Christmas Traditions Cloaked in Mystery

  Much about Christmas remains veiled and puzzling. It harbors a mystery of faith and has a rather checkered history.
   For more than 300 years after Jesus' time, Christians celebrated his resurrection but not his birth. The later Christmas festival was even banned in 17th century England and in early America.
   The observance first begin in fourth-century Rome, timed to coincide with a midwinter pagan festival honoring the imperial army's sun god, Mithra. The December date was taken over to celebrate Jesus' birthday.
   But on what day he was born is unknown. Even the precise year is uncertain. However, it was not in the year 1 A.D., as the calendar's Anno Domini (Year of the Lord) suggests.
   Its dating system derived from an error about the year of Christ's birth by a sixth-century monk in Rome, Dionysius Exigus, in working out the starting point of the Christian era.
   Scholars since have calculated that Jesus' birth came in about 6 or 7 B.C., meaning paradoxically "Before Christ". The revised time was determined partly by the fact that Herod the Great ruled Judea when Jesus was born and history records that Herod died in 4 B.C.
   In what month the birth occurred, or on what day, has been a matter of speculation for centuries. Possible dates include: January 6, February 2, March 25, April 19, May 20, October 4, November 17.
   A British physicist and astronomer, David Hughes, has calculated that the date was September 17, 7 B.C., based on various scientific evidence, including that of a conjunction of two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, in the constellation Pisces on that date.
   He concludes in a book that this extraordinary celestial display was the "star" seen by the distant wise men.
   The 17th century German astronomer, Johannes Kepler, similarly had calculated a three-planet conjunction, including Venus as well as Jupiter and Saturn, in the same constellation in 7 B.C.
   In any case, a variety of months and days have been used over the centuries in different parts of the world to celebrate the occasion. Some Eastern Orthodox churches still do it on January 6.
   Christmas was banned in 17th century England when Oliver Cromwell and his puritan followers gained temporary rule, forbidding what was called the "heathen celebration of Christmas."
   The holiday similarly was banned in colonial New England. Christmas wasn't made a legal holiday in Massachusetts until 1856.
   For all of the clouded chronology and legal background of Christmas, however, the biggest mystery is in its message -- that God has entered the human race in love for it, on with it, and one of it.

   "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God... and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth," the Bible says.
   That is the mystifying core of Christmas, an awesome concept that has challenged hearts and minds since. It  holds that Jesus was truly human, sharing the nature of all people, yet also truly God. "Emmanuel -- God with us," Scripture says. "The light of the world." .

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Christmas History

   What did December 25 originally celebrate?
   For some time before the coming of Christianity, December 25 was a time of pagan celebration. The pagans knew that at this point in their calendar the shortest day and longest night had passed, that little by little the sun would rise higher and remain longer in the sky, bringing with it the promise of spring.
   Prior to this day occurred the week-long Roman feast called Saturnalia (December 17-24), held in honor of the deity Saturn. This festival brought hopes for peace, happiness, and goodness that supposedly occurred during Saturn's reign.
   Emperor Aurelian (A.D. 270-275) quickly capitalized upon the heathen worship of the sun and, in the year A.D. 274, officially declared December 25 as the birthday of the Unconquered Sun (dies natalis solis invicti).

   -- These Times, December, 1981, p. 22.

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Baby Jesus

   A girl of ten years went with a group of family and friends to see the Christmas light displays at various locations throughout the city. At one church, they stopped and got out to look more closely at a beautifully done nativity scene. "Isn't that beautiful?" said the little girl's grandmother. "Look at all the animals, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus." "Yes, Grandma," replied the granddaughter. "It is really nice. But there is only one thing that bothers me. Isn't baby Jesus ever going to grow up... he's the same size he was last year."

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The Origin of Christmas

   Where did the name Christmas originate? In the medieval ages the celebration of Christmas took the form of a special mass said at midnight on the eve of Christ's birth. Since this was the only time in the Catholic church year when a midnight mass was allowed, it soon became known in the Old English as Christes Masse (Christ's Mass), from which is derived Christmas.

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The History of Christmas 2

   How did December 25 gain its Christian emphasis? Evidently, sometime during the early fourth century, Christians began searching for the proper day to celebrate Christ's birth.
   Some churches had been celebrating Jesus' birth on January 6, others April 20, May 20, March 29, and September 29. Finally so much confusion reigned that Saint Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem, about the middle of the fourth century, inquired of the Roman bishop, Julius, regarding the correct date.
   Julius wrote Cyril and reported that he personally favored December 25. Obviously refusing to accept this date as valid, Cyril and the Jerusalem church continued celebrating the event for many years on January 6.
   In A.D. 354, two years following the end of Saint Julius' reign, the new Roman bishop, Liberius, ordered all his people to celebrate December 25 as the correct day of Christ's birth.
   With the passage of time this date became the more popular and was soon adopted by most of Christendom.

