One of my favorite parts about Christmas? The music. I love Christmas music. I love how it has this certain sound that labels it as such before you even hear the lyrics. It’s . . . bigger somehow. Fuller. Richer. Especially sacred Christmas music–I mean, I love “Rudolph” and “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” too, don’t get me wrong. But Christmas hymns are their own kind of beauty.
Which is why I laughed out loud when I learned the history behind our singing of them–a history that, fascinatingly enough, dates back to a rather famous heretic named Arius.
In the early centuries of the Church, there was a lot of debate, discussion, and outright war among Christians as they tried to wrap human minds around divine truth. I get it–we still have those same problems today. And one of the leading controversies centered around how it really worked that Jesus was both God and man.
Did He really exist eternally in heaven with God the Father? What does begotten mean? Was that baby born to Mary really God, or was it just the human nature born that day and the God-nature was imparted to Him later?
Trying to imagine GOD–the infinite, eternal, omnipotent God–being helpless chafes against how we otherwise understand Him. And this was a real stumbling block in those first centuries, when there was no single teaching on the matter.
Arius was the primary voice of a sect that believed Christ was not fully divine until His baptism, when the Spirit descended. That, they said, was the moment when He received a divine nature. Before that, He was just a man. They further believed that Jesus was not one with or equal to or co-eternal with the Father, but rather subordinate to Him like angels, a created being like we are.
At first, this argument was subtle and the differences more an interesting conversation than a cause for a rift. But it soon became a raging debate. Church leaders took sides. Politicians who had converted took sides. And as it was agreed that a council must be called to determine what the Church would teach, each side began their campaign to sway public opinion.
The Arians started writing songs. Hymns. Songs and hymns about how Jesus died as God but was not born as God. And guys, these songs were catchy. People started singing them as they went about their daily lives. Which meant that people were teaching that theology, whether they realized it or not. These songs were, quite simply, propaganda. And it was working.
So his opponents began doing the same. They began writing songs about how Jesus was born as God. Expounding on the miracles surrounding His birth. Emphasizing that He came to this earth as BOTH Son of God and Son of Mary.
Interesting side note–the man we now know as St. Nicholas, then Bishop of a town in modern day Turkey called Myra, was present at the council at which this was debated. There’s a story (whose truth can’t be verified) that he became so enraged at Arius’s argument that he actually struck him. Santa Claus hitting the anti-Christmas heretic. Too funny, right??
Anyway. Back to verifiable history. 😉
Up until this point in history (this debate raged in the early 300s until Arianism was eventually ruled a heresy by the Council of Nicaea in 325), Christmas was celebrated as a holy day, but it was given no more special attention than days like His Baptism, Transfiguration, etc. The highest of holy days was Easter, 100%. THAT was the day and week that Christians around the world really gave special attention to. But in order to emphasize this now-official understanding that Christ was fully human AND fully God from the moment His earthly life began, the holy day of Christmas was elevated to a level nearly as important as Easter. More songs were written to try to overwrite the catchy little ditties the Arians were still singing, and which were still pulling people away from the truth. It slowly began to move from being a solemn day of reflection to one of celebration, a grand feast.
It wasn’t long after the Council of Nicaea that Nicholas died, and he was soon named a saint. Stories began to emerge about people he had helped anonymously, money he had give secretly. Miracles were still happening as people asked him to intercede in prayer for them. His feast day was established on December 6, and to honor his memory, people began leaving anonymous gifts for each other and calling them “from St. Nicholas.” As time wore on, the feast day of St. Nicholas and the holy celebration of Christmas began to intertwine, thanks to their proximity, in part. But given how ardent St. Nick was about Christ’s birth signaling the coming of God among man, I imagine he smiled down from heaven over that.
And I like to think, too, that the angelic choirs continue to sing their own glorious songs of Christmas as the world celebrates this miracle. The one they sang to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to people of good will!” must have been pretty catchy too. Have you stopped to wonder how we know what they sang to those shepherds?
