KEEPING CHRISTMAS IN THE CLASSROOM
by B. Jane Kulp
The Constitution does not prohibit public schools from recognizing and celebrating the Christmas holiday. The Establishment Clause is not violated by teaching students about Christmas (its origins and why it is celebrated) because social studies is meant to present the historical background and the cultural importance of all events throughout the history of the world. Having a class Christmas party is also not a violation of the Establishment Clause since Christmas is a cultural and national holiday as well as a religious one. Similarly, the use of symbols of Christmas in the classroom does not violate the Establishment Clause because "such symbols are displayed as an example of the cultural and religious heritage of the holiday and are temporary in nature."
Notice that the emphasis in these rulings is on cultural significance, social heritage, and historical development – not the religious aspects of the holiday. As a public employee, Christians teaching in a public school classrooms must make sure that lessons, decorations, parties, etc. pass the two-prong "Lemon Test." First, a secular purpose must be obvious and should be clearly stated in the teacher’s plan book. The focus must be on education, no celebration. Second, the principal or primary effect of the instruction or event must neither advance nor inhibit religious belief. The approach must be strictly academic, not devotional; objective study, not indoctrination.. To meet these criteria effectively -- to prayerfully fit Christmas into a secular lesson plan without "preaching" or proselytizing – a Christian teacher needs to understand certain basic facts about Christmas such as the origin of the holiday, the symbols of the holiday, and the traditions of the holiday. Satan has planted many lies about Christmas in the hearts and minds of godly people. He is doing his best to turn Christians away from remembering the Savior. What better place for him to attack than the public schools which train the next generation. Christian teachers must do their best to honor God during the holiday season by getting rid of evil distortions and by teaching the facts. This article will hopefully clear up some of the confusion concerning the origins, symbols, and traditions of Christmas and inspire public school teachers to keep Christmas in the classroom.
Origin of Christmas
The word "Christmas" is not found in the Bible, it is not a "feast day" established or commanded by God, and it was not celebrated during the apostolic or early-church periods. However, records do indicate that as early as 200 A.D. Christians in Egypt had begun to set aside a day for celebrating the birth of Christ. In other areas of the known world, other groups of Christians were also setting aside days on their calendars to commemorate events in the life of Christ – especially His death and resurrection, and then eventually His birth.
Since no record of the date of Jesus’ birth was noted in either religious or historical accounts, early Christians could not agree on times to celebrate. Some of those which appear in early records are January 2, May 20, March 28, April 18 or 19, and January 6 or 7. In 336 A.D. the recently-converted emperor Constantine declared December 25 to be the birthday of Christ. In 354 A.D. the leaders of the Roman church, instituted "The Feast of the Nativity" to be celebrated on December 25. Since that time December 25th has been recognized world-wide as a Christian holiday or "holy day." The choice of December 25 by Constantine probably came from the calculations of Hippolytus in his commentary on Daniel. Hippolytus, who died about 236 A.D., was the most important theologian and the most prolific religious writer of the Roman church in the era before the emperor Constantine. He believed that from the conception to the crucifixion of Jesus was exactly thirty-three years, and that both these events took place on March 25. Therefore he determined if the conception was on March 25, then the birth, nine months later, fell on December 25. Although there are obvious fallacies to that theory, today Roman Catholics and most Protestants continue to adhere to the December 25 date. However, the Eastern Orthodox church holds to January 6, and the Armenian church observes January 19.
Some people believe that December 25th was an unfortunate choice for the church to adhere to. December 25th had already been a day of celebration for more than 2000 years before the birth of Christ. It was not a Jewish holy day, but a pagan festival. The decorated evergreen trees, wreaths, mistletoe, holly berries, candles, yule log, exchanging gifts, etc. were all part of ancient winter solstice festivals. In Rome at that time, December 25 was celebrated as a feast to the sun-god and was called "The Birthday of the Sun." They believed the sun-god died on December 21 (the shortest day of the year) and then rose from the dead three days later. They celebrated December 25 because it was the first day they could observe the days becoming longer proving that the sun-god was alive.
