Keeping Chaos in Christmas: Santa Claus – Christian Saint or Pagan Satan?

 

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Santa Claus is “the dominate fictional character in our world. Neither Micky Mouse nor Sherlock Holmes, Ronald McDonald nor Harry Potter wields a fraction of the influence that Santa does… His image is recognized and loved all around the planet,” Dr. Gerry Bowler, history professor at the University of Manitoba, writes in his book Santa Claus: A Biography.

In our last GFTM article, Keeping the Chaos in Christmas: Pagan or Christian Celebration? A Short History of the Battle Over December 25th, we looked at what Dr. Bowler documents so well in another one of his books, Christmas in the Crosshairs. As we saw, many of the modern debates about Christmas have been going on since the beginning, including whether the celebration of Christ’s birth has been too heavily influenced by pagan folk customs. 

Of course, one can’t enter into these debates without the jolly fat man being considered either.

Where it’s difficult to trace when exactly and to what extent many of these pagan folk traditions entered the Christian celebration of Christmas, historic evidence shows us this happened after 300 AD over a period of centuries and varied from place to place as Christianity spread far and wide. (For more details, see the previous article.)

Gift-giving goes way back to the pagan festivals Christmas eventually replaced, and there is a “long association between Christmas and gift-giving” that was “long criticized by the church” for materialism and “lingering paganism.” But the popularity of these customs among the everyday people won out, and eventually the church Christianized them. Gift-giving for Christmas was linked by the church with charity to the poor and the bringing of gifts to the newborn Jesus.

Yet, the gift-giving Saint Nicholas didn’t appear until the 12th Century.

SAINT NICHOLAS, SUPER HERO SAINT

Traditions existed of gifts being delivered to children by various miraculous saints on the eves of their holy days: Saint Barbara, Saint Martin, Saint Lucia, the Wise Men, and others.

But Saint Nicholas, by far, was the most popular.

By 1,100 AD, Saint Nicholas’ popularity was rivaled only by the Virgin Mary. Saint Nicholas was “the most powerful male saint on the Church calendar: the patron of sailors, Vikings, Russians, Normans, barrel-makers, thieves, perfumers, picklers, florists, haberdashers, and many more – but especially of children.”

Little, if anything, can be said with any historical certainty about St. Nicholas. He was the bishop of Myra on the coast of modern Turkey in the early 4th Century. He allegedly died on December 6, 343 AD.

In the 12th Century, he was believed to be a magical deliverer of small gifts to kids on the eve of his day, December 6. Children prayed to him and left out their shoes to be filled with treats. But legend says he did much more than that.

He was a wonder worker of miracles; in fact, he was a darn super hero long before the first comic book was ever imagined. He rescued sailors, soldiers, children, starving people, and slaves.

He once saved three daughters from being sold into a life of prostitution by secretly delivering bags of gold to their poor father at night. Perhaps this has some truth to it as any non-super human could perform such a heroic act, but he also brought three murdered young men back from the dead after they were dismembered, shoved into barrels, and pickled! Apparently, he flew long before Superman entered the scene. He also was able to do what can only be called teleportation of both himself and others.

Clearly, he was a nurturing, passionate (super) man, but he was no wimp or pushover either. He often was portrayed as carrying a whip or rod. Children both loved and feared him. He expected children and others to keep up with their church lessons and to be moral.

My mother-in-law, who grew up in Germany, said when she was a child someone dressed as St. Nicholas visited their home. He asked her and her siblings if they had been behaving. Her father replied, “Not all of the time.” St. Nicholas then gave each of their hands a stern smack with his rod.

PROTESTING PROTESTANTS vs. ST. NICK

After the Protestant Reformation in 1517, the tradition of Saint Nicholas, along with devotion to other saints of the Catholic Church, came under fire and were banned in areas controlled by Protestants. In England, Elizabeth I in 1558 ended all Saint Nicholas related activities. In England and Scotland, gift-giving moved to New Year’s Day.

Saint Nicholas survived in eastern Europe, where the influence of the Reformation was weaker. He also survived in Holland, where there were both Catholic and Protestant areas. (It was the Dutch who would eventually bring Saint Nicolas to North America.)

