St Gregory the Theologian here describes some ways in which people should and shouldn’t celebrate the feast of the Nativity of our Lord:
This is our festival, this is the feast we celebrate today, in which God comes to live with human beings, that we may journey toward God, or return—for to speak thus is more exact—that laying aside the old human being we may be clothed with the new, and that as in Adam we have died so we may live in Christ, born with Christ and crucified with Him, buried with Him, and rising with Him. For it is necessary for me to undergo the good turnaround, and as painful things came from more pleasant things, so out of painful things more pleasant things must return. “For where sin abounded, grace superabounded,” and if the taste of forbidden fruit condemned, how much more does the Passion of Christ justify? Therefore we celebrate the feast not like a pagan festival but in a godly manner, not in a worldly way but in a manner above the world. We celebrate not our own concerns but the One who is ours, or rather what concerns our Master, things pertaining not to sickness but to healing, not to the first shaping, but to the reshaping.
And how will this be? Let us not put wreaths on our front doors, or assemble troupes of dancers, or decorate the streets. Let us not feast the eyes, or mesmerize the sense of hearing, or pamper the sense of smell, or prostitute the sense of taste, or gratify the sense of touch. These are ready paths to evil, and entrances of sin. Let us not be softened by delicate and extravagant clothing, whose beauty is its inutility, or by the transparency of stones, or the brilliance of gold, or the artificiality of colors that falsify natural beauty and are invented in opposition to the divine image; nor by “revelries and drunkenness,” to which I know “debauchery and licentiousness” are linked, since from bad teachers come bad teachings, or rather from evil seeds come evil harvests. Let us not build high beds of straw, making shelters for the debauchery of the stomach. Let us not assess the bouquet of wines, the concoctions of chefs, the great cost of perfumes. Let earth and sea not bring us as gifts the valued dung, for this is how I know to evaluate luxury. Let us not strive to conquer each other in dissoluteness. For to me all that is superfluous and beyond need is dissoluteness, particularly when others are hungry and in want, who are of the same clay and the same composition as ourselves.
But let us leave these things to the pagan Greeks and to Greek pomps and festivals. They name as gods those who enjoy the steam rising from the fat of sacrificial animals and correspondingly serve the divine with their stomachs, and they become evil fashioners and initiators and initiates of evil demons. But if we, for whom the Word is an object of worship, must somehow have luxury, let us have as our luxury the word and the divine law and narratives, especially those that form the basis of the present feast, that our luxury may be akin and not foreign to the One who has called us.
Interesting, isn’t it? It sounds as though Constantinopolitans were right up there in Christmas decoration, excess, and luxuriating with any large city today in the Americas and Europe. I know they had credit available, too. I wonder if they ran it up for the latest toys for the kids? The latest chariot for dads? Some cabochon encrusted baubles for moms?
It sounds as though not much has changed since December 25, 380 AD, when the above words were spoken. They are excerpted from Festal Oration 38, as found in the nice little editon in the St Vladimir’s Seminary Press Popular Patristics Series, Festal Orations of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, translated by Nonna Harrison (SVS Press, 2008).