The church at Roman struggled to keep believers from turning back to pagan practices. It is probable that Liberius designated December 25 as "The Feast of the Nativity" in an attempt to counteract the influence of the pagan Roman feast. Under Old Testament law God’s people were forbidden to worship the sun (Deuteronomy 4:19), and Christians needed an alternative to keep them from the allure of the pagan festivities. Besides, followers of the Way could truthfully assert that Jesus is "the true Light" (John 1:9)...He is the "Sun of righteousness" (Malachi 4:2); therefore, December 25 should rightfully honor Him. Through "The Feast of the Nativity" the people of Rome were urged to turn from sun-worship to Son-worship, adoration of Christ the Lord. The actual term "Christmas" did not come into being until about 1038 A.D. It comes from the Old English "Cristes Maesse" (Latin, "Christus Misi") which literally means "Christ Sent.".
Because Christmas was neither authorized by God nor instituted by the apostles, some Bible scholars argue that it is not a legitimate Christian holiday. However, God does not stop His people from celebrating in His Name not forbid them to honor Him in special ways. The praise of His people is pleasing in His sight. Also, there is an interesting scriptural precedent for God’s people creating their own feast day. Scripture records "the Jews who were in all the provinces of the king, Ahasuerus" instituted the Jewish holiday of Purim in remembrance of God’s intervention to save His people from the evil plans of Haman. Purim was to be two days of "feasting and joy, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor." Purim was to be observed annually and the tradition handed down from generation to generation so that "these days of Purim should not fall into disuse among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed" (Esther 9:19-32). The Jewish people still celebrate Purim to this very day. Had God not approved of His people establishing a feast of remembrance, He would not have included this specific example in His Word.
Christmas is an annual time for celebration, joy, exchanging gifts, and giving to the poor as Christians remember the day God sent his Son to earth to save His people from the evil plans of Satan. The methods of celebration have varied over the years, and some traditions are more acceptable today than they were in times gone by simply because the unsavory associations are no longer prevalent. Christians throughout history have needed to guard themselves, and each other, against allowing worldly influences to overshadow their celebration of Christ’s birth. For example, the church at Rome sternly reproved newly converted Christians who thoughtlessly continued using the external symbols of the sun-worship festival (i.e., as evergreens, holly, mistletoe, etc.). Although the two holidays shared the same date, the Church insisted they must be celebrated differently. It was a necessary distinction for that day and age.
Over the years there have even been several attempts to abolish Christmas because the celebration was not kept "pure" from pagan influences. For instance, the Pilgrims and Puritans who sailed to America in the 17th century cited Christmas as one of the reasons they wanted to break away from the Church of England. In the Massachusetts Colony where they settled they unsuccessfully tried to ban Christmas because of what they perceived as its "heathenism." As a matter of fact, Christmas did not become legal in Massachusetts until 1856. Interestingly, for 67 years, beginning in 1789, the United States Congress made it a point to convene in session on December 25 in order to show national disapproval of Christmas. During the early 1800's Christmas was frowned upon in most of America, and virtually all American Protestant churches forbade celebration of the holiday. Even today there are some religious groups which do not celebrate Christmas, such as the Worldwide Church of God (before its recent conversion to Evangelical Christianity) and the Johavah's Witnesses. However, not even the strictest laws could prevent devoted Christians from finding ways to celebrate the Savior’s birth. By the middle of the 1800's the modern Christmas was beginning to take shape.
Celebrating Christmas is not a sin. However, for a Christian to celebrate Christmas in the wrong spirit would be a sin. "Whatever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him" (Colossians 3:17). Since Christmas is not commanded by God, Christians are free to decide whether to celebrate or not to celebrate. Christians who choose to celebrate this holiday should be careful to maintain the proper focus so that they bring honor and glory to God and provide a testimony to the world. "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). Christmas is a wonder-filled feast of remembrance, a memorial of God intervening in the lives of mankind. Praising and thanking God for the gift of His Son is certainly beautiful worship in the sight of God. That is the true spirit of Christmas.