Both German Catholics and Protestants replaced Saint Nicholas with a figure that was much more Bible-based: the Christ Child (das Christkindl). Thus, this moved the gift-giving from December 6 to Christmas Eve, December 24. (To read why Christmas is celebrated on December 25, see our previous article.)

But Baby Jesus just wasn’t menacing enough for parents. Parents wanted a figure that would instill some fear into their kids to help keep them in line. Saint Nicholas was benevolent but also a disciplinarian. After all, the dude carried a rod for beating children.

So, new figures started to appear who accompanied the Christ Child to substitute for Saint Nicolas’ rod. But these characters brought menacing to a whole new level! Many were downright horrifying: Aschenklaus (Nicholas in Ashes), Pelznickel or Belsnickel (Nicholas in Furs) and Ru-Klaus (Rough Nicholas), along with an “assortment of devils, witches with iron teeth, female disembowers, monstrous goats, or monks armed with switches” and Krampus, Hans Trapp, and Klabauf, who carried whips, chains, and sacks to steal away children.

Meanwhile, Catholics kids in southern Europe got the better end of the deal. They received gifts on Epiphany (January 6) from the Three Kings or the kindly good witch Befana or a “pooping log” (!?!).

THE MODERN MAKEOVER

It was not until the 1800s that our modern version of Santa Claus emerged.

In 1809, Washington Irving published a mock history called A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. This satire introduced Saint Nicholas, who the Dutch loved and still celebrated on December 6. For those outside NY, this was the first time many heard of “any flying, supernatural, nocturnal Christmas Gift-Bringer.”

One year later in 1810, John Pintard, a prominent merchant and founder of the New-York Historical Society, gave out a picture of Saint Nicholas accompanied by a poem. St. Nick was pictured as a stern-looking man in a bishop’s robe with a rod and a halo over his head. (See below.)

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More poems soon followed by others, one calling him “Sancte Claus.” In the next few years, variations of the Dutch name for Saint Nicolas, Sinterklaas, appeared in American print: Santa-claw, Santeclaus, Sandy Claw, Santiclaw, Sanctus Klaas. All were based on oral, folk traditions with slightly different takes on the gift-giving wonder worker.

In 1821, the first lithographed work in the U.S. was also the first to publish a picture of “Santeclaus.” It was titled The Children’s Friend, a poem complete with the essential modern staples for Santa Claus: gifts on Christmas Eve, a team of reindeer, snowy chimney tops. Bowler writes, “The Children’s Friend wrench[ed] Santa Clause out of his Dutch context and plac[ed] him in a winter setting appropriate to North America in December.”

A year later, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a series of poetry for his daughters and published them anonymously in the newspaper the following year, titled “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” This would become the Christmas classic familiar to many today:

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly…
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight —
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Moore ignited an explosion of interest in this Saint Nicolas. Writers and illustrators competed to add to the story. “For decades there was no one standard version of the nocturnal visitor nor even agreement as to his name,” Bowler writes.  Some names included Kriss Kringle, Belsnickel, or some variation of “Santa Claus.”

Even his size was debated. Was he a small elf, even thumb-sized, to fit down chimneys? Was he a bearded grandfatherly-type or a smooth-faced youth? Sometimes he was dressed like a Dutch peddler; at other times he was dressed like George Washington.

By 1850, his home was securely set in the Arctic where he lived with his minions, a horde of elves. In the 1860s, German American cartoonist Thomas Nast in Harper’s solidified what Santa looks like today.

In Europe, most continued to hold on to their own versions of a magical figure delivering Christmas goodies, but the harsher holdouts from the Middle Ages — Perchta the Disemboweler in central Europe; Père Fouettard and his whip in France; the demonic Krampus, who stole children in Austria; the cannibal giant Gryla in Iceland; the horrifying goat-beast Joulopukki of Scandinavia — were replaced by a considerably more kinder, gentler version of “Santa.” Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Bobbo Natale, Samiclaus, and others emerged. They all were variations of the Santa Claus theme, but all were big-hearted, grandfatherly gift-givers.

Bowler writes, “By midcentury the American Santa Claus was not only a fixture in the stories told in American homes, he was a positive boon to merchants.” Whatever else he was, this Christmas gift-bringer ended up being a business man’s dream.