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The Christmas Card

   A striking Christmas card was once published with the title "If Christ Had Not Come". It was founded upon our Savior's words "If I had not come." The card represented a pastor's falling into a short sleep in his study on Christmas morning and dreaming of a world into which Jesus had never come.
   In his dream he found himself looking through his home, but there were no little stockings in the chimney corner, no Christmas bells or wreaths of holly, and no Christ to comfort, gladden and save. He walked out to the street, but there was no church with its spire pointing to Heaven. He came back and sat down in his library, but every book about the Savior had disappeared.
   The doorbell rang and a messenger asked the preacher to visit his poor, dying mother. He hastened with the weeping child, and as he reached the home he sat down and said, "I have something here that will comfort you."  He opened his Bible to look for a familiar promise, but it ended with Malachi. There was no Gospel and no promise of hope and salvation, and he could only bow his head and weep with her in bitter despair.
   Two days later he stood beside her coffin and conducted the funeral service. There was no message of consolation, no hope of heaven.

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What Children Hear

   I was reading the story of Jesus' birth to my day-care children one morning. As usual, I stopped to see if they understood.
   "What do we call the three wise men?" I asked.
   "The three maggots," replied a bright 5-year-old.
   "What gift did the Magi bring baby Jesus?" I corrected.
   "Gold, Frankensteins and smurfs!" the same 5-year-old replied.

   -- Sent in to Christian Herald by Brenda Roberts, Stone Mountain, GA.

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Mary, Mother of Jesus

  A capable journalist-author named Jim Bishop wrote a fairly reliable analysis of Jesus' birth in his book, The Day Christ Was Born. His description of Mary, the young mother-to-be, bears repeating:

      She no longer noticed the chafe of the goatskin against her
   leg, nor the sway of the food bag on the other side of the
   animal. Her veiled head hung and she saw millions of pebbles
   on the road moving by her brown eyes in a blur, pausing, and
   moving by again with each step of the animal.
      Sometimes she felt ill at ease and fatigued, but she swallowed
   this feeling and concentrated on what a beautiful baby she was
   about to have and kept thinking about it, the bathing, the
   oils, the feeding, the tender pressing of the tiny body
   against her breast -- and the sickness went away. Sometimes she
   murmured the ancient prayers and, for the moment, there was no
   road and no pebbles and she dwelt on the wonder of God and saw
   Him in a fleecy cloud at a windowless wall of an inn or a
   hummock of trees, walking backward in front of her husband,
   beckoning him on. God was everywhere. It gave Mary
   confidence to know that He was everywhere. She needed
   confidence. Mary was fifteen.
      Most young ladies of the country were betrothed at thirteen
   and married at fourteen. A few were not joined in holiness
   until fifteen or sixteen and these seldom found a choice man
   and were content to be shepherds' wives, living in caves in
   the sides of the hills, raising their children in loneliness,
   knowing only the great stars of the night lifting over hills,
   and the whistle of the shepherd as he turned to lead his
   flock to a new pasture. Mary had married a carpenter. He had
   been apprenticed by his father at bar mitzvah. Now he was
   nineteen and had his own business.

   -- From Growing Deep in the Christian Life, p. 125.

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 Love Came Down - A Christmas Parable

      A Christmas Parable
   A man is climbing a mountain, at the top of which he hopes to find God. By ascending the heights, the seeker expects to leave all the cares and miseries of life behind in the valley. But while he climbs, God is coming down the mountain into the toil and grief. In the mists of the mountain God and the man pass one another. When the man reaches the mountain top, he will find nothing. God is not there. What then will he do? He knows the climbing was a mistake, but in agony of that recognition, will he fall down and despair? Or will he turn to retrace his path through the mists and into the valley to where God has gone seeking him?
   Love came down at Christmas, but only a few perceived its coming.

   -- Christian Communications Lab

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Hymn Story - I Heard the Bells

  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was filled with sorrow at the tragic death of his wife in a fire in 1861.  The Civil War broke out that same year, and it seemed this was an additional punishment.  Two years later, Longfellow was again saddened to hear the his own son had been seriously wounded as a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac.
   Sitting down to his desk, one Christmas Day, he heard the church bells ringing, and ringing.  It was in this setting he wrote:

 I heard the bells on Christmas Day
 Their old familiar carols play
 And wild and sweet the words repeat
 Of peace on earth, good will to men.

 And in despair I bowed my head
 There is no peace on earth I said
 For hate is strong and mocks the song
 Of peace on earth, good will to men.

 Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,
 God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.
 The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
 With peace on earth, good will to men.

   At this Chirstmas time whether you are in sorrow or in joy you can know that God is not dead, not doth he sleep.  He knows your every need and longs to comfort you and be that special friend you need.  Seek Him this year instead of the outward manifestations of the season.  He will give life real meaning and your heart real peace, the peace that passes all understanding.

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