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ADD TO YOUR LEARNING - The Philippine Teaching Ministry
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PASKO: How did it start?

By Rolan Monje, Dec 2002

every year my family goes up to Ilocos Norte to celebrate Christmas with the rest of our clan. One time while still in grade school, I felt that I just had to ask my mom why we needed to go. With the kindest smile, she said "Kasi Christmas, and that's how Christmas is." After many years, I decided to learn more about the origins of Christmas, and why it is the way it is today. I hope this article will give you some grasp of its obscure origins.

Most of the practices and beliefs associated with Christmas had very non-Christian origins and some traditions were there long before the birth of Christ. You may be surprised with some of the stories. In the end however, we shall also have to make a mature conclusion about what God desires for the disciple of the 21st century. And before we go on perhaps some reminders from God's word are in order:

1. God richly provides things for our enjoyment (1 Tim 6:17).
2. Paul's example to us was to relate to others, "becoming all things to all men" (1 Cor 9:19-22).
3. Jesus taught his disciple to wisely relate with the world even as people of the light (Lk16:8-9).

The name "Christmas"

It seems the word "Christmas" did not appear until the 4th century. The word Christmas apparently comes from the Old English word - Cristes Maesse or Christ's Mass - essentially of Roman church origin and Latin influence. Today, numerous peoples have coined terms for the different elements of Christmas in their native languages. The greeting "Merry Christmas" is heard in different versions around most of the globe.

The date of Jesus' birth

We do know that the birth of Christ is a historical event. Luke's purpose in writing his gospel was clearly to provide people with documentary evidence of Jesus. His birth did indeed happen, though no one is really sure about the exact date. Early Christian writers (up until the 3rd century) purport different dates. Furthermore, the traditional December date is unlikely because December in Israel is chilly and rainy (and thus shepherds would not be out with their sheep).

Now about December 25th - the date probably originated with the ancient "birthday" of the son-god, Sol Invictus, a pagan deity whose religious influence became widespread in the Roman Empire during the first few centuries A.D. A similar Semitic sun-god, Shamash, was widely worshipped as well. Rome was quite known for absorbing the pagan practices of its widespread empire. Since Rome also had its celebrations in the winter solstice period (honoring the god Saturnus) the winter holiday became known as Saturnalia and started about a week prior to December 25th and ended in January. The festival was characterized by gift-giving, merrymaking and singing. Soon, the practice spread to surrounding countries including Egypt, England and Scandinavia within a few centuries.

Three Wise Men?

The Bible says nothing about how many wise men came from the East. The Bible doesn't mention their names, and doesn't give details about how they made their journey. Some have assumed that the wise men (or magi) were three in number because Matthew 2:11 makes mention of three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh." But then the number of magi (and note: magi, not kings) is not specified in Scripture , and some Eastern religions have claimed up to ten or twelve of them made the journey to see Christ. The supposed names of the wise men, Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltasar, are not in the Bible and did not appear in Christian writing until over some centuries after the birth of Jesus. Besides, the Bible says the magi visited "the house" (Matt 2:11) and not the manger as many think.

Angels, Star & Christmas Tree

Angels are attested to in Luke's account, and the whole Bible is replete with angelic appearances. The 'star of Bethlehem' is mentioned in Matthew's account. It led the magi to the place "where the child was". While the star does hold some inspirational value, I don't think it holds any deep symbolic or theological importance.

The Christmas Tree has come a long way in history. Today, the green tree has significant meaning almost all over the world. It appears historically that Romans used green twigs for good luck talismans. In British and Celtic traditions, the Yule (or solstice season) log fire and the greenery used to decorate homes were believed to bring back its warmth at the time of the solstice. Most of other Teutonic customs were well established even before the actual birth of Jesus!

Santa Claus

An important part of holiday celebrations is Santa Claus, and he has an interesting story behind him. The custom of Santa Claus signifies the life of Saint Nicholas, who was known for his charity to the poor. He was a bishop (leader or overseer of the early church), who lived during the 4th-century in Asia Minor.
There is a story that Saint Nicholas once helped a man's daughter with by anonymously dropping a bag of gold down the chimney. Later on, the practice of dropping gifts down the chimney was established. With the passing of time, St. Nicholas became Santa Claus. Santa has many other aliases all over the world.

Misa de Gallo

As Pinoys we know that we were a colony of Spain for more than three centuries. The early mass probably originated in Mexico the late 1500's. It consists of outdoor Masses before Christmas to accommodate large numbers of people attending. Today, this spiritual preparation for Christmas continues with Masses held early in the morning.

After the service, traditional food is served, such as Puto
bumbong, salabat and tsokolate. The prayers end on Christmas Eve with Midnight Mass known as Misa de Gallo because of the early hour.

So what now?

Seeing the nature of these traditions, should we turn off the Christmas lights, throw away the ham and puto, and not accept any gifts? I don't think so. There is no harm in commemorating Jesus' entrance into the world. Remember that what we are celebrating is fact, not a myth!

Ultimately, how you celebrate your Pasko depends on culture. But Christians can live in any culture and still be sold-out for God. Read Mark 7 and you will see that nothing "outside" a man can make him unclean. Read Matt 15 and you will see that tradition is concerning only when it nullifies the word of God. Also, what matters to the Christian is that we consistently commemorate Jesus' death (1 Cor 11:23-26 and 2 Cor 4:10).

Finally, the goal for the disciple would be to keep the "Christ' in Christmas and let our light shine during the holidays. Let's be spiritual and relatable! In this way, disciples can be "in the world" but not "of the world". We can use Christmas to make an impact just as we do in all the Philippine holidays!

Yes, it may be true that Jesus was not born in December, and yes the Christmas holiday is basically just a reconstituted Roman, pagan holiday, but this is still the time when the religious world celebrates the coming into the world of the Savior, the Redeemer of mankind, the Christ-child, Jesus of Nazareth. Rather than throw water on the whole thing, we ought instead to do our best to keep the Christ in Christmas.

Because Jesus is Lord always, we can let our light shine! Let's be disciples this Christmas and every day of the year.


1 While some critics disregard the Bible as a historical book, they are on the losing side simply by the lack of evidence against the Bible. Science and archeology now tends to support the Bible rather than invalidate it. The Bible's historicity cannot be discussed in this article, but the proofs pointing to the Bible's accuracy and trustworthiness are overwhelming.

2 In 354 AD, Liberius of Rome gave the order to celebrate Christmas.

3 The Greek root has "magos", plural "magoi." Herodotus the historian refers to them originally as astronomers-astrologers. There is no evidence to conclude that there were three or that they were "kings." For Pinoys, I guess there's nothing really wrong with singing "May tatlong haring nagsidaaa-law", just know that it's not accurate. Ok?

4 Matt 2:9

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