It’s because the shepherds remembered. The shepherds followed Him. The shepherds were part of that earliest church, and they told Luke about that night. They told him the song the angels sang. That song has always, since those earliest days, been memorialized in the liturgy of the Church. All my life, I’ve sung Christmas songs that remember those words. And now my soul gets to soar with them nearly every week of the year, because the “Gloria” is part of every mass in the Catholic church, other than during Advent and Lent, when it’s removed…so that it strikes anew with all its glory when it’s brought out again on Christmas and Easter.
So sing of Christmas, my friends. Sing we now as those who fought for truth in the Church’s teaching sang then. Sing to teach the people who He is. Sing to remind your own heart. Sing to remember the glory.
Tomorrow is the day many churches celebrate as Maundy Thursday–the Passover Thursday, the day Jesus shared the Last Supper with His disciples. Does your church celebrate this day with a meal?
Growing up in a United Methodist Church, we would have a Maundy Thursday dinner. It went something like this: ladies who signed up to help would bring a pot of beef stew. They were all mixed together into one giant pot, which made a rather tasty concoction. Plates of fruit and cheese were set out. Someone made unleavened bread. The pastor read through the Last Supper portion of one of the Gospels. There was optional foot-washing. The end.
After college, friends of ours had their pastor, who was a Messianic Jew, lead our Bible study through a Messianic Passover Seder. And it was quite simply, amazing. The actual seder meal, with the actual Jewish traditions included, shed so much light
on that portion of the Gospels! Suddenly everything Jesus said took on new, fuller meaning. His promises and claims are at specific points in the meal where He demonstrates that He is fulfilling the Jewish law, the promises of the Prophets.
If you’ve never participated in one of these, I can’t recommend it enough!
When Rowyn was a baby, we decided to do one at our church. I just found a free service guide online and printed it out, and we bumbled our way through. It was great, if not so great as the one led by someone who knew what he was doing. But we decided to do it again in 2012 and have made it an annual event.
Two years ago, my church decided to invest in actual Passover Haggadah booklets–these are little pamphlet style books for each person to have beside their plate. They have all the responsive readings and explain what each element of the Seder plate is for. Designed for English-speaking Christians, these little books have been a very welcome addition to our meal and are much easier to follow than the print-outs I’d found before. (We found them here.)
For our church, this meal has become a critical part of Holy Week. It’s when we focus on the history and how our Lord played into it. It’s when we remember the roots that He came from. It’s when we partake of a meal like He did with His followers.
Funny story. Two years ago, my mom was sick and couldn’t come to the meal. But my husband rigged some cameras in our fellowship hall and broadcast the event, and she watched from home. Now, there’s a portion of the meal where one of the kids is to get up and open the door, symbolically welcoming Elijah. When we got to this part, my mom’s door blew open. She thought it was pretty cool and texted us and commented on the website to tell us. But when she really got goosebumps was later in the service, when someone closes the door–and her door blew shut again all on its own. Just one of those little things that made her fully aware that she was part of us, even if too sick that day to join us physically.
This year, I’ll be again in charge of the Seder plate. I’ll be roasting eggs, making the apple clay (a mixture of raw apples, almonds, grape juice, and cinnamon I toss into the blender), baking unleavened bread, getting out the lamb bones I have in the freezer to roast, arranging bitter greens, spooning out horseradish, and mixing up salt water. All to make real to our church, as it’s made real to the Jewish people every year during Passover, how God delivered His people from slavery in Egypt all those years ago…and how Christ delivered us from slavery to sin on the cross.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard over the years that Constantine is the one who decided Christmas would be celebrated on December 25, because it was already a pagan holiday, and this would make it easier on his people to convert to Christianity. I pretty much believed this for years . . . until I looked it up for myself.
I had to look into this when I began my research for Giver of Wonders
. There are two different major holidays celebrated by Rome, which Constantine is accused of trying to integrate into Christmas, or vice versa. One of these holidays actually wasn’t even celebrated until after
the days of Constantine, when the date of Christmas was definitely set. So that rules that one out.
The other is Saturnalia, which had been celebrated in Roman culture for centuries. It was a festival of lights (does sound familiar…) and one of gift-giving (also familiar). So is there truth to that accusation? Did Constantine choose that date for Christmas and then integrate our holy day into a pagan festival?
In reality, Constantine didn’t do anything but legalize what was already custom. The church had been observing the birth of Christ on December 25 for many years already by the time the emperor converted, and even by the time that date was canonized by the Council.
Why December 25th then? Those who study history and the Jewish calendar are pretty sure Christ could not have been born in winter. There were shepherds in the hills, after all, which wouldn’t have been the case in December. So what gives?
Well, I don’t know why those in the know ignored some very sound logic when determining the date. But here’s what I do know: they had a reason for selecting December 25 that had nothing to do with any pagan holidays. See, at that time in history, Dec 25 was the winter solstice (did you know the date of the solstice had moved??). That’s why the pagans celebrated on that day–it’s why pretty much every religion had a celebration on that day.
But Christians? Why did we?
Well, it’s because the Christian scholars and priests of that era (educated, it may be worth noting, in Greek and Roman schools–there were no Christian-only schools at the time) believed that the God who created the universe created it with order and symmetry. They believed, for example (as did their Greek and Roman compatriots) that important men had a star appear to herald their birth. (So it would have been odd if the Gospels hadn’t included this for Jesus!) They believed their lives and births were written in the very cosmos–which is pretty cool, really. Right?
Well they also believed that this symmetry extended to the length of their life as well, and that the best and most important men in history lived in a full number of years.
Um . . . huh?
It’s weird. I know. This belief certainly didn’t survive the millennia, LOL. But that’s honestly what they thought. That Jesus, as the greatest man ever, would have lived a whole number of years, no random months and days added on.
So that would mean born and died on the same day, right? And we know he died on Passover–which was, as it happened, the Spring Equinox. So he must have been born on it . . . right?
Wrong. Life was not counted from the date of birth–it was counted from the supposed date of conception. So the belief was that the Holy Spirit must have conceived Jesus in Mary on the Spring Equinox (March 25). Which meant that He would have been born 9 months later.
So our quick math scrolls that calendar ahead 9 months to . . . voila! December 25.
This, my friends, is the honest-to-goodness reason why Christmas was set on December 25, way back in the 200s, well before Constantine took power and converted to Christianity.
Now, did some of the pagan traditions–candlelight and gift-giving–work their way into the day? Perhaps. Though gift-giving on Christmas wasn’t actually that prevalent until centuries later. Gift-giving, in the 3rd and 4th centuries, was actually done on Dec 6–the Feast Day of St. Nicholas (yesterday!), to remember the saint who gave so generously of his wealth, and anonymously. Dec 6 was a day to give and have no one know who gave. But it was close to Christmas. And over the years, the traditions blurred together. Especially, honestly, after the Protestant Revolution, when Luther declared “No more feast days of saints!” The people weren’t willing to give up their St. Nicholas Day . . . so they began saying it was the Christ Child who gave gifts on his birthday instead (Christ-kindl in German, which is where Kris Kringle came from!).
So there we have it. It may not be the actual date on which Jesus was born–probably isn’t–but it was a date selected because the people doing the selecting believed that the greatest Man in history would have been conceived and died on the same day.
As a promised, a bit more about Giver of Wonders today. 😉
At the start of the story, my heroine Cyprus is twelve years old. In the very first scene, she experiences an accident that leaves her paralyzed–and the thoughts and fears are quick to bombard her. Her father–Roman by heritage but Greek by upbringing–will have no patience for her in such a condition, she knows.
She knows he loves her. But she’s just a child–and a girl, at that. In that society at that point in history, female children weren’t viewed as precious–not when they had a disability, certainly. They were possessions of the father, and their purpose was to bring him honor through their marriages. According to Roman law, a father can kill his daughter at any point in her life without consequence. It’s his right.
So Cyprus, suddenly unable to move, sees her life flash before her eyes–but not the life she’s lived thus far. The short, brutal life she knows is about to come.
She’ll die. Not from the fall that severed her spinal cord (not that I name it as such, LOL), but from what she views as the decision her father will have no choice but to make. It’s unthinkable that he’ll saddle himself and his wife with such a child for innumerable years. He’ll do what his Greek neighbors would expect him to do:
Because he loves her, she doubts he’ll be able to do it by his own hand, so he’ll do what most parents do in the face of an obviously imperfect child: leave her on a hilltop for the weather and wild animals to snarl over.
To modern, Western philosophy, this mindset is simply unthinkable. Because children are precious. They are a gift from God. We give them, in general, more consideration than adults–but this is a relatively new idea. As recently as a hundred years ago, families with any means still believed children were meant to be tucked away and cared for out of sight–and earshot–by hired help. Christmas celebrations were for the adults, not primarily the children. They would have considered this ancient mindset extreme, but they without the benefit of modern medicine and therapy and equipment probably would have also shrugged and said, “But I understand. What can they do? Wouldn’t it have been more merciful to end her suffering?”
Throughout the book, Cyprus’s father represents that Greek/Roman way of thinking–first for himself and only after that for his daughters.
So how are daughters to respond, especially in a world that thinks like he does?
How do you honor a parent who is not honoring God?
These are a few questions I dig into–quesitons I had no answer to going in, but which came to light as I wrote. And I do it by remembering something that would have been new and revolutionary at the time:
God values children, even daughters. He pours love and affection out upon them. The early Christian church did something unprecedented in history by taking in orphans and unwanted children and loving them. Teaching them that God loved them. That they were precious.
That mindset we take for granted today? That’s all thanks to God and Jesus. Which is why it’s pretty funny when the secular feminist today spouts nonsense about the Bible being anti-woman. Because honey, without the Bible and its mores, you wouldn’t have any rights to complain at all. 😉
Of course, the book would be pretty short if Cyprus’s father really killed her after chapter one. She ends up miraculously healed . . . but her father won’t accept that either. Because why would God waste a miracle on a third daughter? And so, in the years to come, Cyprus asks a new question:
Why did God heal her?
I think this is a question many of us relate to. Why did God move in that way in our lives? What was the plan, the purpose? How are we supposed to remember the feeling of peace and Joy when the world around us crumbles?
Good questions. It takes Cyprus many, many pages to arrive at an answer. And it’s one I pray will shed some new light on what love–selfless, God-given love–is really all about.
It’s only a week and a half until November. That means a week and a half until this releases…
In all the excitement of visiting England and seeing the settings for my Bethany House books, Giver of Wonders hasn’t been talked about much. But now, with November and release upon us . . . well, it’s time to talk about Christmas. =)
I wanted to write a Christmas book–that’s one of the reasons that I sat down, a couple years ago, and began this story. Except that it isn’t a traditional Christmas book. It’s set around 290 AD, well before recognizable Christmas traditions began. There were no evergreen trees lit up. No snow, certainly, where this takes place in modern-day Turkey (Lycia at the time). There were no stockings and tinsel and jolly elves in red.
But there were gifts. And they came down a chimney. And there was the man on whom the jolly elf in red was, loosely, based.
There were miracles instead of magic. There was Jesus and his birth, celebrated among the early church on the Winter Solstice (December 25 at the time). There was sacrifice, and there was family, and there was love.
It took me forever to write this book. Or at the very least, a year longer than I intended it to do. I struggled a bit to put my vision for who the real St. Nicholas might have been onto the page, and to do so in a way that stuck with my usual formula for a biblical novel. Because, of course, this story isn’t primarily about Nikolaos (as it would have been spelled in Greek…with English letters, LOL.) It’s about fictional characters Cyprus Visibullis and her sisters. Who are, in my version of events, the sisters around whom one of our most beloved Christmas traditions was born.
Because Nik gave more than gifts to children who really don’t need them. He gave gifts to those who needed them most, and he gave them anonymously. He gave hope to those who were lost. He gave life and healing to those who were broken and desperate.
