The word “Christmas” is a contraction of the Old English Crīstesmæsse, meaning “Christ’s mass.” The term was first used in 1038.
Because the letter X in Greek is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ, the abbreviation Xmas is not, as some assume, part of a modern plot to “take Christ out of Christmas.” In fact, the abbreviation has been used since the mid-1500s.
This holiday season has been a tradition since long before Christ’s advent. Three Roman festivals were once the high point of the pagan year: Saturnalia (December 17 – 23), accompanied by partying and gift-giving; the Kalends (January 1 – 5), later celebrated as the Twelve Days of Christmas; and Deus Sol Invictus (Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun) on December 25. Though all evidence points to Jesus’s birth having occurred several months before December, the Roman Catholic Church chose this time of year to celebrate it — presumably because people were already in the habit of celebrating then.
Because of its pagan origins, the early Puritans in America banned all Christmas celebrations from 1659-1681. Those who favored Christmas were considered enemies of the faith.
Some traditions give Martin Luther credit for creating the first Christmas tree. As the story goes, he was so moved by the beauty of the stars shining between fir branches that he brought home an evergreen and decorated it with candles to share the image with his children.
The Yule log was an enormous tree trunk burned during the Roman celebration of the Kalends of January. The word Yule refers to the revolution of a wheel, symbolizing the cyclical return of the sun. A burning log or its charred remains was said to give health, fertility, and luck, and to ward off evil spirits.
The legend of Santa Claus arose from stories surrounding St. Nikolas of Myra, who lived during the fourth century in what is now the nation of Turkey. He became the patron saint of banking, pawnbroking, pirating, butchery, sailing, thievery, orphans, royalty, and New York City.
The tradition of hanging Christmas stockings is based on the legend of three sisters who were too poor to afford a marriage dowry and were, therefore, doomed to earn their living through prostitution. They were spared that fate when St. Nikolas, then a wealthy bishop, crept down their chimney and filled the ladies’ stockings (which they’d washed and hung up to dry) with gold coins.
When we consider the history of the holiday, it can be hard to see what any of it has to do with Jesus. But two things are certain:
It’s always the right time to celebrate Jesus; and
Christmas is a perfect time to proclaim the great tidings of the Gospel!
That’s the first part of Psalm 2:4, in case you don’t recognize it. The whole psalm is short, but well worth reading and contemplating regularly.
And now, though it looks like I’m changing the subject, I’m not.
I think overall, the quality and variety of Christian fiction is improving, and I’m happy to see the changes. However, my opinion remains that for cream-of-the-crop writing, head for the secular fiction.
Yes, we must be discerning about these things. There are scads of books out there I wouldn’t want to read—nor even look at the covers. Nevertheless, discounting erotica, secular fiction offers a wide assortment of absorbing, thought-provoking stories that are beautifully crafted.
Take, for instance, the book I finished reading last week. It’s classic sci-fi, and I found it compelling. Not because of the science, as I don’t care about that so much. What intrigued me was the way the story looked at religion from a wholly clinical perspective.
I’m talking bout The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke. If you’re not a sci-fi fan, you might not recognize the author as one of “The Big Three” of science fiction writers in the formative years of the genre (the other two being Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov).
The guy was no slouch. Very brainy. He was not only a prolific writer of science nonfiction as well as fiction, but a deep sea explorer and inventor as well. (I believe he had a TV show, too, though I’m not sure that speaks to his intelligence.) Perhaps his best-known claim to fame is his creation of the novel and the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Which I’ve never read or seen. I’m going to have to rectify that soon.)
A brief background of the story in question:
When scientists discovered that the sun was about to go nova in the next few thousand years, the world united in making plans to preserve human life by transplanting it to other planets. This was done initially through the use of “seedships” that carried the raw ingredients and genetic formulas to create not only human life, but farm animals, plants, and a variety of creatures necessary for food production. (No disease organisms or parasites, however.) Once a suitable environment would be found—or created through scientific means on a planet that held potential—robots would construct the necessary life, raise the test-tube babies to maturity, and assist them in establishing a self-sufficient colony over the next several human generations.
After cryogenics became more reliable, ships were sent out with actual people on them, but frozen, with the systems programmed to awaken them when the time was right.
In both cases, the ships carried books, art, and other relics from earth so that the new societies these people established would preserve the old terrestrial culture. However—and this is the fun part—everything sent into space was carefully selected in order to avoid contamination of any sort, whether medical or mental. And one of the harmful influences expunged was any whiff of religion.
You see, by this time, mankind had become so logical that people no longer believed in the existence of God. In the words of one of the book’s characters (who called the Creator God Alpha): “Fortunately for mankind, Alpha faded out of the picture, more or less gracefully, in the early 2000s.” The character went on to explain how mankind came to certain conclusions about the impossibility of such a Being, reason prevailed, and God died.
The story takes place on the planet of Thalassa, where one of the seedships had met with success several centuries earlier. The society there is small but thriving, with the inhabitants living happy, productive lives in peace and harmony.
The author wrote so skillfully that the scenario was almost believable. As I sketch it out for you now, though, I can’t keep it from sounding ridiculous. Perhaps one reason the author was so convincing (apart from his considerable writing skill) is because he fully believed it all possible. And it’s hard for me to grasp how an intelligent man could seriously entertain those thoughts. It makes me think that however well trained Arthur C. Clarke was in the sciences, he was no student of either history or human nature.
