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Books probe Christmas’ religious origins

January 4, 2011

Somewhere in all of the sparkly lights and wrapped packages and jolly elves of Christmas, there is — or was — a religious story at the heart of the holiday, and three new books argue it shouldn’t be forgotten.

In Christmas: A Festival of Incarnation, Lutheran theologian Donald Heinz emphasizes the importance of the incarnation of Christ — God made flesh — as the root of Christmas.

Heinz’s book highlights how the manger story has influenced music, literature and art throughout history, and warns that the commercialization associated with the holiday should not take precedence over its religious origins.

“Christmas is being buried by an avalanche of materialism and commerce,” said Heinz, a professor of religious studies at California State University, Chico. “The church is going to have to reclaim the religiousness of Christmas if it’s going to survive.”

Heinz doesn’t completely condemn Christmas shopping or gifts; instead he tries to balance between “holiday” and “holy day.” The focus, he said, should not be on glamorous presents, but instead on what Christians believe was God’s gift in the manger.

“It’s easier to imagine (Christmas) without religion than it is without shopping,” he said in an interview. “That’s kind of dramatic ... but it seems to be true to me.”

Greg Tobin, an award-winning Catholic author, also calls for a return to the religious roots of Christmas and other holidays in his upcoming book, Holy Holiday! The Catholic Origins of Celebration.

The New Jersey author explores Catholic and other religious traditions of holidays, from Easter to Halloween to New Year, showing just how much church history is intertwined with the origins of popular holidays.

Christmas, or “Christ’s mass,” is no exception, even though Tobin says the actual date of Jesus’ birth likely was not Dec. 25.

“The birth date of Jesus has never been fully answered,” he said. “The Gospel accounts, as well as other traditions that have grown up around it, have enriched our appreciation for the event but in my mind only deepened the mystery.”

Besides celebrating the birth of Jesus, Tobin notes that Christmas trees, cards and gifts all have connections to the church. In fact, tradition holds that the first person to light a Christmas tree was none other than Martin Luther.

While Heinz and Tobin focus on the religious roots of Christmas, biblical literature scholar Brent Landau offers a new story about the three wise men in his book, Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem.

The story, which he translated into English from an 8th century manuscript squirreled away in the Vatican library, fills in the details about the wise men the Gospel of Matthew does not include.

In Landau’s translation of the ancient manuscripts, the Magi descend from Adam and Eve’s third son, Seth, and a prophecy of “a star of indescribable brightness” received in the Garden of Eden.

The Magi — probably more than three, perhaps as many as 12 or dozens more — traveled from China and were eventually baptized by Thomas, the apostle.

Their names are exotic: Zaharwandad, Austazp, Mihruq, Nasardih. The visiting wise men are not named in the Bible, and tradition has called them Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

In this story, the term “Magi” doesn't connote images of magicians or astrologers, but rather something closer to a mystic who prays silently. At one point, the Virgin Mary accuses the visitors of trying to steal her baby.

“Of the witnesses we’ve got, this one is the most impressive because it gives the magi a back story,” said Landau, a religious studies professor at the University of Oklahoma.

Landau presents The Revelation of the Magi as a way to enrich the traditional Christmas story, and said it “sheds some light on what early Christians were thinking about these characters.”

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