READ:

Keeping Chaos in Christmas: Pagan or Christian Celebration? A Short History of December 25th

Me & My Wife VS. My Kid & St. Nick: Breaking It to a 5-Year-Old Santa Isn’t Real

 

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Keeping Chaos in Christmas: Pagan or Christian Celebration? A Short History of December 25th.

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Last Christmas season, I wrote a blog about how my wife and I decided that we would not be doing “the Santa thing” with our children. Ironically, of all the stuff I’ve posted on this blog, this turned out to be the most controversial.

The other thing that struck me with mild amusement is no one even bothered engaging with our reasons, leading me to suspect that many giving me pushback only read the title and didn’t actually read the article. Among some of the debate, the weatherbeaten topic of whether Christmas has a pagan origin arose. Again, this has nothing to do with my wife and I deciding not to perpetuate the Santa tradition with our children, but since it’s a topic of debate that often comes up, I decided it was something worth looking more deeply in to.

I recently read Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday by Gerry Bowler, who received his Ph.D. in history from King’s College in London. He’s a professor at the University of Manitoba and founding director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Contemporary Culture at Calgary’s Nazarene University College.

What Dr. Bowler’s book lays out so well is that the same debates that surround Christmas today have pretty much been going on since the beginning:

How should people celebrate the birth of Christ? Debated.

On what date was Jesus born? Debated.

Is December 25th really a pagan holiday? Debated.

Should Christians even celebrate the birth of Christ at all? Debated.

THE FIRST 3 CENTURIES

Christmas, as we celebrate it in the United States today, is a mixture of Christian and non-Christian elements. After all, the holiday is named after Christ and, regardless of when he was born, it marks the event of his birth as special. Are many of the traditions practiced during modern Christmas not based in a biblical Christian faith but instead in folk traditions from numerous cultures? Certainly. Do some of these folk traditions have pagan religious roots? It seems very likely.

If we go back to the first century to the New Testament, the earliest Christian documents we have, they never say whether Christians should celebrate the birth of Christ or not. Based on the New Testament and other historical evidence, we know what year Jesus was born, but nothing is said in the Bible about the specific month or day.

Interestingly, historic evidence tells us that several centuries passed before Christians even started celebrating the birth of Christ. The early church focused instead on the death and resurrection and imminent return of Christ. It should be noted only two of the four Gospel writers (Matthew and Luke) even included anything about Jesus’ birth in their narratives.

In the 2nd century, pagan critics like Celsus, a Greek philosopher, targeted Christianity and began mocking the virgin birth. The 2nd century also saw the rise of Gnosticism, a heresy which combined Christian beliefs with Greek philosophy. Gnostics denied that Christ truly took on flesh; it was only an illusion; he had remained spirit because the material world is, according to them, evil. At this time, Christian writers started focusing more on the birth of Christ.

By the third century, Christian writers had started speculating about when specifically Jesus was born but not particularly to celebrate it. Some favored dates in May or April, but December 25 and January 6 were dates also proposed. Though some opposed celebrating the birthday of Christ as a holy day, other evidence shows Christians started to take more interest in Christ’s day of birth.

In 312 AD, Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion in the Roman Empire, and Christians now had the freedom to partake in holy days publicly. Christ’s birth was soon being celebrated. The exact year it became widely celebrated throughout the church is not known, but a document from 354 AD called Philocalian Chronograph, a sort-of almanac, lists it as a holy day on December 25.

THE BATTLE OVER DECEMBER 25th

Why December 25th?

Here are some often-repeated theories:

THEORY #1 – As the Roman Empire transitioned from paganism to Christianity, Constantine or some other Roman or Christian leaders chose to replace a pagan holiday on December 25th with a Christian holiday.

Or

THEORY #2 – Before Christianity was legalized in 312 AD, Christians would hold their own festivities at the same time as pagan holidays to camouflage their own gatherings. This would certainly make sense during the times Christians came under severe persecution by the Roman government.

Some of the usual suspects of the original pagan holiday for December 25 are:

  • The feast of Saturnalia.
  • Brumalia, dedicated to Saturn and Bacchus.
  • The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus).
  • The birthday of the Iranian deity Mithra.
  • Some other winter solstice celebration.

