The history of Christianity and Christmas

Published on December 18, 2004

By Donn Morgan Kipgen

December 19. 2004: Christianity is undoubtedly the most powerful single influence, and the most popular religion, on the whole course of humankind history. As of this very period, it is the most followed single religion on earth. In recognition of this influence, the greater part of the civilized world, whether Christian or not, divides history into two (distinct) Eras: B.C (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini, in the year of our/the Lord), dating from the 'supposed' year of the birth of Jesus Christ. Besides being the most widely spread of the world's greatest religion, the Holy Bible is the largest printed, i.e., in number, and thereby the most read book of God in all history.

Though astounding as it might seem, Christianity at no time took the world by storm, certainly not fast as the Islam. At the time of his death (probably AD 29), his group of immediate followers scarcely numbered a hundred or so. It was Saul of Tarus, who later on spread the new faith among the gentiles and other parts of the world under the more familiar name of St. Paul. During his relentless preaching and soul searching Ministry, the followers of the 'new' religion were first given the name of Christians at Antioch (Act VI, V 26). At the first great Council of the Church held in Jerusalem in about AD 49, it was thenceforth established that the Christian church was to be recognized as an universal body, and not just a Jewish sect; and it therefrom has remained a world-wide missionary religion to this very day.

However, it had been recognized (tolerated) by the pagan believing Roman Empire only in AD 311 by the decree of Galerius, the ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire, issuing a historic (though Galerius would never dream of his epoch making decree) edict allowing all the much persecuted Christians to worship as they please. But it was the great Emperor Constantine who changed the course of world history by decreeing and fully establishing Christianity as the State religion. Constantine the Great called together the General Council of Nicaea in AD 325 at which the entire Christian Church was duly represented. This Council drew up and adopted, unanimously, the historic 'Nicene Creed', the name of which is derived from that of the town. Thenceforth, this became the basis of all Church Doctrine and Christian belief from that time forward, rather onwards. The rest is, as they say, history.

Now, where and when exactly was birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, the founder of the 'all conquering' Christian religion. At present, the 25th day of December is observed throughout the world as the birthday of Jesus Christ. However, no one knows for certain either the very year or the exact date of his birth; as is the case of most religious founders. As a matter of historical fact, the earliest existing records of any Christmas celebration was the one at Alexandria, Egypt, in the 3rd century AD, of which the date was taken as the 20th day of May. Later on, the celebration was moved first to April, then to January. In fact, the present date i.e. the 25th December was fixed not until the 4th century AD. The Christmas has been regularly observed only from around the 18th century AD. The observance of Christmas in December has an important significance, though ironically had nothing to do with Christian beliefs. Hitherto, the end of December was already the season of various pagan festivals connected with the winter solstice, and equinox, which has been celebrated for thousands of years before the Christian era.

Naturally, the early Christian Church found it advantageous to take over the many old (pagan) festivals and thereby to give them explicitly and genuine Christian associations. That is why the Christmas customs today still preserve the features of the old pagan celebration. The Christmas season seasons have always been greeted and enjoyed with special merriment and boundless rejoicing as the turning point of the year, and not in as much as the welcoming the birth of our savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the free spirit of universal festivities. It was, and still is to some extend, made an occasion for happy family gatherings, reunions and general hospitality. The northern British people usually cut Yule logs for their fires and decorated their homes with bright green and red of the holly. The British people collected the scared Mistletoe from the branches of the oak trees where it grew and hung it over the entrances to their homes to keep away the evil spirits. They all ate heartedly and quaffed (drained) special drinks from great bowl. So, this Christmas customs are all still recognized and carried out as a part and parcel of the modern day Christmas celebration devotedly all over the world.

Special cakes, apple pies, wines, sumptuous meals, church services, Christmas carols, lighting up of Christmas trees, gift, X-mas cards, and all sorts of merriment are the mandatory and customary Christmas celebration.

It was only during the Middle Age that Christmas first began to assume its present significance as a 'Holy holiday' as well as a sacred religious festival. By the Tudor dynasty times, the Christmas festivities had been extended in England to the last twelve days, from 25th December to the 6th January, until the Epiphany, i.e. the Twelfth Day; hence the old popular song 'Twelve Days of Christmas'. All throughout that particular time, people of high and low ranks, the old and young, wholeheartedly gave themselves over to feasting and merrymaking – the best of the days of their long toiling year. Unfortunately, the Puritans, ala the Talibans, condemned all such Christmas festivities and in 1644, the observation of Christmas was ridiculously forbidden in England by an Act of Parliament. The 25th of December was sacrilegiously ordered to be observed or kept as a market day!

But after the restoration of 1660, the old customs of Christmas festivities came back, though never quite with the same wild revelry. And it was during the 18th century that special emphasis was placed in Great Britain and gradually to the whole Christmas world on the idea of Christmas as a season of hospitability, religious ceremony and that of special bounty to the needy and the poor. The overall religious observance of the 25th December as the permanent Christmas Day came into practice only on as late as the 2nd half of the 19th century AD. Thenceforth and therefrom, the celebration of the 25th December as the day of birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was born in a manger in Bethlehem (Israel), has been officially accepted in the Christian (wide) world. Therefore, came into being the most sacred and the greatest day in humankind history; henceforth the 25th day of December has become the holiest of all holidays not only in the Western world but also in all parts of the wide world, and undisputedly recognized and accepted by all sects of the present Christendom.