Symbols of Christmas
98% of the people in the United States today celebrate Christmas on December 25 -- non-Christians as well as Christians -- using old symbols and traditions which have been handed down from generation to generation. For non-Christians, Christmas is just a fun winter holiday -- the symbols and traditions have no real meaning for them. However, Christians who want to truly celebrate Christ’s birth, must plan their celebration carefully and prayerfully. Age-old symbols must be examined to be sure they now have Christ-centered significance. If not, they must be eliminated. Likewise, new Christian decorations (i.e. angels, manger, shepherds, wise men, etc.) which tell the gospel message must be included to make this a truly holy day, a time honoring to God. God’s children must be very careful that they "have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man, that is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him" (Colossians 3:10).
Sadly, Christians are sometimes criticized for giving biblical significance where worldly symbolism is the norm; but such criticism needs to be recognized as an attack from Satan. Any symbol is nothing more than what the user makes of it. On the night of Christ’s birth, God took a common, pagan symbol – the star – and turned it into a beautiful symbol for Christianity. When God created the sun, moon, and stars, He said, "Let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years" (Genesis 1:14). When He sent his Son to earth, He chose a star to be the "sign" which would cause wise men in all areas of the world to come to worship Him. The foolish of the world – the pagans and heathens – would continue to worship the stars, planets, sun, and moon; but wise men who looked to the heavens would praise the Creator and seek to worship the One who is "the bright and morning star" (Revelation 22:16).
There is nothing "pagan" about stars, holly, evergreens, ivy, etc. God created them. They existed before paganism. There is nothing "heathen" about bells, candles, or ornaments which sparkle and are shaped like fruit or flowers. God included similar decorations in his designs of the tabernacle and the temple. Symbols only become "pagan" or "heathen" when the wrong connotation is attached to them. As Christians celebrate Christmas, the decorations displayed in their homes should give testimony to the true Reason for this season of joy. The same is true for decorations displayed in a Christian teacher’s classroom. More importantly Christians need to be prepared to explain the godly meaning behind every symbol they use. Here is a synopsis of the most popular symbols:
Christmas Tree: Evergreens traditionally symbolize immortality or eternal life. Interestingly, a majority of high court justices have stated that a Christmas tree is a secular display. Despite their judgment, for the Christian an evergreen tree represents the promise of eternal life made possible through the gift of God’s Son. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). The vertical shape pointing toward heaven reminds Christians to focus on the Source of all good things. "For every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights" (James 1:17). The triangular outline of the tree symbolizes the Trinity. Most importantly the tree reminds Christians that the Christ child came to die on Calvary’s tree and take away the sins of the world. Jesus told Pilate, "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world" (John 18:37).
Wreath: The evergreen boughs used to create the wreath symbolize eternal life. The circular shape represents the love of God which has no beginning and no end. "I have loved thee with an everlasting love" (Jeremiah 31:3). It also is a reminder that God is eternal. "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty" (Revelation 1:8). For some believers the wreath is also brings to mind the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head by the Roman soldiers when they ridiculed Him as "king of the Jews" (John 19:1-3).
Color Red: Red is the color of blood and symbolizes life-giving powers. Red often represents strength, action, vitality, and passion (i.e. Cupid and hearts). However, it can also represent negative powers such as anger, danger, and evil (i.e., the Devil). For Christians, red represents the blood of Christ, "the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). Red reminds God’s children of the power in the life of "his dear Son; in whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins; who is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation" (Colossians 1:13-15). Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth because of what He accomplished through His death. That is the focus He told His disciples to maintain. "This do in remembrance of me," He said; and He gave them bread and wine as an example of symbols for His body and His blood (Luke 22:19).
Color Green: Green symbolizes immortality, eternal life, and hope. For Christians it represents "the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:7) provided by the Christ child. "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life" (John 3:36). "And this is the promise that he hath promised us, even eternal life" (1 John 2:25).
Color White, Snow, Snowflakes: White is the symbol of purity. For Christians it represents the forgiveness of sins made possible through Christ’s death on the Cross. Through faith in His birth, death, and resurrection sinners are purified "even as he is pure" (1 John 3:3). The Bible uses snow as a symbol of a clean heart that has been washed in the blood of the Lamb. "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow" (Isaiah 1:18). "Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow" (Psalm 51:7).
