CAPE MAY – Faith Matters examined the history and purpose of cherished holiday traditions over the past three weeks. From Hanukkah to Advent, the traditions span generations, faiths and time.
Hanukkah and Christmas share similarities in the use of light and gift-giving, while Advent provides a pause to ponder the mystery and wonder of Christmas.
Yet, what is Christmas, and how is it being celebrated in the shadow of the coronavirus?
How Did Christmas Begin?
One must investigate the past to understand traditions. Christmas is older than a Norman Rockwell scene with snow-capped roofs, in New England, or the jolly Santa Claus figure.
Historical records say the “Feast of the Nativity” was first celebrated by Egyptian Christians around 432 A.D. The early Roman Catholic Church wanted to bring unity throughout the remains of the Roman Empire, sacked by barbarian tribes in 410.
Celebrating Jesus Christ’s birth counteracted the winter festivals of the Celts, in Britain, the Gauls, in France, and the Saxons, in Germany. Historical records show converted Britons celebrating the Nativity feast in the sixth century.
Traditionally, the celebration of Christmas Dec. 25 was highly debated in the Western Church for centuries.
What Does Christmas Mean?
The word springs from “Christ Mass,” a service instituted Dec. 25. The mass was celebrated by Christians throughout Europe. Over time, Christmas began to include special foods and games, varying from nation to nation.
Was Jesus Born Dec. 25?
The Biblical account does not state the exact time of year when Jesus was born, in Bethlehem. Many historians believe he was born in the spring, in the year 6 A.D. The Gospel accounts written by Matthew and Luke focus on the miracle of Jesus’ birth.
Christians believe that Jesus, God the Son, was born to Mary, an ordinary, virgin teen. The Holy Spirit – the third being of the Trinity – performed a supernatural act, and Christ was conceived in human form.
The story of Jesus’ birth can be read in the Gospel of Luke, chapters 1-2, and Matthew’s gospel.
Why is Christmas Important?
According to the New Testament, Jesus became human flesh to fulfill Old Testament prophecy as the sacrificial lamb of God. To forgive human sin and restore fellowship with God the Father, Christ offered himself and died on a Roman cross approximately 33 years later.
“Jesus is our savior,” the Rev. Allan Leonard, of The Episcopal Church of the Advent, in Cape May, said Dec. 8. The structure of Christianity stands on his birth, life, death and resurrection. The resurrection is celebrated at Easter.
He then read from the Gospel of John, chapter 1, and verses 1-4: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (KJV)
How is Christmas Celebrated?
The modern idea of Christmas did not begin until the mid-1800s. Many Protestants shunned the idea, claiming it was unnecessary and unbiblical. Lutherans proved to be the exception, however, as Pastor Mark Bruesehoff, of Holy Trinity, in Wildwood, explained.
Martin Luther, a German reformer, encouraged Christmas celebrations, reclaiming it from Catholicism and paganism. Lighting candles and putting up a tree are traditionally German.
Queen Victoria, of Great Britain, had the first Christmas tree, in England, after her marriage to Prince Albert, in 1840. Christmas was not a federal holiday in America until 1870.
Special foods range from Italy, Germany, Poland and Sweden. In Italy, panetto is traditional dense cake eaten at Christmas. Germans enjoy gingerbread cookies, while Poles and Austrians eat “Kolaczki,” a pastry filled with sweet cream and jam. Swedes anticipate special cinnamon rolls.
Across Cape May County, these sweet treats are enjoyed by the descendants of European immigrants.
“Silent Night,” one of the most popular Christmas carols, was first sung in the Austrian mountains, in 1818, after a harsh year of economic hardship.
The legend of St. Nicholas led to the idea of Santa Claus, based on a second century Turkish monk who gave gifts to needy children and the sick.
Due to Covid, restrictions changed how churches and families are celebrating Christmas.
Pastor Bill Laky, of Revolve Church, in North Cape May, said the congregation “will meet as usual” Christmas Eve, observing government mandate.
The church presently meets in the Two Mile Landing Restaurant. The large deck and indoor dining room provides ample space for social distancing.
“We have an illusion of security,” said Laky, during a Dec. 11 phone interview. He referred to how so many went about life without much thought until the coronavirus. Laky hopes that people will look to Jesus Christ for salvation.
Coastal Christian, in Ocean City, is also meeting in person, in addition to livestreamed services. According to church staff, four services will be held Dec. 24. Preregistration is required to attend. Sanitation and cleaning are carried out between services.
Members of The Episcopal Church of the Advent, in Cape May, are waiting for word if they will meet in person Dec. 24 and 25. Leonard said a decision would be made in a timely manner.
Our Lady Star of the Sea, in Cape May, will hold Christmas Eve Mass at 3 p.m., 4:30 p.m., and 9 p.m. All Masses will be livestreamed, as well.
“Let it be a silent night,” Bruesehoff told the Herald. In the spirit of the shepherds who went to see the Christ child, Bruesehoff said the spirit of wonder is alive like never before.
He will preach on the theme of “ponder, wonder, and adore,” as he marveled and preached upon for years. A Christmas Eve service will be held in person at Holy Trinity, in Wildwood, if circumstances remain the same.
“Let’s ponder like Mary, wonder like the shepherds, and adore like the Wise Men,” concluded Bruesehoff.
Faith Matters is an ongoing series exploring the connection between individuals and their faith, impacting their families, community, and beyond. Those with a story of faith to share should contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.