PROBLEM #1 – Now, the big problem with both Theories #1 and #2 is simply this: there’s no evidence for them. Not that there’s no evidence for pagan festivals around the same time as December 25, but there’s nothing anywhere saying that Christians started celebrating Christmas during this time for one of these reasons.

Further, one telltale sign of a theory without evidence is a lack of specificity; in other words, it’s common to claim that Christmas is on December 25th because of a pagan holiday, yet (as the list above shows) no one seems able to say which holiday. In fact, the earliest evidence of anyone making this sort of argument dates from the twelve century!

PROBLEM #2 – Moreover, there’s other issues with the pagan-replacement theory. Modern scholarship says it’s quite possible that some of these pagan festivals, especially the birthday of the Unconquered Sun, were started after Christians began marking December 25 as a special day. On top of this, claims of similarities between the Iranian deity Mithra and Christ are complete fabrications, including the December 25th virgin birth of Mithra.

PROBLEM #3 – The mindset of the early church has to be taken into account. To the irk of their pagan neighbors, Christians and Jews have always been stubbornly exclusivists; they believe in only one true God and one true faith. Historical evidence tells us that “countless sermons and books by preachers and leaders of the young Church stressed the need to avoid any association with the world of idols and state cults.”

Though it appears pagan folk customs eventually intertwined with Christmas tradition over the centuries after Christianity became widely practiced, it’s highly doubtful the devout, often-persecuted early church would adopt pagan practices, especially when it was often persecuted by the surrounding pagans for not adopting their practices!

PROBLEM #4 – With this, no records from that time explaining the dating for Christmas use any of the above theories.

CHRISTIAN EXPLANATION #1 – Instead, one explanation (which seems odd to us modern folks) is the ancient idea that great men were born and died on the same date. Thus, since Jesus was crucified in late March, he may have been born around that time too. But if we start calculating at conception, the correct beginning of a life, that would put Jesus’ birth in late December.

CHRISTIAN EXPLANATION #2 – Another explanation was based on another ancient idea that the first day God created the earth was springtime, and since Jesus’ birth was comparable to the creation of the universe, the angel must have appeared to Mary to tell her she was pregnant through the Holy Spirit on March 25. Then, nine months later, Jesus was born in December.

CHRISTIAN EXPLANATION #3 – Some calculations for Jesus’ birth resulting in the December 25th date start with the account in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, of John the Baptist’s miraculous conception. His conception took place when John’s father, Zechariah, was serving in the Temple at their tribe’s appointed time. By examining the tribal duty roster found in the Old Testament, it was concluded John was born on June 25th. Luke records Mary, Jesus’ mother, visited John’s mother, Elizabeth, in the 6th month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. So, December 25th fits once again.

At the same time, other Christian churches adopted January 6th to mark Christmas or “Epiphany,” including Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Antioch. This date may have been chosen because they used a different dating system and/or calculated the date of Easter differently than the West. Eventually, some of these churches adopted the December date as well, but some Eastern churches still adhere to January 6th today.

In 529 AD, Emperor Justinian made December 25th a national holiday. As centuries past, December 25 to January 6 became the Twelve Days of Christmas and the Advent season also developed.

Bowler observes astutely, “For whatever reason the Roman church chose December 25 as the date on which to celebrate the Nativity, it was a momentous decisions that would cause centuries of controversy and conflict.”

GROWTH INTO A SPECTACLE

Bowler writes, “From the 300s on, the observance surrounding the celebration of the Nativity became more laden with rituals, art, and music, until it grew into the second holiest day on the Christian calendar.”

Just as the debate about December 25th continues until this day, the debate about how to celebrate the birth of Christ (as well as the role of pagan traditions in celebrating) stretch from ancient times until now.

For whatever reason December 25th was chosen, it has proven to be troublesome.

For one, preventing a co-mingling of the traditions proved difficult with Christmas being celebrated around the same time as the pagan midwinter celebrations, especially if you consider that after Emperor Constantine, Christianity went from a small group of devout followers to a very large group with many nominal followers.