The author considered religion an outgrowth of ignorance and superstition; scientific understanding would, therefore, eventually overcome it. It’s true that scientific discoveries have put many religious myths to rest. However, there’s a gaping chasm between religious myth and scriptural truth.
No scientific evidence has ever disproved the Bible. Some scientists’ interpretations of the evidence contradict the scriptural record, but the actual evidence does not. As a matter of fact, when viewed objectively, the physical evidence supports the history of Noah’s flood more than it does evolutionary theory.
Not all scientists are in agreement about what the evidence indicates. Some highly educated people see science as glorifying the Creator God, not disproving His existence. They might be among a quiet minority, but they’re out there in the scientific community, looking the facts in the eye and seeing God looking back at them.
Here’s another glitch to the story’s premise: If we did not originally bear the image of the eternal God, why would we care if the sun incinerated the solar system? Wouldn’t a more likely attitude be Let’s eat, drink, and be merry while we can, because tomorrow we’ll be ash? I have to believe that without any concept of eternity, man’s inclination would be to go for the gusto. Who cares if the world suddenly burns up in a galactic fireball? It was fun while it lasted, and once we’re gone, we won’t feel a thing.
The idea of humanity vanishing without leaving a footprint is so jarring because it collides against our innate awareness that we were created for eternity. For us to be horrified by the thought, we must have some concept of God deep within.
Which leads us to the fact that no culture has ever needed to be taught religious thinking. Removing all mention or trace from the records (which in itself seems an impossible task, as it permeates everything mankind produces) wouldn’t delete it from our DNA. The suggestion that mankind is religious only because he was influenced by his ancestors flies in the face of reason.
Back to the Christian fiction v. secular topic. Why do I enjoy a book that presents a viewpoint I disagree with? Because stories like this give me a chance to look at subjects I might otherwise take for granted. Exploring these things from multiple sides results in deeper understanding and stronger faith. Also, seeing how others perceive the world helps me to better relate to others. When I read or hear what seems like an outlandish statement, I’m better equipped to see where they’re coming from.
But here’s the main reason: as a writer, reading excellent writing helps me improve my own.
When I want well-written fiction, I read the masters of the craft. When I want truth, I read the Bible. Because knowing God’s word is the only way we can rightly identify the fiction in any novel.
Arthur Clarke died in 2008 at the age of 90. I hope that sometime before his death he had a change of heart. It would be painful indeed to stand before the undeniable God you’d spent your whole life trying desperately to deny.
The plant in question probably isn’t a hundred years old, but I like the title, “The Century Cactus,” so I’m exercising a little poetic license. Besides that, the cactus might be a hundred years old. As far as I’m aware, nobody knows for sure.
The same might be said for the drapes in the window, but that’s another story.
When my dad moved in with us in 2004, my brother, sister and I had to decide what to do with the Christmas cactus. It had been in the house for many years, as it was my mother’s mother’s before it was hers. (This applies to both the house and the plant.)
After Mom passed away in 2003, my dad continued watering the resident cactus every Sunday (when he remembered), so it was still alive. But it wasn’t very perky, and no one remembered when it last bloomed.
My brother and his wife had a nice bay window in their apartment, so they took the cactus home, read up on the care and feeding of a Christmas cactus, treated it according to the instructions, and it thrived. And bloomed! But then they moved and didn’t have a place for it, and I ended up with it.
My horticultural skills end at the back door. That is, I garden, but I don’t do houseplants. (In the first picture above, see the stick in the pot next to the cactus? It’s a bay tree. Ha! It’s a bay stick. But there again, that’s another story.) I set it on my window ledge and watered it when I thought of it, but it didn’t do anything but sit there. That is to say, it didn’t bloom.
Then one summer, I noticed a weird fungus growing in the soil. I have no idea what it was, but I wasn’t wild about the idea of having it in my house, so I took the plant outside and set it in the sun. I didn’t know if the hot sun would kill the cactus, but I hoped it would kill the fungus, at least. To help aid the fungus’s demise, I quit watering the pot. I figured the cactus had lived a good life, and if it didn’t survive the treatment, it would be no great loss.
The fungus died, and all the branches dried up and fell off the cactus, leaving only a big woody stump. But that fall, I brought the pot in and started watering the plant to see if it would revive.
As you can see, it did. Or at least, new branches grew in, but it didn’t bloom. Until now! A couple of weeks ago I was surprised to see a blossom, with a number of buds appearing. Now, there are several blossoms, and more buds. As far as I know, this is the first time it’s bloomed since 2005. Apparently it likes it here in Maryland.
Why am I wasting your time and mine with this post? Because it’s fun to think that this plant has been in the family for three generations.
I don’t know when or from where my mother’s mother acquired the cactus. Was it a cutting from one that had been in the family even longer? I’ll never know.
I have no memory of my grandmother, because she died before I was born. But when I think about her having cared for it, and now it’s blooming for me, it makes me smile. Whatever the story behind it might be, I call it the heirloom cactus.
Hmmm… maybe I should have used that as the title for this post. Nah. If I do that, I’ll have to rewrite the first two paragraphs.