I wonder how many people who quote Ebenezer Scrooge’s famous comment about Christmas know what a humbug actually is. It’s not a word we commonly use nowadays. According to thefreedictionary.com a humbug is;
1. Something intended to deceive; a hoax or fraud.
2. A person who claims to be other than what he or she is; an impostor.
3. Nonsense; rubbish.
4. Pretense; deception.
In one sense Scrooge was absolutely right; Christmas is a humbug. Don’t worry! I am not turning into a Grinch. What I mean is that Christmas as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ is a humbug in that he was almost certainly not born on December 25. The general consensus seems to be that a birth in the spring or early summer is far more likely.
The truth is that the early Christians were not greatly concerned with the nativity. Christ’s passion, death and resurrection were far more important to them. Of the four Gospels, only Matthew and Luke provide us with any information at all about Jesus’s life before his public ministy and they only give out scattered anecdotes. It may not be until as late as the fourth century that the birth of Jesus was cerebrated. So how did they decide on December 25th?
If you live in the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere, you may have noticed that the weather is getting colder. The days are getting shorter and the Sun seems to be growing weaker with each passing day.We are approaching the Winter Solstice, of course. It wouldn’t take much for primitive people to imagine the Sun growing weaker and weaker and the forces of night and winter defeating the Sun.That had never happened before, but who’s to say that this year wouldn’t be different. It must have been a source of profound relief and celebration as the solstice came and the days started to grow longer. Naturally, nearly every culture has some festival around this time of year. Here is a list of some winter festivals. Notice how many share a theme of the triumph of good over evil.
The Romans, in particular had a solstice holiday, known as Saturnalia which was much like Christmas, including gift giving. In the late Roman Empire the cult of the Unconquered Sun was very popular, and of course, the Winter Solstice was the day on which the Sun was victorious. The fourth and fifth century Christians did not want to miss out on the fun, nor did they want to participate in pagan ceremonies, so they adapted the winter festivals of many nations into a celebration of the birth of Jesus. Some Christian writers even made an explicit connection between the birth of the Sun and the birth of the Son. Cyprian wrote, “O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born…Christ should be born” and John Chrysostom, “They call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered’. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord . . .?”
So, is Christmas a humbug? Should Christians celebrate the day? Not all Christians do. The Puritans didn’t, either because it was too “Catholic” or it was too rowdy for them. The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t either because Christmas is too pagan for them. The churches of Christ have no official celebration on Christmas because it is not in the Bible, and if it isn’t in the Bible, they don’t do it. Individual members do celebrate Christmas. For myself, I don’t think there is any harm in Christmas and it is my favorite day of the year. I have to admit to being a little amused when I see posters demanding we keep “Christ in Christmas”, when I consider that Christ wasn’t originally a part of Christmas. I do wish that people would feel a little more “Christmas Spirit” the other 364 days of the year.