Arguments were made that Christians should not celebrate the birth of their Lord and Savior as the pagans celebrate. This didn’t just mean not adopting pagan folk traditions, like decorating with greenery; this meant not doing things to excess – excessive eating, excessive gift-giving (or excessive expectations of gifts), excessive drinking. Times haven’t changed all that much. Some argued Christians should mark this holy day not by greed but by fasting and charity.

Eventually, many church leaders recognized they couldn’t stop the masses from practicing the customs they loved so. Thus, instead of banning them, they Christianized them. Certain pagan and folk traditions, as long as they didn’t conflict with Scripture, were claimed for Christ. They were re-branded and given new meaning connected to the Christian message.

But, as you’re well aware, the debate never ended.

Where much of the Christian/pagan debate about Christmas today has to do with grumpy atheists and non-Christians using the pagan argument to discredit Christmas, most of the arguing back then was Christians against Christians, pretty much making the same exact arguments. Likewise, some Christians in the early church protested against the materialism surrounding Christmas, imploring people to essentially “Keep Christ in Christmas.”

Jump to much later in history: by 1500 AD, Christmas celebrations were “solidly entrenched in western European cultures” with much variety and many of the familiar traditions and attitudes we associate with Christmas today, as well as many of the same troublesome excesses.

Yet, over time, Christmas became so marked by drunken chaos that Christmas in some places was all-out banned.

For a period, Christmas became much like St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. today; the celebration had nothing to do with the holy person it was honoring; it was simply an excuse to act like drunken idiots. This banning of Christmas happened primarily after the Protestant Reformation (1517 AD) when there was no separation of church and state, such as by the Puritans and other Calvinists. No surprise there. The Enlightenment didn’t help either.

Christmas became thought of as a time of debauchery celebrated only by the lower classes. Any notion of holiness or religion vanished for the most part. No one was keeping the “Christ” is Christmas.

But Christmas would survive near-extinction and become the most celebrated holiday of all time that we know today.

Not surprising, this re-branding started in the United States. In the 1800s, a group of New York poets, illustrators, and writers helped make Christmas into what Americans know it as today: a domestic, child-friendly holiday.

One of these writers was Washington Irving, who introduced his readers to Saint Nicholas. In 1821, William Gilley published The Children’s Friend, the first to print a picture of our modern idea of Santa Claus. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote those famous words, “‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house…”

Around this same time in England, old carols were being rediscovered and new ones were being written. Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol (one of my all-time favorite stories) in 1843, which “helped turn Victorian Christmas into a crusade against selfishness and greed” and “reunited the English Christmas with Christianity.” Christmas cards were invented in London in that same year. The royal family had a big influence too. Prince Albert, who had a German background, and Queen Victoria modeled Christmas as a family-oriented celebration with Christmas trees and roasted turkey.

Eventually, Christmas wiggled itself back into those stuffy Protestant churches because the common folk wanted it: “Christmas returned to Protestant church life because the rank and file of membership wanted it. It made its way against official opposition in many denominations until there was so many local groups celebrating December twenty-fifth as the birthday of Jesus that opposition was futile and indifference impossible.”

All this conflict has been over the birthday of the Prince of Peace. If nothing else, that should cause us pause. And we didn’t even touch on Santa yet.

NEXT: The History of Santa: Christian Saint or Pagan Satan?

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Who Jesus Ain’t: Learn more HERE.

 

Me & My Wife VS. My Kid & St. Nick: Breaking It to a 5-Year-Old Santa Isn’t Real

My wife and I decided a while ago that we would not perpetuate the myth of Santa Claus in our family. Feel free to start judging us now as crazy Christians who yell about the “war-on-Christmas,” yet long before I was a Christian, back when I still considered myself an atheist, I found this cultural tradition of lying to our children about an old man who comes down our chimneys strange.

Forever vivid in my head, right down to the inflection in her voice and her angry little face, is the memory of when we broke the news to my younger sister that the big guy with the white beard was all make-believe: “You lied to me!” It was part incredulous question and part harsh condemnation.

St NicolasNow, to be perfectly transparent, it’s not just that my wife and I think that this culturally permissible fabrication is a bit weird, but that it could also be potentially damaging to our children’s faith in God. I remember wrestling with the idea of Santa Claus as an elementary school student. How did Santa deliver all those gifts in just one night – even taking into account time zones? Why did my mom lock herself in her bedroom to wrap gifts for so long and then in the morning only one gift under the tree was from her and my dad? Something odd was afoot.

