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December 13, 2009: “What’s the Real Story of Xmas? It’s Unclear?”

Ah Xmas time, a time of peace-. from Children’s Letters to Santa-

Dear Santa,

Please give me a tank, a jet fighter, 20 green soldiers, and a bazooka gun. I’m planning a surprise attack on my brother. So don’t tell anyone.

Thanks, Danny

Or a mixing of myths-

Dear Santa,

 Would you rather I leave you cookies and milk or pizza and beer?  Dad says you'd probably like the pizza.  Write back right away to let me know.

Love, Lisa

  I love this time of year, though will admit it sometimes takes me a while to get started loving it. First, I go through the Scrooge part of the season! Luckily, I love to sing, so I do love Xmas carols, even though I don't believe them, but that's OK, I don't have to believe in 'The House of the Rising Sun' to love singing that folk song!  Indeed, I often star off this season by giving the congregation permission, as if they need it, or as if it were really mine to give, but I GIVE IT ANYWAY BECAUSE SOMETIMES IT SEEMS TO HELP- permission to believe in the spirit of  Xmas, in Santa Claus, in the 'Miracle on 34th St.' and that someday the Browns will win the Super Bowl -  well maybe not that far...

      Yes this is the season of myth, isn't it?  More than any other time of the year. Oh Halloween is sure full of it and so is Easter, but Xmas is the king or queen of myth. And there are myths piled on top of myths so that one almost doesn't know where to start sorting them out! It's also interesting to me that there are some people who believe that some parts are literally true, even though the Bible is unclear even on those parts! And, of course, on the more recent parts, like good old St. Nick, or Santa Claus, or Kris Kringle, there's a new story every year purporting to be the REAL origin, the true story of the man in red! And then there's that tricky question that has plagued calendar makers and setters- when was Jesus really born?

      Then there's other questions- Is the Xmas tree pagan? Why was Christmas originally illegal in this so-called Christian country? How did the Unitarians save Xmas? What's the difference between a Puritan and a Pilgrim? Do all the Gospels agree on the birth story?  How many wise men were there? When did the shepherds and the wise men meet? Where were the shepherds when they saw the star? How did the wise men find the manger? What did the Apostle Paul teach about Xmas?

  We might begin by asking whether it is important to even raise the question about whether we can find a real story in the Christian Bible and I believe it is for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the culture in which we live and in which most of us grew up. I also believe that there is still deep and profound meaning and yes, even comfort as well as call to social justice in the Xmas story and the teachings of Jesus which are universal and not limited to only one interpretation.

  We start by realizing that there is a difference when we look at the Bible between faith or church history and academic or scholarly history; these two may be different, but not necessarily. Many parts of the Jewish Bible, what the Christians call the Old Testament, for instance, take place before what we call written history, and therefore cannot be verified by scholarly history the same way. Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai is faith history; scholarly history doesn't know where the Mt. Sinai referred to really is. It doesn't mean it didn't happen, but since it describes an event that may have taken place thousands of years ago, one can't prove it as a 'historic event' in the same way we talk about the pyramids or the pharaohs.

 Much of the Christina Bible, the New Testament, or the New Covenant, because the Christians, originally Jews, of course, believed that God had created a New Covenant with them, with Jesus as a sign. The first known writings were by Paul and indeed scholars also consider him one of the few actual historical figures because he was a Roman citizen and there are records of him. He is also one of the few actually known authors of any of the writings of the New Testament; most of the books, including all of the Gospels, are considered by most scholars today to be anonymous.

 The first writing was probably Paul's letter to the Thessalonians in about 49 CE. The first three Gospels weren't written  until after 70 CE and John probably not until 100 CE.  Mark was believed to have been  written first and was partly based on a document called 'Q' or 'quelle' in German which means 'source', though it has never been found. It's believed to have been a collection of sayings of Jesus. Matthew was believed to have been written next, probably about 10 years later or so, then Luke, and these three are called the Synoptic Gospels because they agree pretty much though the chronology of their stories of Jesus life don't always. Whoever wrote Matthew probably had Mark and 'Q' in front of him as he was writing.  So let me answer one of the questions here. No, not all the Gospels have a birth story. In fact, only the later two synoptic gospels do, Matthew and Luke. The first Gospel written does not, nor does the last one, John! And to answer another question -Paul never mentions the virgin birth!  Some scholars think it might not have been an important teaching at first.

 So we go to the Gospel of Matthew that begins with the Genealogy so they can show Chapter 1, Verse- 16 'And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ.' 17 'So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.'

