I want to share with you a very short overview of the Christmas story. It has moved from the fascinating days of pagan influence, early church opposition to its celebration and growth, and then, gradually over the years, acceptance in our own time. It is a rich history with a lot of bends and curves along the road.
No one really knows the date of Jesus’s birth. Christmas was first celebrated in late November, which marked the end of the harvest season. In 336 A.D., Constantine established December 25 as the official date to celebrate Jesus birth. Although we credit Constantine for setting the date for Christmas to be celebrated, the deeper roots of the day lie in pre - Christian festivities - actually pagan ceremonies of the winter solstice.
We cannot pass the early celebration of Christmas without mentioning Bishop Myra of Asia Minor. We know him as Saint Nicholas or, now, Santa Claus. He was born in the Greek city of Patar. In his early ministry he became known as a kind bishop as he ministered to seamen and, especially, to young children. In parts of Europe, on December 5, the eve of his feast day, children leave their shoes by the fireplace filled with hay and carrots for Saint Nicholas’s horse. During the Reformation the worship of Saints became forbidden, so in most of Europe, Saint Nicholas became Father Nicholas. In Holland, he was given a far more interesting name, Sinterklass. When Sinterklass came to the United States, he became the American Santa Claus.
In his European “life” Santa was of medium build and height. However, in 1890, the American cartoonist Thomas Nast gave Santa a pot belly…and children loved it. In 1920 the Coca-Cola Company decided Santa needed a makeover. They left him with his pot belly but put a big black belt around him and gave him sun tanned cheeks. This, of course, was to remind all of us that Coca-Cola tastes just as good in the summer heat as it does on winter frosty days.
It must be pointed out that before Santa Claus got a makeover from Coca-Cola, Christmas itself took a while to gain acceptance in the United States. The early Puritans brought with them a resistance to celebrating what they considered a pagan holiday. They also objected to the drunkenness and general revelry that took place on Christmas. “Hardly the way to observe Christ’s birth” they thought. In Boston, you could be fined 5 shillings for celebrating the day, and through the 1700’s, December 25 was considered a working day across the nation.
Attitudes began to change and soften in the early 1800’s and were helped by the publication in 1823 of Clement Clark Moore’s “Night Before Christmas.” Christmas carols and cards became more popular and available thanks to more sophisticated printing press capacity.
Let me end this all too brief overview of this important day with a short story. In Philadelphia, in 1868, a 33 year old Episcopal priest at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square wrote a very simple poem for a grade school Christmas celebration at the church. He asked the church organist to see if he could put it to music. Early on the Sunday morning it was to be performed, the organist, Lewis Redner, finished his composing for a piece he thought would be used just one time. The Priest at Holy Trinity, Philips Brooks, had a similar expectation for the new children’s song they had just created…O Little Town of Bethlehem.
Today, I leave you with these words:
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above the deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by;
Yet in your dark street shines forth, the everlasting light,
The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight.