The Biblical Christmas was not about a baby in a manger, writes Glynn Cardy
The Christmas season is a delightful jumble of traditions. Why are we singing about decking halls with boughs of holly, whatever "decking" means? Why isn't, as one child asked, Santa in the nativity scene? Is Christmas a Christian festival or can anyone join in?
There are four main traditions of the season. Each can be valued and celebrated. For each encourage and challenge us to make our world a better place.
The first is the Winter Solstice observed on December 25th in the Julian Calendar. It marked the longest night of the year. Following harvest, all nature seemingly had begun to die, and the colour green faded from the earth.
Death was advancing. But then, significantly, the sun "turned". Light was re-born to the world. People rejoiced, feasted and celebrated.
In Middle Eastern civilisations - Syria, Egypt, Persia - Winter Solstice was symbolised by the birth of a divine male child from the dark womb of the Goddess. Winter Solstice rituals in Europe primarily involved fire and greenery.
The most important fire ritual was the Yule-log, symbolising warmth, light and the continuance of life.
Yule, the festival of rebirth, lasted 12 days.
Greenery was used to celebrate the triumph of the life-force. In Rome, temples were decorated with evergreens, especially holly. Pine and fir trees were also decorated with streamers, bells, and ornaments of gold and silver.
At Solstice rituals people sang and danced carols. Some carols, like The Holly and the Ivy date back to these times. Winter Solstice rituals have carried on century after century, with many customs being incorporated into Christmas.
The second tradition of the season is Santa Claus. He is derived from St Nicholas who was born during the third century. His wealthy parents died when he was still young. Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick and the suffering.
Over the centuries St Nicholas has travelled a circuitous route from Turkey to Europe, especially the Netherlands, then to America, changing in form as he went. The saint's name shifted to Santa Claus.
His mission also shifted - from caring for the poor to being a gift-giver to all, including the affluent. He's also been used increasingly in the last century as an endorser of consumer products.
Love him or loathe him Santa is here to stay. At best he's a symbol of generosity and a reminder that we need to care for the needy. At his worst he's a symbol of the "I want more" greed culture.
All around the Santa gift-giving custom there is predominantly a sense of fun, feasting and merriment.
The third tradition is the Christmas Pageant. It involves all the biblical nativity characters on stage at once. There are angels, white robed and winged. There are shepherds, healthy and benign. There are kings, wise men from the East, with their gifts.
There is solid Joseph and innocent Mary. There is an inviting manger, with a blue-eyed boy in its crib. This happy scene is replicated on Christmas cards and in carols.
Although this Pageant scene bears little resemblance to what the biblical authors wanted to portray, a lot of our enjoyment of Christmas is tied into this myth: babies are wonderful, families and communities are important. Love is the essence of God, and music is the closest thing we have to a divine language.
The fourth tradition is the Bible's Christmas. This is not about a baby, but about a man. The authors used stories from the Hebrew Bible to talk about Jesus' radical tolerance, his bias to the poor, and his challenge to those in positions of religious and political power.
The Gospel of Matthew, for example, constructs a genealogy to link Jesus with King David. Yet, in the genealogy there are clues that his power is not that of a normal King. Women, scandalous sinners and non-Jews are included. Jesus' power would be one of promoting tolerance and compassion.
Likewise with the inclusion of the "Wise Men", Zoroastrians, the author was saying that the Jesus movement was not just for Jews.
The Gospel of Luke talks of the mighty being brought low and the humble lifted up. This is portrayed in the place of Jesus' birth, a religiously impure stable belonging to a stranger, and his first visitors, shepherds, who in that time were considered petty thieves.
The message is that Jesus was of lowly origins standing with people of lowly origins against the power and wealth of the mighty. Jesus' power would be an upside-down power grounded in a life lived in God.
These four traditions of Winter Solstice, Santa, Pageant, and Biblical Christmas merge together at this time of year, each offering us insights into how we might better live.
Glynn Cardy is vicar of the Anglican church of St Matthew-in-the-City