Color Gold: Gold (or yellow) is the symbol of light and glory. For those who believe in Christ it represents Jesus "the true Light" (John 1:9) who "was made flesh and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father)" (John 1:14). Gold also reminds Christians of heaven, the golden city with streets of pure gold where there is "no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it; for the glory of God did light it, and the Lamb is the lamp of it" (Revelation 21:23).
Candles and Lights: Traditionally, candles symbolize an individual’s life force – the light he or she offers to the world. In Bible times "candles," or lamps, were lit by a wick in oil. Wax candles and electric lights are substitutions for those lamps. For Christians, candles are an image of Christ, His purity, and the salvation He offers humanity. Jesus said, "I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life" (John 8:12). The flame represents His divine or spiritual nature and the candle symbolizes His human or fleshly nature.
Tinsel: Tinsel is a mand-made representation of icicles. Icicles are a natural tree ornament created by God. Because tinsel glitters, it also is a symbol of light. For two delightful Christian legends about tinsel go to http://www.santas.net/tinsel.htm .
Red Bows: A length of ribbon tied into a bow symbolizes unity or brotherhood. Christmas bows are red to remind Christians they are all one big family united through the blood of Jesus Christ. "For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus....There is neither Jew not Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:26, 28). Because faith in the work of the Savior is the uniting factor, this "family tie" also points to Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection. "When the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons" (Galatians 4:4-5).
Birds: Birds historically symbolize good luck and good fortune. They also have religious symbolism as being biblical messengers that bring God's love and peace to the world. The dove is especially meaningful at Christmas because it is the universal symbol of peace and innocence. Jesus told His disciples to be "wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). Ever since a dove released from the Ark by Noah returned with an olive branch to show that the Biblical flood was over, the dove has symbolized deliverance and God's forgiveness. More importantly, for Christians, the dove represents the indwelling Holy Spirit. "And he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him" (Matthew 3:16). Although doves are traditionally white, because the Holy Spirit also appeared as fire on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:3-4), some Christians also decorate with doves which are the color of fire (red).
Fruits, especially Apples: Christians see flowers and fruits as a natural tree ornaments created by God. Traditionally the flowers and fruits symbolize a fruitful or productive life. However, for the Christian a tree filled with fruit represents the tree of paradise and the eternal hope. This custom relates back to Germany and a popular play called the Paradise Play which was about Adam and Eve. The play featured a pyramid-shaped Paradise Tree which was originally decorated with apples but later other fruits were also added. "In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bore twelve kinds of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month" (Revelation 22:2). Even today, the apple is the fruit most favored as an ornament at Christmas. The apple is a reminder of why Christ came. When an apple is cut in half across the middle, five seeds are revealed, forming the shape of a star. Traditionally a perfect star inside the apple symbolized good luck, but an imperfect star symbolized misfortune or illness. For Christians the hidden star represents the first promise of a Savior and the curse placed on the serpent in Eden. "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel" (Genesis 3:15).
Colored "Balls" or "Baubles": First created in Germany, and brought to America in 1880 by F. W. Woolworth, "baubles" are man-made replicas of the fruits and flowers originally used to decorate a Christmas tree. Usually these ornaments are made of glass or a shiny material which reflects light, thus serving the added purpose of enhancing the effect of nearby candles or lights.
Stars: Stars are a common ornament in the history of the world as well as in religion. They symbolize great multitudes, heavenly favor, wisdom, guides, watchers, and aspirations. Twenty-five percent of the world’s flags have stars on them. In Revelation 1:16 and 20, stars represent angels or messengers. A star placed at the very top of the Christmas tree recalls the one seen by the three wise men "in the East" at the time of Jesus’ birth, the star that "went before them till it came and stood over where the young child was" (Matthew 2:2, 9). For Christians, especially at Christmas time, stars also represent Christ. He was "the bright and morning star" (Revelation 22:16), who fulfilled the prophecy, "There shall come a Star out of Jacob. . .out of Jacob shall he come who shall have dominion" (Numbers 24:17-19). "In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness overcame it not" (John 1:4-5).