Nikolaos was a man of God. And though my novelized version of him is probably pretty far from the real man who led the church in Myra all those centuries ago, I pray it gets to the heart of him. And to why he’s still celebrated today.
So though my focus hasn’t been on it much yet, I’m so excited to share Giver of Wonders with the world, and I look forward to talking about parts of it each Wednesday in the next month or so. It’s a Christmas story that you can read in any season. Because ultimately, it’s not about the day Jesus was born.
It’s about the love that ought to fill His followers all year.
I’m a historical fiction writer–and a historical fiction reader. I have always loved to learn history (or reinforce it) through a fictional story. For me, for my mind, that makes facts stick in ways that an article or non-fiction book seldom make it do. It makes it come alive. It makes it walk and breathe.
Over the weekend, I was hanging out with my family and with a man named Sascha–back in 1993, he came here from Germany for a year and stayed with my family as a foreign exchange student. We’ve seen him several times since, but the last was, for me, 16 years ago, when he came in for my high school graduation and stayed in for my sister’s wedding in July, traveling with friends for the weeks in between. Last year in May, he got married in Palermo, and my parents went to the wedding. Now he and his new bride came for a visit here.
Somehow, the talk around the dining room table turned to different parts of history as we ate. We talked about volcanoes, and I had to tell about the one in Mexico the kids learned about in Hill of Fire (by Thomas Lewis), an early reader about a volcano that came up out of a farm field and erupted in 1943.
We talked about the beautiful, intricate wood carvings he brought for us from the small German village where his father was born and raised, and I was reminded of the amazing carvings in The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs (by Betty G. Birney–a really, really cool book for kids, and which adults can enjoy too, if you’re looking for a read-aloud!)
Sascha brought chocolates, as well, including some Ferrero Rocher from Italy, in their shiny gold wrappers. My niece loves any chocolates in shiny wrappers–she refers to them as “chocolate balls of deliciousness” and collects those wrappers . . . which, of course, reminded me of the candy wrappers in The Kitchen Madonna (by Rumer Godden), and how the inventive children used them to create something beautiful and meaningful. And how the quest for each piece of paper, each scrap of material changed hearts and lives.
And those are just a few examples from dinner. Over the course of the weekend, various conversations also touched on the Baptist movement in Sweden (Gathered Waters by Cara Luecht), the Iconoclastic Fury in Holland (The Sound of Diamonds by Rachelle Rea), WWII in Holland (The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum).
How the Russian Orthodox church was separated from the Western church (research for A Lady Unrivaled). We talked about the early church before the Bible was canonized, and I brought up what I’d learned when researching for Giver of Wonders.
It’s possible I talk about history more than the average person, LOL–it’s one of my passions, it’s what my writing involves, plus I homeschool my kids, so I’m reading it with them every day. But it’s history that I remember so well because of story. History that’s real to me because characters have made it so. History I rarely forget, because those stories have become a part of my heart, a part of my life.
I’m always baffled by people who don’t read fiction. Or, no–I understand those who just aren’t inclined toward it, whose minds work differently than mine. What I don’t understand are people who scoff at those of us who do enjoy fiction, especially genre fiction. Who deem it stupid or foolish or a waste of time, who call it “not real literature” and feel so superior because they only read non-fiction or so-called “literary” works.
To me, it’s the difference between a line drawing and a realistic painting. Between an indistinct statue and animatronics. To me, a compelling story makes what was real come to life again.
And so, whenever I come across those scoffers, I just smile. And I talk about whatever subject they’re talking about, the things I’ve learned about it . . . and the stories that brought it to life. I don’t ever apologize. I don’t really argue. I just prove the point. Yes, I write romance–and there are a ton of scoffers over that. I write historical romance. I read fiction of every genre and variety. Non-fiction when I must, to research, but it’s usually what I can weave into my story that I really remember. And I can talk intelligently. I know things they don’t, and I’m excited learn things I didn’t already. I can challenge them, and accept challenges in return.
And for me, it’s all thanks to fiction.