One of the reasons I continued to believe was I couldn’t comprehend why my parents would lie about such a thing to me.

It’s not difficult to imagine the train-of-thought from there: If my parents would lie to me about some silly guy bringing me gifts (or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth-fairy or – the most diabolical! – the Elf-on-the-Shelf) maybe this whole God thing is a big, fake story too. I can’t say the Santa Claus myth had any direct connection to my skepticism about Christ, but sometime in middle school I found myself questioning the truth of the Bible like I did the truth of Santa years before. Having no one to answer my questions, my hard agnosticism lasted into my thirties.

This Christmas season is the first year our five-year-old son is talking a lot about Santa Claus. So, I did it. I said, “Well, you know, Santa isn’t real…” I said it’s okay to like Santa, the same way you like Batman, but it’s mommy and daddy who give you gifts on Christmas. He thought about it but didn’t have much to say at that moment, but he still talks about Santa daily. And perhaps my wife and I have been overdoing it a bit because one time when he brought up St. Nick and I reminded him he isn’t real, he responded with a tone I’ve only heard teenagers use: “I know, daddy.” I wasn’t looking at him because I was driving, but I think he might’ve even rolled his eyes.

But, the thing is, after the first time I told him that Santa is fiction, I suddenly realized I had totally overlooked something important: I, then, adamantly made clear that he wasn’t to tell other kids this. It was okay for them to believe in Santa. Five-year-olds aren’t known for keeping secrets, and I suddenly pictured my kid ruining Christmas for tons of his friends and their parents hating me forever.

Yet, I haven’t had to worry about this, not because my son is the model of Christ-like obedience to his father, but because my son doesn’t believe me. He sides with his friends. Apparently, they’re having fiery discussions about this. More often than not, after picking him up from daycare, my wife and I are told something like, “Martina says Santa is real” like we’re fools for doubting.

 

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Next to nothing can be known historically about the real St. Nicolas. One popular story among theology nerds (ironically, despite Nicolas’ unchristian behavior) has him slapping the heretic Arius at the council of Nicea. Unlike the real St. Nicolas, we can be quite sure historically about Jesus.

With over 2,600 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, we can be confident the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life have been passed on to us without corruption. Within the New Testament, we find early confessions of faith that predate the writing of the New Testament. Immediately after the writing of the New Testament, we have the witness of the early church fathers. We even have first and early second century non-Christian writings about Jesus. The historical argument for the life, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus is a surprisingly strong one. Perhaps I need to explain this all to my five-year-old instead of arguing about Santa Claus.

Maybe it’s too soon for him to grasp historical arguments, but where I have had success is by teaching him little truths about our Christian faith. He can paraphrase Jesus’ “golden rule” (Matt 7:12) and the “two greatest commandments” (Matt 22:36-40), and he can recite John 14:6. My five-year-old can even define the Trinity.  I may be losing the battle against Santa, but if nothing else, when I ask my son why we celebrate Christmas, he promptly answers, “Jesus’ birthday.”

 

Annual Christmas Comic 2015! Merry Christmas from GFTM!

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

Merry Christmas!

–Steve & GFTM Blog

Click on the comic to enlarge it….

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Read past Christmas comics: 2014, 2013+, Early 2000’s

New from GFTM Blog: Available in paperback for $9.00 (or less) and Kindle version for $3.50 (or less) on Amazon. Or learn more here.

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Christmas Comic 2014! Merry Christmas from GFTM Blog!

Here is my annual Christmas comic for 2014!

No king but Christ, and the King is born!  Merry Christmas!

–Steve & GFTM Blog

Click on the comic to enlarge it….

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Christmas Comics from past years: Click HERE and HERE!

Articles:

Christmas in the Old (Yes, Old) Testament

Christmas According to History

Christmas According to an English Teacher

Jesus Ain’t Born on December 25th

How We Know About Jesus

Is There Evidence of Jesus Outside the Bible?

