The History of Christmas: Advent

28 11 2011

The tradition of the lighting of lamps or candles leading up to Christmas is called Advent.  As we begin the Advent tradition at Mountain Springs this weekend, the blog of Bill Petro, nicknamed “Doc Rock,” is appropriate for a guest blog this month.  The “History of the Holidays” is written from Doc Rock’s historical insights.

Bill and I have been friends for 30 years, since we served together in ministry with Campus Crusade. In the intervening years, he has been involved in Information Technology with a number of high-tech companies and now specializes in cloud computing and virtualization. During all these years and more he has been studying and teaching history, and in the last couple of decades been publishing his articles online where they can be found at

History of the Holidays

The Advent SeasonAdvent means the “coming” of the Christ Child — is marked by the four Sundays before Christmas and is celebrated in the church calendar as one the most festive seasons of the year.

As we shall see in this series — many of the traditions, customs, and stories of the Advent Season have Christian roots while others have non-Christian sources. Some are legendary, and others are firmly rooted in history.

It is perhaps ironic that the actual date for the Nativity or birth of the Christ Child, which our Western calendar system is based upon, is not known with certainty. Indeed, the Feast of Christmas was not an early festival for the church, like Resurrection Sunday (Easter) was, and in fact did not see general observance until the 4th century. The western church did not agree upon the current date of December 25 until the early part of the 5th century under Pope Leo I, though this date for Christmas was first mentioned in the 4th century illuminated manuscript the Chronography of 354.

Some historians, especially in the Eastern Church, suggested that the date of Christmas was derived as 9 months after the Annunciation (to Mary) which is celebrated on March 25. This would place it on December 25. Many 18th century scholars, including Isaac Newton, argued that this date was picked to supplant the pagan year-end holiday Saturnalia that was celebrated by the Romans and many of whose customs survive today: decorations of evergreen, holly, mistletoe, feasting and the exchange of gifts.

December 25, the ancient date for their Winter Solstice, was celebrated as the birthday of the “unconquerable sun” or dies natalis solis invicti when the sun’s transit was in the lowest point on the horizon with the shortest “day” of the year and then with longer days coming began its transit northward. Under the Christian calendar the 25th was to become known as the birth of the unconquerable Son.

– Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

My Top Most Influential Books – Part 2

7 11 2011

Francis Bacon once said, “Read not to contradict or confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.  Some books are to be tested, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”  The following books, along with the first five mentioned in my last column, are books that I have “chewed and digested” like a fine meal, many times in my life.  These are the books that are dog-eared, have broken bindings, have been replaced several times over, and are still breathing and alive in my heart.  May these next five books serve as an inspiration and encouragement to you.


6.  An All-Around Ministry by Charles Spurgeon.  During a deep theological struggle in my life, this book of lectures to perspective pastors had a great impact in my life.  I often refer back to this book because of its cogent and robust perspective to pastoral ministry, biblical authority, and preaching.  Spurgeon organized a college for training men for ministry and at his death, over 800 men had been equipped for pastoring and preaching.  This book contains a few of Spurgeon’s choice messages delivered from the Prince of the Pulpit to the men he was equipping to be powerful preachers at his annual Presidential Addresses.  Twelve of the twenty-seven addresses are contained in this book.  Spurgeon said it best: “Learning is essential to preaching, but not the kind of learning required by University degrees.  There is a learning that is essential to successful ministry, viz. the learning of the whole Bible, to know God, by prayer and experience of His dealings.”


7.  Miracles by C.S. Lewis.  As a young believer, first hearing about the charismatic movement, watching my father go through many struggles related to conflicts in his church over the miraculous, I read this book.  Lewis’s book is a precise and rational handling of the possibility, and the probability of miracles, and it has always provided an intellectual foundation that God does indeed still perform miracles.  Lewis shows that a Christian must not only accept but rejoice in miracles as a testimony of the unique personal involvement and influence of God in our daily lives.


8.  Here I Stand: the life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton.  I have one of the original hardback books on my shelf.  I stole it from my dad.  Written in 1950 and still in print today, no other book in my knowledge has so beautifully captured in a readable way the life, struggles, and theological battles of Luther and the reformation.  Kenneth Scott Latourette, in the chapter notes for “Luther and the Rise and Spread of Lutheranism” in his History of Christianity, lauds Bainton’s biography as “a superb combination of accurate scholarship based upon a thorough knowledge of the sources and secondary works with insight, vivid, readable literary style, and reproductions of contemporary illustrations. It also contains so valuable a bibliography as to render needless an extended one in this chapter.”  As an addict for a good biography, I have read and reread this biography more than any other.


9.  Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Growing up the son of a Lutheran pastor who was committed to peace, activism, and civil rights, my mom and dad often spoke of Bonhoeffer.  Long before his name became prominent among evangelicals, I had read Life Together and Cost of Discipleship.  Like others I’ve mentioned, Cost of Discipleship is tattered and no longer has a cover.  Given to me by my mom, she wrote on the flyleaf: “To our precious personal disciple of Christ, Stephen A. Holt, Love, Mom & Dad.”  The opening lines of the foreward capture the essence of the book, “When Christ calls a man…he bids him come and die.” Killed by Hitler in 1945, Bonhoeffer died a martyr’s death many times before he died—he understood what it means to be a disciple of Christ.


10.  Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster.  Knowing very little about prayer and fasting, having never heard of the power of silence (even though every teacher I ever had in school preached it to me), learning the need for submission, discovering the value of simplicity (though I still don’t practice it), God has mightily used this little book throughout my journey with Him.  Foster covers the spiritual disciplines with a history for each discipline and its potential for changing our lives.  Dr. Elton Trueblood from the foreward says it best, “There are many books concerned with the inner life, but there are not many that combine real originality with intellectual integrity.  Yet it is exactly this combination which Richard Foster has been able to produce.”


11.  Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret by Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor.  This book is one of my all-time favorite biographies.  Yet it’s more than just a biography.  This is the story of the great missionary pioneer to China, but with a twist.  Unique to other studies of great men is the inclusion of Hudson Taylor’s inner struggle to find the power of God in his life.  More than just what he did, this book carries us on the spiritual journey of Hudson Taylor.  His battles with trusting God with finances, his struggle to connect with the woman he desperately loved, and the weight of a growing ministry, drove Taylor to find the spiritual secret of the exchanged life.  No book has had a more profound and lasting spiritual impact on my life as a Jesus follower and leader.


Reading great books, written by great authors who possess great insights, is the key to staying stimulated, active and envisioned in your life.  I hope this is helpful to those of you who are hungry to keep learning.