Where and how did the celebration of Christmas get started? The earliest reference to Christmas being marked on Dec. 25 comes from the second century after Jesus' birth. It is considered likely the first Christmas celebrations were in reaction to the Roman Saturnalia, a harvest festival that marked the winter solstice - the return of the sun - and honored Saturn, the god of sowing. Saturnalia was a rowdy time, and much opposed by the more austere leaders among the still small Christian sect. Christmas developed, one scholar says, as a means of replacing worship of the sun with worship of the Son. By 529 A.D. after Christianity had become the official state religion of the Roman Empire, Emperor Justinian made Christmas a civic holiday. (from a devotional address given at BYU on Dec. 5, 1972 by President Howard W. Hunter.)
In 1870 President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law a bill making Christmas a legal US national holiday.
But was the birth of Jesus really on December 25?
Shepards would not have been "tending their flocks" in December in the the H0ly Land.
D&C 20:1 cites April 6 as the the day of Christ's birth corresponding to the day His restored Gospel was reorganized.
But why shouldn't we celebrate Christ with the rest of the world? This was written in Dec. 1919 in the Improvement Era: "Of all holidays there is
none that enters so fully into the human heart, and stirs so many of the higher
sentiments. The holly and mistletoe entwined among the evergreens, the habit of
giving gifts to those we love, the presence of the Christmas tree, the superstition of Santa Claus, all combining to make Christmas the most longed-for, the most universal, and from every standpoint, the most important holiday known to man"
On Jan. 2, 1908 the First Presidency made this statement regarding Christmas.
“Christmas, to the Latter-day Saint, is both reminiscent and prophetic—a reminder of two great and solemn events, which will yet be regarded universally as the mightiest and most wonderful happenings in the history of the human race. These events were [foreordained] to take place upon this planet before it was created. One of them was the coming of the Savior in the meridian
of time, to die for the sins of the world; and the other is the prospective advent of the risen and glorified Redeemer, to reign upon the earth as King of kings” [“What Christmas Suggests to a Latter-day Saint,” Millennial Star, Jan. 2, 1908, 1].
The traditions of Christmas are certainly within the admonition of Paul in the Thirteenth Article of Faith. "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things."
There are many traditions that surround Christmas, but all of them have at there root the celebration of the baby Jesus.
In Luke 2 we read of the shepards in the fields. "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest.
In 1741 George Fredrick Handel set this story to music. He completed the 259 page manuscript for the Messiah in just 24 days of composition. At the end of the manuscript he wrote the letters "SDG" - Soli Deo Gloria, "to God alone the glory.
Tradition has it that when King George the III ( the same King George of Revolutionary War Mischief) heard the Hallelujah Chorus of the Messiah he rose and all with him rose to pay respect to the King of Kings. While no actual record of this event exists the tradition lives on today. Our own dear sister Helen Jones always respected this tradition whenever the ward choir sung the Hallelujah Chorus of the Messiah.
Today Handel's Messiah is one of the best know and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.
In 1818 Josef Mohr was a young priest serving as parish priest at St. Nikolas church in Oberndorf Germany. ( some say the village was in Austria) Two days before Christmas, the bellows in the church organ were found to be rotted through, possibly eaten by rats.
Needing music that could still be appreciated by the congregation, Mohr wrote a poem. He then asked the church organist and choirmaster, Fanz-Xaver Gruber, if he could set it to music which the two men could sing, accompanied by Mohr on the guitar. Late on Christmas Eve, the men practised and song for the first time, and performed it for Mass. The song the Mohr penned was "Silent Night" and it was first sung on 24 December 1818.
Most of us would probably cite the Christmas hymns as our favorites in the Hymn Book. Contemporary musicians will often have their Christmas Albums including the sacred songs be among their best sellers. In many cases it is their Christmas Songs that have immemorized them decades after their deaths.
In Matthew we read of the Wise Men from the East that came, guided by a new Star to Worship the Christ Child and bring him gifts. (gifts that would be very useful as Joseph and Mary would be guided to flee King Herod from Jerusalem to Egypt.)
This tradition of giving gifts to children goes back many centuries. Long ago ( many believe in the 4th Century) in Myra, which is now modern-day Turkey, there was a bishop named Nicholas. Nicholas loved children and would often give gifts to the poor. Legend has it that he would leave these gifts in the children's shoes while they were sleeping or would throw them down the chimney.
Americans have Santa Claus, the English, Father Christmas, the French Pere Noel, others Grandfather Frost, but they all keep the tradition of blessing children with gifts.
Then there is the remembered Christmas tale by O. Henry about a young husband and wife who lived in abject poverty yet who wanted to give one another a special gift. But they had nothing to give. Then the husband had a ray of inspiration: he would provide his dear wife a beautiful ornamental comb to adorn her magnificent long hair. The wife also received an idea: she would
obtain a lovely chain for her husband’s prized watch, which he valued so highly.
Christmas day came; the treasured gifts were exchanged. Then the surprise ending, so typical of O. Henry’s short stories: the wife had shorn her long hair and sold it to obtain funds to purchase the watch chain, only to discover that her husband had sold his watch so that he might purchase the comb to adorn her beautiful long hair, which now she did not have.
The angles had another message for the Shepards. "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth Peace good will toward men." This spirit of peace and good will toward men is reflected in so many ways during the Christmas holidays.