 Yet, then, of course, because of the virgin birth Joseph, has nothing to do with the lineage!  Jesus, then, would NOT be related to him!

 But it's a fairly simple story compared to Luke's, which includes John the Baptist's story as well.  In Matthew we can answer some of those other questions, because there are no shepherds, ONLY Wise Men, and there is no manger, but there is a house!  There is no number of wise men only three gifts, and notice, no names- that will come later with Xmas card or Xmas carol mythology.

 We also have the story of Herod repeating the story of the Pharaoh killing the first born during passover and the Exodus because he is worried about Jesus being the next King so he kills the first born Jewish children in Jerusalem. This also has no historical record, by the way, and it certainly would, given the magnitude of the slaughter. The Jews would certainly have recorded this!

 The other part is the star, of course, that has some interest and has become a myth in itself.  'The star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.'  Some translations of 'Wise Men,' use the term, 'astrologers while others use 'magi', but try to imagine a star pointing the way to a certain house; they must have been really good astrologers, and it must have been a miraculous star!

 The Lukan version is more complicated and is obviously more connected to the followers of John the Baptist, because the story starts with the close to miraculous birth at least conception of John the Baptist with parents who in old age. Here there's a connection back to the Jewish Bible of the story of the Father of Israel Abraham who also has a child with his wife Sarah in old age!

 This is also where the words to Handel's Messiah the Magnificat come from, and in Chapter 2 is the traditional Nativity story, the one most of us ae used to and hear at most Xmas pageants- ' 1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.'

 Here is the story we all know about there being no room at the inn and Jesus being born in a manger and the Shepherds coming, but there's no star in this story and no wise men!

‘And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’

 Did you notice any dates? Nothing about December 25? In fact, the shepherds wouldn't have had their sheep out in the fields during the winter; it sounds more like spring! Scholars think that from most of the descriptions, Jesus WAS probably born in spring. So why do we celebrate it on December 25?

 This sacred season has been so for thousands of years, long before Xmas, long before Hanukkah, long before anything we remember. On the old Julian calendar, the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, was on December 25th. Just a coincidence, I'm sure, for those were pagan days! December 25 was the birthday of Mithra, an ancient pre-Christian God of war. It was also the birth date of the son, of "Sol Invictus" the unconquerable sun. So Jesus became known as the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire and event  Around this time was also the reported birthday of Apollo, Dionysius, Odin,Opalia, wife of Saturn, and the Phrygian god, Attis. The pre-Christian Romans also celebrated Saturnalia, and gave gifts to loved ones at this time. Usually all in the empire were automatically converted to Christianity, which became the state religion. At least 105 countries celebrate some form of Xmas. In fact, you might like to know that Plato was also believed to have born of a virgin! The church would eventually find that trying to stamp out the old ways or the pagan ways were next to impossible, so the church did the next best thing, it combined the new and the old, perhaps hoping that eventually folk would forget the old (and sure enough...) and just worship the new doctrines and the new savior  and/or God.

The Anglo-Saxons and the Teutonic tribes of Germany had winter holidays with things like the Druids sacred symbol of mistletoe and the German symbol of the evergreen, and even the Norse had ancient symbols of gods in sleighs. Thor, of course was old, jovial, and had a long white beard, dressed in Red, drove a flying chariot, and the hearth was his symbol; he was known to magically go down chimneys!  Hmmn...

 In New England where some of our first  forebears settled, were the Pilgrims and the Puritans. Remember our Thanksgiving service where I proved that we Unitarians also invented Thanksgiving!  The Mass Bay Colony that they founded was a theocracy, where the church and state were one, not separated yet by the constitution. The Puritans wanted to "purify" Christianity and do away with church holidays like Xmas, for instance, considering them pagan" holidays since there was nothing in the Bible about the celebration.  Besides it was well known that celebrating birthdays was a pagan custom.  The early Puritans in this country also forbade Xmas trees, because they were also viewed as pagan, and very unbiblical. Indeed, it was actually illegal to celebrate Xmas.  The General Court of Mass. passed a law which stated: "...anybody who is found observing, by abstinence from labour, feasting or any other way, any such days as Xmas Day, shall pay for every such offence five-shillings."  Most of what we know today as a Christmas celebration has only been around for the last 150 years or so in this country. The Pilgrims were Separatists, not puritans, they wanted to separate from the Church of England, not purify it, hence them leaving as 'Pilgrims.'  Eventually our heritage would include both the Puritan and the Pilgrims.