Musical Instruments: Psalteries and harps, cymbals and tambourines, flutes and trumpets (strings, percussion, and wind instruments) have been used in worship almost since the beginning of mankind. Genesis 4:21 lists Jubal, son of Lamech, as the inventor of the harp and flute (pipe). Because Jubal was a descendent of Cain, some people consider musical instruments to be evil. However, David was also an inventor of musical instruments (see 1 Chronicles 23:5 and Nehemiah 12:36), and he was a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). God does not consider instruments as evil. The evil is in the ungodly music which some people create with the instruments. When the Levites and the priests sang praise to the Lord with the accompaniment of musical instruments, the Shekinah-glory filled the newly-completed Temple (2 Chronicles 5:12-13). For Christians, musical instruments symbolize the joy, celebration, praise, and worship of the Lord. Musical instruments used as ornaments seem to echo the words of the Levite and priests, "For he is good; for his mercy endureth forever" (2 Chronicles 5:13).
Bells: The ringing of bells traditionally heralded "glad tidings" or good news; although they might also be used to signal death or warning. God instructed the Israelites to put golden bells around the hem of the robe on the High Priest. "His sound shall be heard when he goeth in unto the holy place before the LORD and when he cometh out, that he die not" (Exodus 28:35). For Christians, bells represent the sound of the gospel of Christ in the world. For hundreds of years church bells in Christian lands have rung each Sunday morning to call the faithful to worship. At Christmas, bells ring out the good news that Jesus Christ is born.
Chrismons: Perhaps the newest form of Christmas tree ornament, Chrismons originated in the United States and are not associated with any pagan celebration of ages past. The word Chrismon is a combination of the words "Christ" and "monogram." Every Chrismon is any emblem or symbol used by Christians to teach or symbolically relay messages about salvation (i.e., crowns, crosses, doves, fish, anchor, butterfly, etc.). Many of the symbols date back to the origin of the church in the first century A.D. Most Chrismons are white and have gold decorations made from beads, ribbon, glitter, etc. White is the liturgical color for Christmas and suggests purity and joy. Gold is a color for kings and represents the glory and majesty of God.
Some people believe that the concept of a Chrismon Tree began George Pass, a Lutheran pastor, in 1940. He began making decorations for his own Christmas tree that were symbols about Jesus Christ, and the meaning of Christmas. According to other sources, Frances Kipps Spencer, decorating the Christmas tree at a Lutheran Church in Danville, Virginia, in 1957 first developed Chrismons and gave them their name. Mrs. Spencer assigned the copyright for the name "Chrismon" to her church with the added stipulation that Chrismons may not be sold for profit. Therefore, Christian families will find patterns in books or on the internet, but Chrismons are not sold in stores.
Holly: Holly is an evergreen which symbolizes eternal life. The early Christians of Northern Europe adopted holly as a symbol of the burning bush that appeared to Moses, and as a symbol of the burning love for God present in the hearts of the faithful. For many believers, the prickly leaves and the berries like drops of blood also became another reminder of the bloody crown of thorns that the Christ Child was destined to wear.
Mistletoe: Mistletoe was traditionally a symbol of love and fertility. Today it is used as a symbol of the love and peace of Christmas. A kiss under the mistletoe is a pledge of friendship and love. Even in pagan times when enemies happened to meet under the mistletoe, they would pledge a truce until the following day. Mistletoe was also thought to have healing powers. The Druids and Celts called the plant "all-heal." Christians today consider mistletoe to be an appropriate symbol for Christ, the Divine Healer.
Traditions of Christmas
Many of the customs, or traditions, of Christmas have been handed down from generation to generation. In the "melting pot" culture of America, there is a blend of customs which have come from many lands – Germany, Netherlands, England, Russia, Ukraine, France, Mexico, etc. Many of these traditions were ceremonial customs long before the days of Christ. However, through the centuries they have been adopted and adapted by Christians seeking ways to share the joy, peace, and love of God during the holiday season.