A classic Christmas time film is Frank Capra's adaptation of Philip Van Doren Stern's short story called " The Greatest Gift" The film is "It's a Wonderful Life". It starred James Stewart and Donna Reed. Jimmy Stewart's character, George bailey was given the opportunity to see what the world would be like if he had not been born. Christmas Eve finds George Bailey deeply troubled. Prayers for his will-being from friends and family reach Heaven. Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class, is assigned to save George and earn his wings.
The film was nominated for five academy awards although it did not win any. It is on the list of the 100 best films ever and for it's 65 year anniversary it was named the "Most Inspirational Film" ever.
"A Christmas Carol" is a novella by English author Charles Dickens. It was first published on 19 December 1843. The story tells of a sour and stingy Ebenezer Scrooge's emotional transformation after the supernatural visits of Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. The book was an instant success and has never been out of print. It was from a scene in this book where a transformed Ebenezer Scrooge shouts out Merry Christmas that we have the custom and greeting today. After it's publication there were many accounts of a dramatic increase in charitable giving around the world.
A Christmas Carol has been set to theatrical productions, musicals, and movies. There are over 20 film adaptations of the story. Ebenezer Scrooge has been played by George C. Scott, Tim Curry, Michael Caine along with the muppets, and Donald Duck accompanied by Micky Mouse as Bob Cratchit.
You will recall from Dr. Suess's holiday "horror" story, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" that the devilish Grinch determineed to rob Who-ville of every holiday treat. In a nefarious scheme in which the Grinch dressed as Santa himself, he moved through Who-ville taking every package, tree, ornament and stocking. The Story goes:
He stared down at Who -ville!
The Grinch popped his eyes!
Then he shook!
What he saw was a shocking surprise.
Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN'T stopped Christmas from coming!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!
And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow
Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?"
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
It came without packages, boxes or bags!
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store.
Maybe Christmas ...perhaps ....means a little bit more.
One of my favorite Christmas Stories is that of the Christmas Truce during World War I.
The Germans had placed Christmas trees in front of their trenches, lit by candle or lantern like beacons of good will. And then we heard their voices raised in song.
Stille nacht, heilige nacht . . . .
This carol may not yet be familiar to us in Britain, but John knew it and translated: “Silent night, holy night.” I’ve never heard one lovelier—or more meaningful. When the song finished, the men in our trenches applauded. Yes, British soldiers applauding Germans! Then one of our own men started singing, and we all joined in.
The first Nowell, the angel did say . . . .
In truth, we sounded not nearly as good as the Germans, with their fine harmonies. But they responded with enthusiastic applause of their own and then began another.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum . . . .
Then we replied.
O come all ye faithful . . . .
But this time they joined in, singing the same words in Latin.
Adeste fideles . . . .
British and German harmonizing across No Man’s Land! I would have thought nothing could be more amazing—but what came next was more so.
“English, come over!” we heard one of them shout. “You no shoot, we no shoot.”
There in the trenches, we looked at each other in bewilderment. Then one of us shouted jokingly, “You come over here.” To our astonishment, we saw two figures rise from the trench, climb over their barbed wire, and advance unprotected across No Man’s Land. One of them called, “Send officer to talk.”
They met in no-man’s land after leaving their rifles behind. They exchanged gifts of food, buttons and ribbons. They even played a game of soccer.
It is this spirit of Christmas, the spirit of Christ that has the power to change lives and bring
peace to the world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could maintain that spirit of Christmas all year long, even all the time. It is the Christ in Christmas that makes it so. It is his teachings of
charity, and love that make us want to do acts of kindness for each other. To sacrifice for others, to accept the sacrifice of Christ or each of us. We make this so by making and keeping sacred covenants and by striving to keep all the commandments. There have been people
who have managed to do this. Enoch and his people. Nephi and his family. But there was a time that a group of people were so moved by the teachings of Christ that after his brief visit, that they
enjoyed peace and good will for 200 years. The account is found in the Book of Mormon in Fourth Nephi.
2 And it came to pass in the thirty and sixth year, the people were all converted unto the Lord, upon all the face of the land, both Nephites and Lamanites, and there were no
contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with
3 And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly bgift.
7 And the Lord did prosper them exceedingly in the land; yea, insomuch that they did build cities
again where there had been cities burned.
10…..and became an exceedingly fair and delightsome people.
12….but they did walk after the commandments which they had received from their Lord and their God, continuing in fasting and prayer , and in meeting together oft both to pray and
to hear the word of the Lord.
13 And it came to pass that there was no contention among all the people, in all the land; but there were mighty miracles wrought among the disciples of Jesus.
15 And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of
God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.
16 And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.
17 There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.
As we comtemplate this day and celebrate with the Christian World the birth of the baby Jesus, I would like to close with the admonition of the prophet Howard W Hunter.
It is possible for Christ to be born in men’s lives, and when such an experience actually happens, a man is “in Christ”—Christ is “formed” in him. This presupposes that we take Christ into our hearts and make Him the living contemporary of our lives. He is not just a general truth or a fact in
history, but the Savior of men everywhere and at all times. When we strive to be Christlike, He is “formed” in us; if we open the door, He will enter; if we seek His counsel, He will counsel us. For Christ to be “formed” in us, we must have a belief in Him and in His Atonement. Such a belief in Christ and the keeping of His commandments are not restraints upon us. By these, men are set
free. This Prince of Peace waits to give peace of mind, which may make each of us a channel of that peace. The real Christmas comes to him who has taken Christ into his life as a moving, dynamic, vitalizing force. The real spirit of Christmas lies in the life and mission of the Master. (From a devotional address given at Brigham Young University on
December 5, 1972