Age and insight stimulate and mold the soul every bit as much as external stimuli affect and structure the brain. Strain is a tensile thread, woven to create dischord between logic and passion, to set asunder or make apocryphal ideals which we’ve been indocrinated to accept as fact. Such are the by-products of our needs to embrace harmony and give validity to a season, a holiday; to wit, the truth about the institution of Christmas.
A KIND WARNING: If your views are such that you rely upon the church (doesn’t matter which one) to tell you everything you should accept and hold as true, then you really don’t want to read any further. Seriously. While any church is meant to be a tabernacle of God, remember that its very administration is reliant upon the fabric of humans. Human nature being what it is allows for a very porous interpretation of what the collective flock should know.
Let us get the big bang out of the way first: Jesus Christ was not born on December 25th. “Heresy!” you declare. If you skipped the warning above, that’s not my fault. There are biblical scholars the world over, even preachers and faithful lay people, who comfortably admit to that startling premise. And here’s where things begin to get a little shady. Without much explanation they will often pass off December 25th as a day as good as any other to celebrate the birth of Christ. Oh, and they’ll certainly leave out the historical fact that it was originally celebrated by pagans—namely, the Romans, but there were others, too—during a week long shindig they called Saturnalia, which just so happened to be a festival in honor of their god of agriculture, Saturn. It is also possible that the festival of the sun god, Sol Invictus, played a part. That festival carried similar customs to what we have today (gift giving, feasting), and was also on December 25th. Now, before you take to foaming at the mouth and slandering the Romans, I submit to you that the bedrock principles our country were founded upon were gleaned widely from not only the Romans but the Greeks as well. But that’s a post for another time. Back to pagan practices . . .
“Holy s***!” you gasp. I know, huh? As I recall God laid down the rules to Moses, and in those rules he clearly states Thou shall not have other Gods before Me; I’m paraphrasing, of course. I never saw the tablets, but I’m sure not going to question them. Not enough grist for your mill? Okay, check out Deuteronomy 12:28:
“Observe and obey all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you and your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God.
(29) When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, (30) take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’
(31) “You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.
(32) Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it”
Clearly a resounding declaration of the Lord giveth and He can taketh away. So how did we get from pagans to Christmas Day being about the birth of Christ? After all, for a long time Christianity never dealt with, much less gave consideration to Christs’ birth. Jesus himself espoused focusing upon what his life and death meant; he really didn’t want us belabouring his birth. Some scholars and historians have made the arguement that Jesus was born sometime in March or April. There is another interesting theory which, based upon the birth of John the Baptist, puts the birth of Jesus in September.
“Heathen! Modern-day Judas!” I know . . . multitudes decry the the mere notion as sacrilege, outright affrontment to Jesus and God Himself. Time for a little history lesson, J.W. style. But it becomes necessary for me to dispel any such moral renouncement and to lodge the firmament of my belief—if only for the duration of this article, if not for posterity itself—in your mind and temporary heart.
I Believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen . . . Those words are instantly recognizable by any English speaking Catholic, of which I am one. Please note, I lay zero claim to being either a good or bad Catholic. I have participated in all the dogmatic rituals and was raised within a Catholic household. By and large I came out fine. I am, without veil of pretense, much more a person of faith than of subscribed or impressed religion. I hold my faith no more distant to my heart than the blood which runs through my veins. So that we’re clear on the matter, I am a believer.
We’ll get to Pope Julius I and the church’s embrace of things pagan in a bit. But stating that Jesus may have been born in September is quite a bold theory, so here’s the gist: Zacharias and Elizabeth (the biblical Zack and Liz) were an older couple who never had children, as Elizabeth was known to be barren. They were, by all accounts, unwaveringly faithful and held themselves properly to the word of God. Luke tells us that they walked “in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” Sound like good people to me.
From Zacharias and Elizabeth to September
Now Zacharias was a priest, and as was custom in his duties he was burning incense when he aproached the entry into the Temple. As he did so, the angel Gabriel appeared to his right and told him that his wife would bear a son, and they were to name him John. I’m going to try to stick to the meat of the story here, but there’s some wonderful things the bible mentions regarding this. If you want to look it up, it’s Luke 1:8. And no, I am most decidedly not a bible student. I do, however, enjoy a bit of research now and again.
Back to our protagonists, Zack and Liz. Zacharias returned home after serving at the Temple, and shortly thereafter Elizabeth did in fact conceive as Gabriel said. Turns out, Elizabeth and Mary—yes, that Mary—were related. Biblically speaking, John was born about six months before Jesus, which would put John’s conception sometime in June.
Luke tells us next that Gabriel visited Mary shortly after Elizabeth conceived. From 1:26:
“Now in the sixth month [of Elizabeth's pregnancy] the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, (27) to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
(28) And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”
Most of us know this story, I’d bet.
