‘private space’, and find no time nor necessity to engage with the wider world. So ‘the private faith/truth’ which Newbigin mentioned is today expressed in a typical postmodern form – diversified ‘believers’ groups’ meeting together instead of individualistic, private believers attending a state church or a denominational church, as in the ‘modern’ church. Splinter groups were common in history, but never in such intensity, in such a big number and with so much self-justified confidence as today. Postmodern consumeristic tendency means that people who shares common ideas about ‘truth’ or ‘faith’ tend to form a group themselves to serve their own needs.’
Thus, the issue we will encounter, in regards to the first quote above, is the fact that people may not find it necessary to ‘test’ the truth of their respective subcultural groups. In the context of the church, it means that believers are not interested to engage meaningfully with the people outside of their realm. It is too troublesome. As a result there is a lack of evangelism and mission. Otherwise when evangelism is done, there will be very little or no effort at all to engage meaningfully with the various subcultures encountered. In short, for mission and evamgelism to happen in a church, a certain amount of cultural clash is to be expected.
According to the second quote above, cultural clash, or in the context of this post – venturing out of our comfort zone and getting in touch with the ‘real world’ or other groups – becomes inevitably the very mark of authentic Christianity. If Jesus is Lord at all, he has to be the Lord of our ‘group’ and the Lord of others, and Christians are to make sure this is the mission and the reason for the existence of their group/church. A missional church will engage with the outside world even with the expense of clashing with the dominant culture of the day.
Do Christians have their own culture? Well we can begin with language:
My previous review on Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices highlighted the need for works like this to be aware of the cultural context of the historical period involved before making any judgement. One of the mistakes in which ‘Pagan Christianity’ made is to draw conclusion on the effect of the revivalist movement in the 18-19th century America without providing a balanced view. Viola mentioned in ‘Pagan Christianity’ that ‘Frontier-revivalist’ movement has contributed to the emergence and acceptance of individualism within the church. In his own words, ‘the goal of the Frontier-Revivalists was to bring individual sinners to an individual decision for an individualistic faith. As a result, the goal of the early church – the mutual edification and every-member functioning to corporately manifest Jesus Christ before principalities and powers – was altogether lost.’
Firstly, I am not sure if the early church has a single goal of mutual edification, or in fact there is more to a church than merely corporately manifesting Christ before principalities and powers. Secondly, it was the Reformation and then the emergence of Enlightenment and America Independence which set cultural context in which these revivals occurred. The churches in America by the time of Finney were under tremendous challenge from various ‘secular forces’, namely Enlightenment philosophies (some of which later were grouped and generalised as secularism) and were losing their members. Influenced by the need to find an identity after the American Independence, believers embraced the new American ‘popular democracy’, fuelled by an Enlightenment sentiment of appeals to self-evident truths, inalienable rights, and equal creation of all.1 If there were ‘principalities’, they were colonists, who were no more. Meanwhile, they have already accepted the Reformation belief which call each individual to come to salvation by personal faith. The very reason revivalism thrived during that period of time is due to its ability to relate to the people at that time. Finney’s methodology, for example, is the very language that Enlightenment thoughts speak – mechanistic, purposeful and causal. If there were laws governing the physical world, as demonstrated by Newton, there will be ways which governs the making of revival. As much as the means of revivalism – or man-made methods used to create revivals – is questionable, its motive, and subsequently success in engaging a whole generation of Americans to the matters of faith, should not be overlooked. Instead of seeing the revivalist’s method as overwhelmingly pagan, perhaps we could also see it as a form of contextualisation suited for the ‘mission field’ of a new Enlightenment-infested, individualistic age. 1. Noll, M.A. (1992) A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 148.