GOD FROM THE MACHINE has published it’s first book! Searching the Bible for Mother God is for educating both those outside and inside the growing “Mother God cult.” Visit our page HERE.

Christmas in the Old (Yes, Old) Testament

What can we learn about Christmas from the Old Testament? Are the passages Matthew cites really about Jesus? What is typology?

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What can we learn about Christmas from the Old Testament?

Since it’s Christmas time, it’s a good time to read through the birth narrative of Jesus as told by Matthew, comprising of only two short chapters of his Gospel. (Go ahead and do it right now. I’ll wait!)

In Matthew 1:1, Matthew calls Jesus “the son of David, the son of Abraham” and then goes on to give us Jesus’ genealogy. This is important for Matthew’s readers to know because all Jews knew the Messiah would be a descendent of Abraham and King David. Matthew is often called the “most Jewish” Gospel because Matthew is clearly concerned with showing that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and the fulfillment of the Jewish Scripture.

Thus, to truly understand Jesus, we need to understand the Old Testament (OT), and this is exactly why the writers of the New Testament (NT) constantly refer back to the OT. In fact, Matthew does this more than any other Gospel writer.

When reading the Christmas story in Matthew 1-2, you’ll notice that Matthew references the OT four different times in this short narrative – four references to four different OT prophets: Isaiah, Micah, Hosea, and Jeremiah. But when we turn to the OT to read these passages, we run into some problems: It’s not so clear they’re about Jesus!

So, let’s look at these passages more closely and see what the Old Testament tells us about the first Christmas.

Bethlehem Christmas. Star in night sky above Mary and Joseph

Matthew 2:15 / Hosea 11:1

After Jesus’ birth, Joseph, Mary, and the newborn Jesus flee to Egypt to escape the persecution of Herod, and they would not return until after Herod’s death. Matthew tells us this was to fulfill what the LORD had spoken in Hosea 11:1:

“Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Now, when we turn to Hosea 11:1 and read the context of the passage, we run in to a problem: this passage is not a prediction about Jesus! In fact, it’s not about the Messiah at all! Hosea is clearly speaking about the nation of Israel, and the line “Out of Egypt I called my son” is clearly referring to the Exodus, when God liberated Israel from slavery under Pharaoh.

What’s going on here? How does Jesus “fulfill” something not even about him?

Often, when we think of prophets and “fulfillment,” we think of prophets making specific Nostradamus-like predictions about the future and those predictions coming true. Though these types of predictions do occur in the Bible, often this is not the type of “fulfillment” the NT writers have in mind. What they have in mind is something called typology.

What is typology? Events, persons, or institutions that become patterns – that “echo” throughout God’s redemptive history as recorded in Scripture – are called types. These types or patterns are seen throughout Scripture and foreshadow a future, ultimate fulfillment, called an antitype.

For example, the Passover lamb and the Jewish sacrificial system are types that point forward to Jesus’ sacrificial death for the sins of the world. Jesus’ death (the antitype) fulfills the purpose of the Passover lamb and the OT sacrifices (the types).

When Matthew refers to OT verses like Hosea 11:1 and says they were “fulfilled,” he is speaking of typology. Here, he isn’t saying Jesus fulfilled specific predictions about the Messiah, but that Jesus is the fulfillment of a pattern seen throughout God’s redemptive plan. After all, Jesus says in Matthew 5:17,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

To illustrate, Israel is often referred to as “God’s son,” but Jesus is considered the true Israel because he is God’s true Son. Just like God liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt, Matthew is telling us that Jesus is the new Exodus, because through Jesus, God will liberate us from our slavery to sin. Scholar R.T. France writes in his commentary on Matthew that the Exodus is a powerful symbol of “the even greater work of deliverance” which God will accomplish through Jesus Christ.

What Matthew is doing by using these OT passages is pointing us to the prophets’ larger message. This connection to the larger story of the Bible would not have been lost on his original Jewish audience as it is often lost on us today. Usually, we’re only looking at the little details; we want to know how this one NT verse fulfills this one OT verse, yet we miss the big picture Matthew is painting.