 The oldest Unitarian church in America, King's Chapel in Boston, supposedly held the first church Xmas service in New England, despite the 18th century ban on celebrating Xmas with a special service. The other churches still believed that Xmas was a frivolous holiday, but Xmas could not be stopped and by the mid to late 18th century, Xmas church services were more common.

 It was a Unitarian minister who also was a Harvard professor who is given credit for introducing the Xmas tree to New England. He brought the custom from Germany, where he used to live. It is rumored that the Xmas tree has its roots (if you will pardon the pun) in German paganism, but that Martin Luther was the first to introduce the custom in Protestant Germany.

      So it was that the German immigrant, Charles Follen who came first to teach at Harvard, and then became a Unitarian minister, serving the famous Lexington, MA, church which now bears his name ( though I question the wisdom of having named it the Follen Church!).  In 1832, Follen set up a Xmas tree to surprise his son, and a visiting Unitarian author from England, Harriet Martineau, wrote a magazine article about it, making the event known far and wide.  She noted that the decorations included egg shells cut in half and painted, holding little candles, with toys and dolls nestled in the branches along with bundles of barley sugar and kinds of sweet candies tied on branches.  Children were invited and all marveled because they had never seen a Xmas tree. Supposedly the first Xmas tree in a church was here in Cleveland in 1851 by a pastor who was also German immigrant though the church was not mentioned.  The so-called Christmas tree remained controversial and in the 1880s the New York Times even editorialized against it.  Indeed when Teddy Roosevelt was elected president he denounced the practice of cutting down trees for Christmas, declaring the practice a waste of timber.

 Most of what we celebrate about Christmas is fairly recent in the overall scheme of things in world history especially; we're talking about the last century or two!  Growing up, I believed it all literally, including Santa Claus!  My parents of course, believed differently about Santa Claus, and I think they considered themselves good Christians who believed literally in most of the Bible, including the virgin birth, etc.  When I was in high school and especially college, I can remember getting in some great heated discussions about that with my mother, though my father always seemed to manage to avoid those times.

 As I became more 'worldly' and studied more about comparative religion, world religions, psychology, anthropology, biology, literature, history, my beliefs were expanded, let's say, beyond my childhood faith until I realized that I no longer considered myself a Christian if believing in the creeds were the requirement, or indeed, if going to church was either, because I had not yet discovered UUism!

 The difficulty is in what I will tweak the clich' and say   in throwing out the baby Jesus with the holy bath water because we stop believing literally in Santa Claus, God or the Holy Spirit.  I remember that time in childhood when friends who were Santa atheists began to sow doubt in my mind and I'll have to admit I became a Santa agnostic.  Finally, I think I was 9, my mother sat me down and revealed the truth, that Santa was the spirit of love and that's what Xmas was really about.  Santa was not about a man in red, but about loving and giving from the heart, about family and about the idea of personifying all that by a myth, a story, that wasn't exactly real, but it wasn't a lie, either. Santa wasn't a real person like you or me, but we keep him alive as long as we love and give gifts from he heart on Xmas. And that you had to be a certain age of maturity before you could understand that, so I couldn't tell this to my younger brother and sister yet. I would now be part of the 'game' and be in on the pretend part, but knowing that we were all Santa, all of us that showed love by giving from the heart .I think in some way many of us also went through a similar process with our thinking about God.

 Some scholars say the virgin birth story might have been a way to cover up Mary being pregnant before she was married which would make Jesus illegitimate and in that culture both mother and son would have had a difficult life; indeed in this culture as well. Maybe Xmas is a time to honor all children and all kinds of families and especially single parents!

 So we must translate this story into our own lives, into meaning for us, and into meaning for the world, because the Bible does not tell us so!  There is a long history of discussing and interpreting what the stories might mean and we just continue that great tradition!  . We must make sense of life itself, especially when it is difficult and we are suffering, when we see suffering all around us. Religion, like life itself, evolves like an organism; indeed because, perhaps it is part of life itself, part of the meaning making we have always been working on.

 The real story of Christmas is in our hearts and yet to be told, yet to be lived out. It is up to us. Let the love that Jesus and the Torah taught be our guide as we walk together, love one another, and work for peace and social justice.

 Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity with me greets the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. 'Vaya con Dios' is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is 'Go with God,' So I adapted it to say 'Vaya Con Su Dios, 'Go with your idea or interpretation of God.'

Peace, Love, Shalom, Salaam, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos, Vaya con su Dios