Special Episode: An American History of Christmastime

Peace to Live By Special Episode: An American History of Christmastime - Daniel Litton
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       One of my favorite paintings of all time is the famous one of ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware.’ Anyone who has been to my residence knows that I have a large replica of this painting hanging on the wall in my living room, right above my couch. It is a beautiful painting, as you can recall, of General George Washington standing upright on a small boat that is heading eastwards in the painting. Behind him is a soldier holding up the Colonial Flag (the incorrect flag for the time by the way). Along with them is a group of other Continental soldiers and several other boats, one carrying horses, as they are making their journey from Pennsylvania across the Delaware River for a surprise attack on Hessian soldiers in Trenton, New Jersey. And, as most of us know, this crossing of the Delaware took place on Christmas Day Eve of 1776.

       Indeed, the year of 1776, while it was the year of the Declaration of Independence, had proved to be a tuff and troublesome year for the Continental Army in the fighting of the War of Independence. While the Patriots had their fair share of victories, the Red Coats had larger victories, and were really giving General Washington a run for his money. Just a month or so prior to Washington and his men crossing the Delaware, had been the Battle of Fort Washington. At this battle, the British had captured about 3,000 Patriots, some half of the Continental Army. It was quite a lot of soldiers and a huge, colossal loss for Washington’s army and the Patriot cause. Truly, some of Washington’s fellow officers had been questioning his ability to lead, and after the tremendous loss at Fort Washington, those questions seem to have more validity. If Washington’s military career had ended at this point, he would have gone down in history as a failing commander, one who would have seemed to not know much of what he was doing.

       The uncertainty over Washington’s ability wasn’t his only problem, however. Many of the commissions of the men enlisted in his army were going to be up at the end of the year, and with this year not going so well, it was likely that many of the soldiers would call it quits and go home. So, the the War for Independence was in danger of being ultimately lost. The soldiers just had no morale to keep them motivated for a fight. Thankfully, though, Thomas Paine, the famous writer who had written the pamphlet Common Sense a year earlier, decided he was going to use his pen again to motivate the troops. And so that’s what he did. He wrote a new pamphlet, which ended up being a series of pamphlets, he titled ‘The American Crisis.’ Washington even had the pamphlet read aloud on December 23rd, in hopes of boosting confidence among the soldiers. As a couple days later would show, it would prove to pay off.

       And that sets the scene for the evening of December 25th. So, Washington needed something big—he needed a substantial victory against the British. He needed to prove that he was a capable commander, a capable leader of the army, one who deserved the chief position he had been given by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia some time earlier. Interestingly enough, Washington in his writings seemed to question his role in the war up until this point anyway, how he had left the comfort of participating in the Continental Congress or even a life working the fields at his home, Mount Vernon, in Virginia. But, as one may have guessed, he wouldn’t much question his role as Commander in Chief after this upcoming battle. But at the time, he didn’t know that. In fact, no one really knew whether the endeavor of the war was going to be for victory, or indeed, whether it would end up in death. These Patriots had rebelled against their government, their king, and if they wanted to live, they’d better win the war.

       By all accounts December 25, 1776 was a snowy one at the Continental camp in Pennsylvania. It had been a white Christmas for sure. Washington, along with his subordinates, had come up with a plan to attack Hessians forces which were in Trenton, just across the Delaware River. Now as you can recall, the Hessians were German soldiers who had come from Europe to help the British in their fight against the Americans. They were an abrasive and often brutal group of soldiers, and had been made infamous by the various printed accounts of their offenses in the press, most likely exaggerated. Regardless, they were a reckless group. Washington and his men made their way swiftly through the snow and to boats in order to cross the icy Delaware River. And the process went into the early hours of the morning, so that they would come upon Trenton at an early hour, after sunrise, of the morning of December 26. This would be Washington’s first time in leading his troops into a battle.

       Washington’s tactic in attacking Trenton was, of course, the element of surprise. Indeed, this is often a very necessary and important tactic of war, to use my humble opinion, if you really want to get the job done. Our current President-Elect believes this, as he had already stated he’s not going to tell the press how he is going to attack our enemies, a wise and noble move. Nevertheless, Washington, with over 2,000 soldiers, came upon the unsuspecting Hessian soldiers of Trenton in the morning time, and the battle was quick and brief. There really was no contest, though some Hessians fought back. And the Continental Army would end up capturing some 1,000 Hessian soldiers, which was a substantial yet small blow to the British Army, yet it boosted morale for the Americans. And it even inspired the currently enlisted soldiers to stay on board past their current commissions and for more civilians to join the Continental Army in the days afterward.

