Larsen: Secular and Sacred Not so Separate

Southampton pastor explains origins of Christmas traditions.

As a holy day on the church calendar, Christmas is a latecomer.

One of the early Church leaders, Clement of Alexandria, suggested May 20 as the most likely day for the actual birth of Jesus, but it wasn’t a celebrated occasion.  The earliest mention of December 25 as the Nativity of our Lord dates to the year 336.

In the Eastern Church, January 6 commemorated the baptism of Jesus as well as the Epiphany and was considered more important than Christmas. By the fifth century most of the Christian world observed December 25 as the day of Jesus’ birth. The Church in Jerusalem held on to January 6 until 549, which is interesting considering that the Church of the Nativity, where the event supposedly took place, was already in existence in Bethlehem.

The secular side of Christmas was even slower to develop and some of that we think of as Christmas “traditions” are downright modern. The celebration was always marked by merrymaking but a lot of modern Christmas customs are influenced by Charles Dickens.

In 1809 Washington Irving published a "History of New York," which was meant to be a spoof of Dutch culture. In it, Santa Claus lost his bishop’s apparel and appeared as a bearded Dutch sailor with a pipe and a long green coat. Santa Claus as we know him didn’t appear until Clement Moore’s poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" … better known as "The Night Before Christmas" … was published in the Troy, NEW YORK SENTINEL on December 23, 1823. For the first time the eight flying reindeer were given names.

In 1863 Thomas Nast — a political cartoonist who gave us the Republican Party elephant, Democratic Party donkey, and Uncle Sam — drew the first picture of a portly Santa Claus, smoking a pipe. Until then he had been tall and thin. Even then it wasn’t until 1885 that the red suit became standardized. Some have suggested that Coca-Cola advertising invented the red and white suit. That isn’t true, but there is no doubt that Coca-Cola marketing cemented the costume of Santa Claus forever.

It is a mixture of the sacred and the secular, the holy and the ordinary. And maybe that isn’t all bad. Maybe that has a lot to say about the nature of this wonderful and magical night that has captured the imagination of generation after generation. To be sure, Christmas can be overwhelmed by all the hoopla that surrounds it. Sometimes — maybe even a lot of the time — the commercial side of things seems to be out of balance. For some I suppose the season is mostly about Santa Claus and has little, if anything, to do with Jesus.

But the secular and the sacred are not so separate as we might have imagined.  That is, after all, the point. God has entered into the human story in the fullness of love. The holy has touched the ordinary, and ordinary has been made holy.

There isn’t a part of the world that is God’s and a part that isn’t. The goal of Christmas isn’t to make our lives more spiritual and less ordinary. The goal is to see the holiness of all that is ordinary. Christmas Eve — this night — calls us to see the holiness in all things and in all people. That is why it speaks with such hope and such power.

To paraphrase the words of Tiny Tim, “God bless us everyone,” and I would add, with no exceptions.

The Rev. Peter Larsen is the pastor of in Southampton Village.


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