TITLE: The Feast of Christmas
AUTHOR: Joseph Kelly
PUBLISHER: Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010, (126 pages).
Christmas is just around the corner. Unlike the season of Lent where there is an emphasis on fasting, when it comes to the Advent and Christmastide, feasting is more the nature of the celebrations. With the modern symbols of the Christmas and the commercialization of this meaningful end of the year event invading the Church, even Christians can be confused about the true meaning and symbols of Christmas. What does turkey has to do with Christmas? How does Christmas trees and lighting fit into the picture? Do the Early Church celebrate Christmas at all? What about the Middle Ages? What is the origins of Christmas? How do we make sense of what is religious and what is secular when it comes to the Christmas season? One of the ways to understand this is to look back at history and let the unfolding events of the past guide and teach us on the true meaning of Christmas.
This is where this book comes in. Beginning with "Christianity without Christmas," Kelly looks at the tensions throughout history between the religious and secular thought surrounding Christmas. Though most of the Western world had selected December 25th as the day for Christmas, no one really knows exactly how and when that happened. The Russian Orthodox Church chose January 7th as their Christmas Day. The best estimates was that December 25th was chosen sometime in AD335 in Rome with the title "dies natalis Christi" (birth day of Christ). In fact, the early Christians do not pay much attention to Christmas at all. Only the gospels of Matthew and Luke recorded the Christ birth events which Kelly attributes to the anticipation of the world coming to an end quickly at that time. The gospel of Mark bypasses the birth narrative and hurriedly tells of Jesus works and ministry. The reason why Matthew and Luke included the birth narrative is to emphasize the fact that God recognized Jesus as His Son, and that the birth of Christ was a direct fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. Matthew focuses on the similarities between Moses and Jesus on how their lives were in danger at very early age. While Matthew writes to Jews, Luke focuses on Gentiles. Matthew's genealogy traces back to Abraham while Luke goes all the way to Adam. Luke meticulously records the birth narratives both before and after the birth of Christ, which makes the gospel of Luke a favourite Advent sermon choice. The feasting for Christmas is linked to the fabulous feast and spread of the Roman culture, where the secular Romans celebrated the pagan festival called Saturnalia, between Dec 17-23. This involved much eating, drinking, and celebrating. This would influence the way Christmas will be celebrated.
Chapter Two is about "Creating the Christmas Season" where most people agreed on December 25th as the birth of Jesus and January 6th as the coming of the Magi. In the second century, with the date for Easter already established, interest began to build on celebrating the birth of Christ. By the time of Gregory the Great I (590-604), the season of Advent four Sundays was set. The twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany was a time of feasting and celebrating. Homilies and rituals soon followed. Chapter Three deals with the dark ages, how the Roman states were taken over by barbarian tribes and created a largely pagan Europe. From here, we see the rise of the popularity of the Scandivanian 'yule' (drink); the use of the log to provide warmth; the understanding of the three kings of Orient; and the use of many animals surrounding the manger scene; and the use of chants and music. During this time, the Christians use the Advent as a time for fasting to counter the pagan ways of feasting. Chapter Four on the "Medieval Christmas" covers the twelfth to fourtenth centuries, which are synonymous with castles, cathedrals, and crusades. Christmas by then has been engrained into the Christian calendar with specific dates established for fasting and feasting. Many beautiful Latin hymns were written, such as "O Come O Come Emmanuel" and "The Coventry Carol." Chapter Five describes the Reformation and the different ways the Protestants and Catholics remember Christmas. With the split of religious celebrations due to the Protestant-Catholic disputes, the secular Christmas started to grow quickly. Chapter Six covers the "Secular Christmas" which dates all the way to the nineteenth century where some groups like the Puritans hated Christmas because of the secularization of Christmas. Without the waning religious influence, Christmas took on a secular trajectory. It is here that the image of St Nicholas; stories like the Christmas Carol; and charitable giving became popular. Interestingly, this secularization furthered the cause of the religious aspect of Christmas. For example, people use Christmas as an opportunity to create a holiday time for family and friends. Music and the sending of Christmas cards became popular. Gifts, toys, trees, ornaments, are soon to become the regular face of Christmas. The final chapter should interest many as Kelly looks at the continuing secular-religious struggles over the Christmas event. The consumerist Christmas has invaded the day as a time to buy things and consume stuff. Advertisement skyrockets with sales and special deals. Kelly ends with several suggestions on moving forward:
Adopt a simpler Christmas and counter the prevailing consumerist culture. Be more aware of environmental concerns by making sure that our celebrations do not ravage the earth. Let the young maintain the virtues and values of Christianity through Christmas. Believing that God can use any opportunity, Christians can see the culture at large as opportunities to instill a sense of heavenly orientation each time they talk about Christmas.
This book is probably one of the best historical surveys of the rise of the Christmas event. With skill and understanding, Kelly begins with our modern understanding of Christmas, takes us back through time, and gradually helps us along in understanding that the secularization forces are not necessarily bad. In fact, there are ways in which they have helped the religious causes along. By being big hearted and open-minded, Christians can have more opportunities to share Christ than ever.
Joseph Kelly is Professor of Religious Studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.
Have a Blessed Christmas!