       Christmas is all about the element of surprise, as it was in this review of American history and as we are reminded of every year. It was about surprise in 1776, and it certainly is about surprise today. After all, we give gifts to each other in wrapping paper. We want our gifts that we are giving to people to be suspenseful, exciting surprises. Sometimes people need a morale boast, just like the Continental soldiers needed, and so we give our gifts to others hoping they will make them happy. We want Christmas to be a joyful time, a time of celebration, a time when we are with family, and perhaps even friends, celebrating the goodness of life and all that God has done for us. We are thankful for how kind he has been to us throughout the year. And we want to bless others by giving to them out the abundance that God has given to us.

       It’s important for us to remember the real meaning behind Christmas, the most important gift given of all time, and this is the gift God gave to us, of his Son, whom he sent into the world to save us. This really is at the heart of our gift-giving, or it should be. Remember what the Apostle John has told us in his Gospel, the most famous verse of the whole Bible. You know it by heart. He said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV). Yes, God loved the world then, some 2,000 years ago, and he loves the world today. He wants everyone to be in right relationship with him, and he, sending his Son into the world, made this possible. We had separated ourselves from God by our sin, but Jesus makes possible a resorted relationship. Verse 17, in John chapter 3, states: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (ESV). Anyone, then, who believes in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins can be saved from any of God’s wrath to come in the future.

       But before we touch on this a little more, while we are on the subject of history today, I thought it might be beneficial for us to understand some of the history behind the celebration of Christmas and especially in America. An excellent read about the history of Christmas, and particularly the American history, is a book titled ‘The Battle for Christmas’ by Stephen Nissenbaum. I recommend this book to anyone to read, and I will be relying on some of the author’s information today to carry us along through the American roots of Christmas. We know that Christmas, as a holiday, originally became a reality in the fourth century (Nissenbaum, 1996, p. 4). This is when the Christian church decided to recognize Christmas, and the day of celebration was placed on December 25, as this was around the period of time that the Winter season began. Now, here in America, the first Americans, the Pilgrims, who were Puritans, didn’t celebrate Christmas and in fact believed it to be a sin to do so. This is because in their eager legalism, they believed that since the date of December 25 for the birth of Christ doesn’t appear in the Bible, that it was wrong to therefore celebrate the holiday. While they were correct in stating that December 25 for the birth of Christ doesn’t appear in the Bible, I think what God really cares about here is the heart attitude we are displaying when we celebrate Christmas. We have made Christmas to be all out giving, and with that attitude, we are in the right.

       Whosoever would want to celebrate Christmas is in the right, so long as one has the right attitude toward it. And, likewise, whosoever doesn’t want to celebrate it either would not be in the wrong. Turn over to Romans chapter 14. Let’s look a passage here, and understand God’s view on days like Christmas. Let’s go to verse 5, and start reading there. The Apostle Paul states:

“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:5-8, ESV).

So, then, it’s important for us to remind ourselves of God’s truth behind Christmas when we celebrate it, when we give gifts to others, so that we we can observe Christmas Day in honor of the Lord.

       It certainly is true that the festive atmosphere surrounding Christmas—the ornaments of Christmas lights and candles, mistletoes, and even the Christmas tree—these things in and of themselves are rooted in pagan (non-Christian) traditions, or cultural traditions, and really have no connection to the birth of Christ (Nissenbaum, p. 5). Nonetheless, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the partaking or celebrating of Christmas with these kinds of items is wrong. Truly, again, it’s the heart attitude that counts. If we use these items to celebrate Christmas, and do it unto the Lord, we are in the right. I think most people don’t even know why they celebrate Christmas with these things, besides the fact that maybe it is because they were raised to do that, or because that’s what everyone else around them does. But I think a lot of people have these decorations because they want to honor Christ; they really want to celebrate and remember what God has done for us, and for the whole world. And these items bring in the mood and expression of that.

       During the time of the latter 1700s was when Christmas started to become popular in American society, which interestingly enough, is during the times of the American Revolution (Nissenbaum, p. 26). Even during this time, however, it is clear that Christmas was not so seriously celebrated as we as Americans celebrate it in this day and age. Most people still worked on Christmas back then, carrying out life as usual with no stopping for celebration. It was more like what we see as Independence Day, where, if it falls on a workday, many people will still work, though some take the day off. I know a lot of people enjoy having Christmas off, and most people do have it off, but even today there are still some of us who have to work, and we work Christmas Day as if it’s any other day. So, be grateful for what you have when you are off on Christmas, when you get to spend time with your family and exchange gifts. Don’t take that for granted but cherish every moment of it.

