Getting to the bottom of what’s important about Christmas

Published 7:02 am Friday, December 24, 2010

by Susan Reaves

Are you ready for Christmas? At this time of year it is a question as common as “What do you think of the weather?”

It is small talk, unless your “things to do” list is still a foot or two long. Then the question is likely to induce panic. Every year I say I will try to simplify my holiday preparations, but as a United Methodist minister, the question of what to do and what to leave undone is a loaded one. It calls for sorting out which activities are spiritual, which are traditional and which are merely commercial in origin.

United Methodist ministers are taught to measure what they believe against scripture, tradition, reason and experience with scripture being pre-eminent and most influential. As you already know Santa Claus, reindeers, Christmas trees and stockings hung by the mantel with care never get mentioned in the Bible.

They definitely fall into the tradition category — but why these traditions? As the rush of the holiday season threatens to overwhelm me, I have been re-evaluating what is truly important at Christmas and what might be jettisoned. After all, Easter is the central celebration of the Christian church — so what is the big deal with Christmas?

Christians didn’t even begin to celebrate Christmas until the fourth century. Ancient writings indicate that birthdays were nothing special in Jesus’ time. Long ago the four weeks leading up to Christmas were originally a time of holy waiting.

For many centuries those four weeks were supposed to be a time of fasting and prayer to prepare for the coming of Christ. Before we wax nostalgic over the purity of how things used to be, I should note, that was how things were supposed to be.

Actual celebrations going on at Christmas time more closely resembled an amalgam of Mardi Gras, Halloween and New Year’s, according to the “History Guys” Brian Balogh, Peter Onuf and Ed Ayers — three history professors who host the radio show “BackStory.”

Church leaders did not know the actual day of Jesus’ birth, so they decided to celebrate it at the same time as a popular pagan celebration, Saturnalia.

They hoped that converts to Christianity would give up Saturnalia, which involved feasting, drunkenness and excess. Attempts to substitute a celebration of the birth of Christ for Saturnalia didn’t change customs very much.

The worship of pagan gods diminished, but the old holiday traditions of Saturnalia got mixed in with Christmas. It was a popular custom during Saturnalia for masters to serve their slaves during the weeklong festival.

As time passed slaves no longer traded places with their masters. Instead, during winter celebrations, the poor came and knocked on the doors of the wealthy and demanded food, drink and gifts. If they were not satisfied with what they received, they would make mischief or pull pranks on the residents of the manor house.

Today’s gift-giving rituals at Christmas stem from a 19th century desire among the wealthy to keep the poor and not quite so poor from knocking on their doors. As cities grew and life became more impersonal, the well-to-do didn’t know the people begging at their doors on Christmas day. Children and young people were taking part in the begging ritual regardless of their families’ financial status.

So according to Stephen Nissbaum, Christmas went indoors with each family providing gifts for their own families around the 1820s. Thus began the celebration of Christmas as we now know it. Gift giving and overindulging apparently have nothing to do with the birth of Christ.

So the one item that came off my Christmas “to do” list is making Christmas cookies. It isn’t because it harkens back to the excesses of Saturnalia. It is because a visit to my doctor showed my blood sugar levels were elevated.

Meanwhile, I don’t want to be called a Grinch by my family and friends. Gift giving is here to stay, however the tradition came about. I love the idea of giving to those who are most in need, so at the top of my gift list are Franklin Cooperative Ministries and Angel Tree. This has been a longtime tradition in my house.

Of course the spiritual practices are the best — singing the hymns and carols, hearing the story of the birth of Christ and rejoicing that the light of Christ came into the world. We all take comfort from our traditions.

The celebration of Christmas may always have pagan overtones, but that doesn’t diminish the good cheer or the call for peace on earth. Let us rejoice as we remember God came to earth to bring good news and the world was changed forever.

SUSAN REAVES is pastor of High Street United Methodist Church in Franklin. Her husband, Michael, is also a United Methodist minister. Together they have two daughters who will be receiving gifts, but no cookies, for Christmas this year. She can be reached at