Frequently Christians are criticized for including customs which seem to be part of ancient pagan practices. However, as noted before, the motive of the heart determines what is acceptable to the Lord, not the symbol or tradition. "For the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). Most importantly, Christians need to emphasize the true meaning of Christmas. This is certainly done through "religious" Christmas traditions such as reading aloud the story of Christ’s birth from Scripture, attending a candle-light service, going to midnight mass, etc. However, Christian families – and Christian teachers – need to re-evaluate any "traditional" customs to make sure they are keeping Christ in Christmas and not allowing their celebration to be unduly influenced by the world. Here is a list of traditions which need to be evaluated prayerfully:
Giving: Christmas is about giving. God gave His Son. Simeon and Anna gave testimony (Luke 2:25-38). The angels and the shepherds gave praise (Luke 2:8-20). The wise men gave worship plus material gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrhh (Matthew 2:11). The Bible teaches "it is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). Testimony, praise, and worship are intangible gifts to Jesus, and they must be included in His birthday celebration. Christian families need to work at bringing appropriate "giving" into sharper focus at Christmas – a family giving project would be especially appropriate.
God has always called His people to give, and several project ideas are suggested in Scripture. For instance, believers are to give to the local church. "Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord thy God which he hath given thee" (Deuteronomy 16:17). "Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give, not grudgingly, or of necessity; for God loveth a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7). The church congregation is to give to the care of the widows, orphans, and homeless. "The sojourner, and the fatherless, and the widow, who are within thy gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied; that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hand which thou doest" (Deuteronomy 14:29). God’s people are to give aid to poor brothers and sisters in Christ. "If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother; but thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he lacketh" (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).
Gifts: In addition to worship, the wise men gave tangible gifts to the baby Jesus – not to each other, and not to their friends. With hearts moved by the Holy Spirit, they opened their boxes and presented the items to the Christ child (Matthew 2:11). From that scene Christmas evolved into a time for parents to give love gifts to their children and for masters to give special gifts of appreciation to their servants or employees. However, during the twentieth century, everyone began to get involved in giving gifts to one another. The world seems to have forgotten that the only Child who received gifts that first Christmas was Jesus. The gifts were a part of the worship of wise men. After the gifts were presented, they are never mentioned again in Scripture. The emphasis of the Christmas story is on the Baby in the manger, the praise, the testimonies, and the worship.
Christian families should take time at Christmas to give testimony, praise, and worship to the One whose birthday they are celebrating. Family members each prayerfully prepare and present a "gift" to Jesus such as a song, a picture, a poem, etc. The focus of the "birthday party" should be on the birth of the Savior and His purpose for coming to earth. "Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift" (2 Corinthians 9:15). Through the gift of His Son, God gave the gift of eternal life. "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord" (Romans 6:23).
That does not mean Christians need to stop giving gifts to their children or to other family members. God is a loving Father who delights in giving good things to his children, and He finds no fault with earthly parents giving good gifts to their children (see Matthew 7:9-11). However, He certainly is not happy when families go into debt at Christmas in order to meet the unreasonable demands of greedy offspring or spouses. He cannot smile upon a father who spends a thousand dollars on toys which will soon be broken, then grudgingly places a five dollar bill in the Christmas offering at church. He cannot be happy with people who spend weeks or months making lists and shopping for gifts, yet can barely fit in one hour for a church service on Christmas Eve.
When the gifts become more important than the Christ child, something is wrong. Children (and their parents) should be taught to make lists of what they will give, not lists of what they want. They should be taught to pray for the people on their list. They should be encouraged to use their time and talents (God-given abilities) to create personalized gifts for the people they love. Following God’s example, the focus of the giver should be on showing love toward the recipient. "For God so loved the world that He gave..." (John 3:16). A gift is of no value whatever unless it is given in love with no thought of what might be received in return.
Santa Claus (St. Nicholas): The whole question of gifts and giving leads to the "problem" of Santa Claus. Where does the jolly old elf in the red suit fit into a Christian Christmas? Scripturally, he doesn’t. Therefore many Christians deprive their children of this delightful tradition. However, the legend of Santa Claus is based on Christian principles and on the true life of a loving, giving Christian gentleman named Nicholas in Turkey. Nicholas inherited a great deal of wealth, and he devoted his life to sharing his wealth with the poor and sharing the gospel with everyone he met. It would seem that Christian parents should be able to honestly include the "real" Santa Claus in their family customs without stooping to worldly lies. For an example of how one family explains Santa to their children, see "Santa Claus and The Gospel," by Gretchen Passantino at http://answers.org/issues/santa.html . There are also several excellent picture books which include Santa but focus on Christ. Santa’s Favorite Story, by Hisako Aoki (Sagebrush Education Resources, 1999), does a beautiful job of having Santa tell the real story of Christmas. Another good resource is Harold Myra’s Santa, Are You for Real? (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1977).