       Present giving really wasn’t present during Washington’s time, nor was the celebration of Christmas in the form of any special meals or food, yet Christmas had made its way into church hymnals during his time (Nissenbaum, pp. 30, 31, 33). Of important note, though, is that late December during the time of the latter 1700s was one of rest and making special foods anyway, as many were resting from their harvest work that had just taken place a short period of time earlier. So, while some were if fact taking time off of work, it wasn’t for Christmas. And while some special foods were made in regard to the season, like mince pies, these foods would have been made anyway due to the fact of what time of year it was. But, we do, on the other hand, see that Christmas hymns had been added to church hymnals in the Colonies by the 1750s. So, it is clear that at least some churches celebrated Christmas by singing hymns to some extent. One minister, in his diary in 1749, actually expressed that he wished people took greater notice of Christmas—that people would care to celebrate it more (Nissenbaum, p. 37). So, Christmas, still yet, wasn’t in full bloom even by the close of the 1700s.

       Christmas started to settle into the American culture in a more dominate fashion by the early 1800s. It’s here that we start to see the outcropping of church services on Christmas Day throughout America (Nissenbaum, pp. 45-47). The old Puritan way of ignoring or shunning Christmas was seeming to fall by the wayside.

       It is also during this time of the early 1800s that we see the beginnings of Santa Claus. Now, in fact, during this time some Christians celebrated St. Nicholas Day (as some even still celebrate it today), and this involved Santa, as we call him today, giving to children (Nissenbaum, pp. 73, 74, 78). This day took place on December 6, however. Nonetheless, by 1821, we read of Christmas being celebrated on December 24th and 25th, but it was meant to be sort of a children’s version of an adults Judgement Day. The point was to emphasize to children the importance of doing right in this life. If a child did right throughout the year, he or she would be rewarded by St. Nicholas. However, if the child did wrong, he or she would find a rod, or coal as we have changed it to, in the morning. This practice among children was supposed to remind them of, or make them aware, that what we do in our lives matters. So, St. Nicholas’, or Santa’s, job is important. Children learned that what really matters is eternity, and one would not want to find him or herself spending an eternity in Hell because he or she was living in the wrong way—out of a proper relationship with Christ.

       It happens that soon thereafter the judgment idea was removed from Santa Claus, and he would in fact only bring a “happy Christmas to all.” ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ was written by Clement Moore which carries the famous phrase, “’Twas the night before Christmas…” So, Santa Claus becomes only a positive guy, so to speak, where he just brings presents and happiness to children. Moore really created the Santa Claus that most Americans know and love in our day and age. He is the bearer of gifts, brought by his sleigh pulled by his reindeer which landed on the roofs of people’s homes. But it’s in the latter half of the 1800s that we finally see Santa Claus taking shaping, literally so to speak, into how we see him today. It is during this time at we learn he goes down chimneys, and he seems to gain weight as the years pass by. The famous artist, Thomas Nast, does many drawings of Santa Claus, and these certainly contribute, and carried along, the way we see him today. And Claus’ home being in the North Pole also comes to us during this time in a poem written by author George P. Webster.

       We see, then, how the gift giving was further developed by the character of Santa Claus, and, of course, we saw the commercialization of Christmas throughout the 1900s. What I find to be interesting, personally, is that so many businesses, stores, seek to profit off of the Christian holiday of Christmas and yet do not want to uphold Christian values and morality throughout the rest of the year. It’s like, Christianity is good during Christmastime, but for the rest of the year Christianity is bad. This is an unfortunate and yet hypocritical paradox among merchants today. But many people do the same thing. I personally don’t even know why so many people celebrate Christmas when it is a Christian holiday. There are so many non-Christians who want to take part in the Christmas festivities but who either don’t believe in Jesus Christ, or who deny him by there actions throughout the year. Really, if you stop and think about it, if a person doesn’t believe in Jesus, should that person be celebrating Christmas—the birth of Jesus? I would encourage everyone to examine themselves and think about that.

       Getting at the real roots of Christmas, then, we know that Christmas is all about Jesus. It’s about his birth into our world, some 2,000 years ago, in a little Jewish town called Bethlehem, over in Israel. You see, God had promised King David in 2 Samuel chapter 7, in the Old Testament, that he would establish an everlasting kingdom for the Israelites. Let’s review what God said to King David. 2 Samuel 7:12-14 states:

“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. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” (ESV)

And it was some 1,000 years later that Christ was born into the world, and he was the fulfillment of the promise that God made to David. He is of the lineage of David, as both Matthew and Luke so clearly show us, and he is to reign on the earth as King (see Matthew 1 & Luke 3). You know the famous passage. You remember what Isaiah prophesied. Isaiah 9:6, 7 state:

“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. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (ESV)

Now, only the first part of this passage has been fulfilled thus far in human history. We are still waiting for Christ to come again and to establish his kingdom for the Israelites here on the earth. And he is going to do this very soon.