Actually the Christmas season has long since observed worldwide as a season of peace, prosperity, harmony, forgiveness, and more importantly, a period of universal festivities and merriments, irrespective of caste, creed, faith, belief or worship. Present day Christmas is arguably even if unjustifiably, more like a Kut thanksgiving day to non-Christians, notwithstanding the spirit of its significance. The doctrine of Christianity accepts the presence and participation of people of all faiths and religion, in as much as any person is most welcome in any Christian church of all denomination. This is the most distinct part of the salient features of Christianity – arguably the religion of the civilized world.

It was finally in the later part of the 19th century that the 'new fashioned' Christmas observation took its universal shape/flavor. By that time Christmas became very much a time of family reunion, there onwards became a children's festival. But it is the great novelist, Charles Dickens, who did much to persuade and impress upon the people of the importance of keeping and zealously preserving the Christmas as a special season not only of jollity, fun but of kindliness, compassion and religious festivity and thereby undoubtedly helped to give the Christmas season much of its present character. Since the early part of the 20th century, in spite of the two great wars, all women, children and men longed for the Christmas bells and have since learned to cherish more than ever, even if only for one day in the year, the great ideal of which the angels sang on the night of the Christ's birth: 'Glory be to God in the highest, on earth, peace, goodwill toward men'. No birthday would or could ever be greater and more significant on earth ever again; never was, never now, never will and never again.

Almost every land of Christendom has it own Christmas carols to echo that song of the angels. In many countries, as in England and in some parts of India, carol parties of 'waits' still sing at people's doors on Christmas Eve (some for charity), as they have done for centuries, even though they are nowadays preceded all too early in the season by youthful imitators who are little more than a nuisance, if not petulant. But it is the spirit of joy and harmony that really counts. Much of the old English carol songs both beautiful, melodies, and some quaint have been rediscovered in the 20th century. Some of the more popular modern day Christmas songs are "Hark! the Herald Angel sing (Luke 2:14)", "While the Shepherd Watched (Luke 2:10)", "O come, all ye faithfully", amongst others. Other most famous non-English Christmas carol songs are the French 'Noel' and the German 'Kriest Lieder' etc.

The Christmas Father viz, Santa Claus, has as much colorful story as his dresses. Its name comes through the Dutch from 'Sinter Klaus' or St. Nicholas, who was the friend and protector of children. In Holland, the 6th of December is observed as St. Nicholas's Day, on the eve of which the Saint is supposed to come riding on from Spain with wonderful gifts and presents for all good children. The children used to leave a big shoe in the hearth (fireside) to receive the presents he brings. The early Dutch settlers in America took this tradition with them, which eventually was adopted by the English settlers but transferred its observance to the Christmas Eve, i.e. 24th December. The shoe became a stocking, a bowl in some countries and Santa Claus became the much familiar white-haired, red-cloaked figure who rides from the North Pole in a sledge drawn by reindeers and enters the house by way of the chimney. However, it was only late in the 19th century was this American tradition was generally taken up in England and the Santa Claus has been transferred into universal Christmas Father; the French called him 'Bonhomme Noel'. Though in some Baltic lands, the gifts are supposed to be brought by the Christ Child (Kris Kringle) himself.

The tradition of the Christmas tree, with its brightly lit and dainty decorations, its shining stars and figures, first appeared as a regular feature of the Christmas season in Germany in the 18th century. It was their customs to join hands and sing round the X-mas tree in a family party. Christmas tree became popular in England in the middle of the 19th century when it was first introduced by the Prince Consort, Albert, who was the husband of the Empress Queen Victoria. Prince Albert, a German by birth, had first provided one for a children's X-mas party at the Windsor Castle in 1841. Ever since then it became a part and parcel of Christmas observation all over the world. The tradition of sending Christmas greeting card was first sent by a young British gentleman Sir Henry Cole in 1843, which was actually designed by a friend of his named John C. Horsle.

According to the Church Calendar, the day after Christmas is regarded as St. Step-hen's Day. However, the 26th December is more commonly known as 'Boxing Day', because the custom of bestowing and gifting Christmas 'boxes' or presents of money or materials to servants, tradesmen, relatives, and those who render public services. Now, all good boys and girls, old and young, will no doubt be sure to spend at least part of the day in writing prompt letters of thanks for their presents. Every good things and every act of goodwill needs to be happily acknowledged.

This Christmas time is always a good time, a time for peace, harmony, charity and gratitude which comes only once a year. So, miss it not. It is not the date that is not important, it is the sanctity and auspiciousness of the occasion that is most important, for one and all. Let us part with the greatest ever proclamation in human kind history: 'Joy to the world, the Lord is cometh'.

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