The Chimney and Hanging Stockings: In olden times during the winter people hung their clothing by the fireplace to dry. The custom of deliberately hanging stockings at Christmas originated with a legend of St. Nicholas. One popular version of the legend tells of three sisters in a very poor family. The father did not have enough money for a dowry for even one of his love daughters. Nicholas heard of their plight. His custom was to secretly toss gifts into the homes of those he had chosen to benefit, usually through an open window in the middle of the night. However, this family had their window closed when he arrived. So he quietly climbed to the roof of the shanty and dropped the gold coins down the chimney. The coins did not land on the hearth, but in the stockings which were hanging up to dry. Children have hung up Christmas stockings ever since, hoping to receive a similar surprise. How much truth there is to the legend cannot be known, but it is a delightful tale of unselfish giving to be shared during this season of greed.
Carols and Caroling: A Christmas carol is a song of joy or praise which tells the story of the birth of Christ. Some people claim that the first carols ever sung were the songs of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus in Jerusalem (Luke 2:10-14). However, Dr. David Jeremiah and some other biblical scholars are quick to point out that only people sing; angels do not sing. No one knows exactly where or when the custom of caroling in the streets began, but certainly hearing the common people sing praise to God has softened many hearts through the ages. We know that caroling existed in Germany in the 1400's because Martin Luther wrote that when Christmas was celebrated, he went with others from house to house and village to village singing popular Christmas carols. In early times it was customary to offer refreshment to the carolers. In England they received a cup of hot punch in appreciation for their singing. The presentation of the punch included a salute or toast "waes hael," which means "good health." From "waes hael" came the word "wassailing" which meant going from house to house at Christmas singing carols. In America carolers were often given a cup of hot chocolate or of hot-mulled cider. Although not as popular in the United States today as it was forty or fifty years ago, many Christian families still set aside one or two nights during the holiday season for caroling in their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the custom of showing appreciation by giving a hot drink or other refreshments to the carolers seems to be disappearing.
In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi conceived the idea of the "living nativity" with real people and animals. It is said that the presentation also included the singing of simple carols. Today, one or two Christian families often work together to set up a living Nativity in someone’s yard and sing carols for the enjoyment of their neighborhood. Some churches and community centers also do a living Nativity with carolers standing near the manger scene.
The stories behind the composition of the many well-known Christmas carols are truly inspiring and should be shared during the Christmas season. Some Christian families enjoy learning what inspired the composers, discussing the lyrics, and memorizing a related Scripture to go with the carols of the season. There are hundreds of carols from around the word so that a family or Christian organization could continue this custom for years and not learn about them all.
Candy Canes: In early times, parents gave their fussy babies unflavored white sugar sticks to suck on (sort of an ancient pacifier). In the 1670's the German choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral wanted something the keep the children quiet during the Christmas services. So he had those traditional flavorless white sugar sticks bent into a the shape of a shepherd’s staff and distributed to the youngsters before the ceremonies began. The shape was to remind the children that the choir’s songs and the Nativity scene were about Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who laid down His life for His sheep (John 10:11). Distributing this staff-shaped candy became a Christmas custom for churches throughout Europe. Soon people began making fancy canes to use as decorations in their homes. About 1900 the white candy cane was given the pattern of red stripes and the peppermint flavoring which are so familiar today.
The candy cane may be the only Christmas custom which truly has a Christian origin, and there is so much beautiful symbolism in the simple candy cane that Christians cannot fail to include it in their holiday plans. An excellent resource for families and teachers is The Legend of the Candy Cane, presented in video format from Fox Home Entertainment. The film is based on Lori Wahlburg Vandenbosch’s storybook with the same title published by Zondervan Publishers.