       So Jesus is really why we celebrate Christmas. He is the reason we give gifts. Let’s consider another reason why we give each other gifts for Christmas, and we find this reason in Matthew 2 when the Wise Men give their gifts to the young child Jesus. Let’s go ahead and read the account, and really take it in and enjoy it during this Christmastime. If you turn to Matthew chapter 2, we start reading in verse 1:

“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 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.’”

“Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.” (Matthew 2:1-12, ESV)

What a great reminder for us of the first gifts given to our Lord Jesus, and let us always remember to think of others and to bless them during this holiday time as we remember God’s ultimate and greatest gift to us of Jesus, in all his love and glory.

       In finishing today, I realize that there are many of you out there who are about to go through the motions of Christmas, or who have already gone through the motions, but you really don’t feel that you know Jesus; your not in personal relationship with God. Sure, you believe he exists, but you have never given your life over to him. A big part of the problem for many individuals is that they don’t want to be wrong. You might not want to accept God’s gift to you because that will mean you will have to admit you have been wrong, and have been doing wrong, for a long time. And you don’t feel you can do that. But, I want to plead with you today not to let pride stop you from coming to Jesus. Don’t let what others may think of Jesus, or of you coming into relationship with him, actually stop you from making the right choice today. It doesn’t matter what other people think. It’s okay to admit you have been wrong. That’s what I had to do when I accepted Jesus—I had to admit I had been living my life the wrong way. I had to admit that I hadn’t been following God. And sure, it cost me some relationships, some friendships in my life. But I have never regretted my choice, and I’m so glad I made the right choice some 16 years ago.

       Let’s review the Good News of Jesus. Many of you have heard it over and over. We know that Jesus came to earth, some 2,000 years ago, as an infant. He grew up, living a perfect life, and he died on the cross, bearing the penalty for your sins and my sins. God put all of our sin on him so we would not have to go Hell in the future. That’s why Jesus was born into the world in the first place. God made a way for us to be guilt-free of everything wrong we’ve ever done against him, every commandment of his we’ve broken. He is a holy and righteous God, and he cannot let sin go unpunished. But God raised Jesus from death on the third day after his crucifixion, and now he is back in Heaven with God, the third realm of existence. Anyone who trusts in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for their sins will gain life now, and enter life for the future. Trust me; it’s not worth going to Hell to prove you are right, or because of what your friends might think. Please accept Jesus today, for both you and I have no idea how much longer we will be alive on this earth. Death could occur at anytime for us, and we want to make sure we are in right relationship with God today.

       If you would like to make the decision today to believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins and gain eternal life, please follow my lead in this prayer:

God, I am coming to you today to give my life over to you. I have been living my life my own way, under the power of Satan, but today I understand that I can gain real life in you. So, I want to accept Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for me, on my behalf, and I do believe he really rose from the dead. Because of his resurrection, I now believe you will raise me from death in the future and bring me to be with you forever. Thank you, Father, for loving me and choosing to save me, and help me to become like you want me to be, a better person, more like Jesus. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

       Let us pray.

       Heavenly Father, I thank you for the wonderful opportunity today to consider the roots of Christmas, this holiday we greatly love and enjoy. What a great privilege it has been to consider some of the history behind Christmas as well as the real meaning of this holiday, which, of course, Father, is your Son, Jesus, our Lord and Savior, whom we love with all our hearts. Help us, Father, to always remember why we celebrate Christmas, and why we give gifts to others, and help us to do that with a remembrance of the greatest gift you have given to us.

       And Father, help us to be continuing to grow in you, becoming more like Jesus. Please help those today who have accepted Jesus for the first time as Lord and Savior. Help them through this process of change. Help them as they find themselves today with a new mind, a new perceptive, a new life. Help them to grow in becoming like Jesus, pleasing to you, and feeling down right feeling good about their lives now and in the future. Thank you, Father, for helping us today, and for showing us the way, the truth, and the life, through Jesus.

       In Jesus’ Precious and Holy Name I pray, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. Amen.

-Daniel Litton


Nissenbaum, Stephen. (1996). The Battle for Christmas. New York: Vintage Books.