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Matthew 2:18 / Jeremiah 31:15

Now, let’s keep in mind what was just said about typology and fulfillment as we look at Matthew’s use ofJeremiah 31:15:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Matthew uses this OT reference after he reports that Herod killed all of the male children age two-years-old and younger in Bethlehem. Again, we run into a similar problem as before: This section of Jeremiah is about the Babylonian exile; it has nothing to do with the Messiah! The Babylonian Empire had conquered Jerusalem and destroyed their Temple, and now the Jews were being deported to Babylon.

This is a catastrophic event for the Jewish people. What’s worse is that they brought it upon themselves. Since their rebellion against God had become so great, God withdrew his protection and allowed this to happen to Israel.

Typologically, we can say the suffering of children due to evil is certainly a pattern we see in Scripture. But is Matthew pointing us to Jeremiah to make a bigger point? I certainly think so.

Despite the messages of God’s judgment and wrath, this section of Jeremiah is not one of gloom and punishment, but one of hope and restoration. I recommend you read the whole chapter of Jeremiah 31 to see.

If nothing else, take note that shortly after the verse Matthew quotes, we’re told of the coming “new covenant” (31:31) where God “…will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people… For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (31:33-34)

Clip Art Illustration of a Silhouette of the Three Wise Men Foll

Matthew 2:6 / Micah 5:2

Matthew Chapter 2 begins with the story of the magi, who come looking for the new king of the Jews. When they inquire in Jerusalem, Herod goes to the chief priests and scribes and asks where this new king will be born. Matthew tells us:

They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (2:5-6)

Finally, we have an undeniable prediction about the future Messiah (and one written approximately 700 years before Christ)! This passage, Micah 5:2, clearly speaks of a future leader coming from Bethlehem, and Jews have always understood Micah 5:2 to be about the Messiah. But is there even more to this passage than that?

It’s safe to say that when most of us think of the prophets, we think of messages of doom and gloom for Israel, but often – maybe even more than we realize – during their tirades we find messages of a future hope. Often these messages of hope include God’s future restoration of his people, his protection of his faithful remnant, and sometimes even words about a mysterious future leader.

Micah 5 speaks of this new ruler and a new peace. He will be born in Bethlehem (like Jesus) and from the tribe of Judah (like Jesus) and he will come from “of old, from ancient days,” a reference to the covenant God made with King David in 2 Samuel 7:12-13:

“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”

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Matthew 1:23 / Isaiah 7:14

To end, we come to perhaps the most hotly debated prophecy in the Bible. Matthew tells us Mary, an unwed virgin, finds herself “to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (1:18), and Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14, telling us:

“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel’

(which means, God with us).”

Some of the controversy concerning Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 has to do with the word “virgin.” In the ancient Hebrew of Isaiah, the word could be translated “young woman.” A young woman is not particularly a virgin, some argue; yet, it’s a weak argument since the word is understood to refer to an unmarried, sexually chaste maiden.

Moreover, why would Isaiah not write the much more commonly-used Hebrew words for “woman” or “wife” if there was nothing unique about his woman? Instead, he chose to use a word scholar R.T. France describes as “unusual” and rarely used in the OT. (Furthermore, Matthew, under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, used the Greek word that undeniably means “virgin”!)

But there is another problem with Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14. This passage doesn’t seem to be about the far future; the “son” which is to come seems to be coming during the time period of Isaiah’s writing. Frankly, the passage is perplexing. Yet, again, our understanding of typology helps us here: If this passage does, in fact, refer to a child other than the Messiah, this child is a foreshadow of the coming Christ.

If this is not a satisfying answer for you, then we only have to ask again, Why does Matthew point us to this particular Scripture? We only have to read a little farther in Isaiah to Chapter 9 to find out. Here, we again come across a child born, and this time it is clear whom this child is:

“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (9:6)

Amen! Grace and Peace and Merry Christmas!

This post appears in longer form in the GFTM-published book Who Jesus Ain’t, available on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.

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Here are some other Christmas-related articles on GFTM blog:

Christmas According to History

Christmas According to an English Teacher

Jesus Ain’t Born on December 25th

Jesus Ain’t Born to Privilege

Christmas Comics!

More Christmas Comics!

GOD FROM THE MACHINE has published it’s first book! Searching the Bible for Mother God is for educating and evangelizing those in the growing “Mother God cult.” Visit our page HERE.