Christmas Cards: By the 1800's, people we had often exchanged handwritten greetings delivered in person, were starting the use the postal service to deliver their artistic holiday messages or varying sizes and shapes. In 1822 the superintendent of the United States postal service complained that he had to hire sixteen extra mailmen for the holiday season. Then in 1843 Sir Henry Cole, a wealthy businessman in England, commissioned London artist John Calcott Horsley to design a card he could proudly send to friends and professional acquaintances to wish them a "merry Christmas." Horsley’s design became the first printed Christmas card. Printed cards soon became popular throughout England and in Germany. In 1875 Louis Prang, a German printer in Boston, produced the first American Christmas cards. Unfortunately, they were too flowery and did not become very popular so he went out of business in 1890. It was not until the end of World War I that America’s modern greeting card company began to flourish.
Hand-designed cards bearing handwritten messages may seem "old-fashioned," but they certainly pass along a more personal message than cards bought by the box-full at a department store. Creating individualized cards by hand may require a lot of thought and take more time than shopping for a boxed design or even creating computer designs, but that extra time translates into a labor of love. As stated before, children need to be shown that what they do for others is more valuable than what they buy for others. Most importantly, Christian parents should guide their children to create cards which clearly present the gospel message. Even if cards must be purchased, the selection should be done with care and prayer, and personal messages should be added. During the Christmas season hearts softened by the songs of peace, joy, and love are more responsive to the gospel than at any other time of the year. A Christmas card can be a wonderful tool for planting the seed that may sprout into salvation for a family member or friend.
Poinsettia: The poinsettia is popular at holiday time because it is red, green, and gold – the Christmas colors. A native of Central America, the plant especially flourished in the Taxco area of Mexico. The Aztecs used the red bracts of the plant to make dye and the white sap to make a medicine to treat fevers. During the 16pp’s Mexican priests used the plant in their Christmas nativity processions. Dr. Joel Poinsett, first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, became fascinated with the plant and sent some back to the United States in 1828 to be propagated in his greenhouses in Greenville, South Carolina. Today the annual sales of poinsettias exceed the annual sales of all other plants combined.
In Mexico this plant which we now call "poinsettia" is known as the Flor de Noche Buena, the Flower of Holy Night. A lovely Mexican legend tells how God provided the lovely red blooms for a poor child to present to the Christ Child. Tomie dePaola shares one version of the legend in the storybook The Legend of the Poinsettia published by Putnam Publishing Group. People who wish to apply symbolism to all Christmas objects can explain that the shape of the flower is symbolic of the star of Bethlehem, the red colored leaves as symbol of the blood of Christ, and the white flowers as representative of purity. Many of the more liturgical churches have made an annual tradition of "The Hanging of the Greens" as they decorate their places of worship with poinsettias, wreaths, and other plants used in contemporary Christmas celebration. All plants which bloom during the holiday season should be seen as images of the Root of David son of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1, 10) that flowered with new life that long-ago night in Bethlehem.
From this information about the origins, symbols, and traditions of Christmas, Christian teachers in public school should be able to garner the facts needed to keep Christmas in the classroom. A teacher who knows their rights and responsibilities concerning the use of religious elements in the classroom and follows the guidelines established by the government should be able to develop lesson plans which incorporated many meaningful lessons and activities. Most importantly, during the planning stage, the teacher needs to remember the "Lemon Test" and keep in mind three important questions:
1) Do I have a distinct educational purpose in mind? If so, what is it?
2) Is my approach balanced and fair? Have I included secular, or non-Christian ideas?
3) Is my approach objective and educational? Am I being careful not to promote one faith over another? Is it clear that I am not even promoting religion in general.
Every citizen has rights, but every citizen also has responsibilities. This truth needs to be instilled in today’s children. Christian teachers can set a fine example by the way they handle Christmas in the classroom. Teachers who know their rights and handle them responsibly this holiday season will be blessed with a peace which passes understanding and a joy that knows no bounds. And that is the spirit of Christmas!
The contents of this article reflect the author’s views acquired through research and experience. The author is not engaged in rendering any legal professional service. The services of a professional person are recommended if legal advice or assistance is needed. The author and ChristianTeacher.org disclaim any loss or liability to any person or entity with respect to loss or damage caused, or alleged to be caused, directly or indirectly by the utilization of any information contained in this article.
All right reserved. Copyright ©2004 by B. Jane Kulp
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