The angel then tells Mary that Elizabeth is in her sixth month of conception. Given the timing, it remains possible that Mary was visited by the Holy Spirit during the Hebrew month of Kislev, around the Feast of Chanukah. Shortly after Gabriel’s visit Mary left to spend some time with Elizabeth and apparently stays with her until John is born.
We know the rest of the story, how Caesar Augustus declared a census, and dutiful Joseph went to Bethlehem to be counted along with his pregnant wife Mary, and while there she gave birth to Jesus and laid him in a manger. Interesting note: much is made of “there was no room at the inn.” Given the possible time of Jesus’ birth, that time of the Jewish year is the Feast of Tabernacles. Jewish pilgrims would have flocked to Jerusalem for the occasion, and would have likely overflowed into satellite towns—Bethlehem amongst them—being only a few miles outside Jerusalem. The Feast of Tabernacles occurs in Sukkot, September. The bible also mentions the birth of the messiah having been on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles.
Good stuff, huh! That’s a lot of information to take in. A lot of material that flies in the face of every sacred notion we’ve been inculcated with. I’m really not trying to rupture the spirit of Christmas. I think the spirit, its essence, should be elevated beyond mere goodness. But to have it predicated upon a falsehood is neither good nor right. So let’s next explore how such a beguiling ideal became so unrighteously ingrained.
Man, the Romans got it goin’ on! We need something like that!
During Christianity’s infancy Easter was the holiday. As mentioned earlier, that fit into Jesus’s teachings. The bible never directly references a birth date for Jesus, but around the fourth century the Holy Church was looking for a way to celebrate his birth, a way to institute it as a secular holiday. Seemed the pagans were on to something the way the church saw it. Pope Julius I decided on the date of December 25. It is believed the church chose the winter solstice as a wey to most easily adopt and absorb the pagan traditions. Having Christmas coincide with traditional winter solstice festivals gave church leaders a higher degree of confidence that Christmas would be popularly embraced. It was dubbed the Feast of the Nativity, thereby tying it into what we classically imagine as the nativity scene—the birth of Jesus.
I won’t go into all the shenanigans which occured during these pagan fetivals, however I will pass on this intriguing tidbit: it was customary during the Saturnalia festivities—which for a long time spanned a full week, even though two Caesars tried to get it shortened—for one person to be elected by the populace as Lord of Misrule for the duration of the celebration. That should give you a hint as to what kind of mischief took place.
By the Medieval period Christianity had overtaken paganism, yet the celebrations themselves were retained for quite a while. The church found it could dictate the date of the holiday but not the activities.
Well before man or civilization had the true capacity to understand the role astronomy played in the seasons, ancients relied upon sacrifices, feasts, and celebrations to appease or entice their individual gods to bring back the sun and bountiful harvests. Many of these ancient cultures, among them the Persians, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Norse, Greeks, Celtic—all pursued some similar ceremonial activity to achieve much the same ends. Given the shortness of days they may have wondered if the sun would ever return. In Scandinavia, during the winter months the sun would disappear for days on end. After thirty-five days scouts would be sent to the mountain tops to look for the return of the sun. When the first light was seen the scouts would return with the good news. A great festival would be held, called the Yuletide.
Another church tie-in was the Yule log—a tradition followed by many pagan sects. The log itself was typically huge, sometimes so large that a team of horses were required to transport it. Burning a log . . . “Big deal!” Ah, but the deal was that so long as the log burned you didn’t have to work. Crafty folks would soak the log in a stream or even get the greenest tree they could find. The light from the burning log was sybolic of the sun, ergo, a tribute to which ever sun god your people might be trying to please. Once the church sanctioned the log as part of the Feast of the Nativity the burning log became symbolic of the light of the Saviour. Convenient, huh?
When Americans are asked about our independence and what brought it about, most reply with something along the lines of “We went to war with Britain.” That’s not entirely untrue, obviously, but there was a small pamphlet written by Thomas Paine which did more to light the fuse on the American idea of separating from mother Britania than most anything else. It was titled Common Sense. It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that a country sprung forth from a pamphlet.
Likewise, what we consider to be Christmas is actually fairly new, and very much American. A man named Washington Irving, one of America’s first great writers, published a book of stories titled The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.. Among the stories were two which may ring a bell: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. But living among these classics were vignettes about Christmas spent in an English manor house. Mind you, this book was published in 1819, so let’s back up a bit to see what happened to Christmas past.
Set our Wayback Machine to 1620, when the English separatists (more familiarly, the pilgrims) came to the New World. Their religious beliefs had no room for a holiday like Christmas. As a result they managed to excise it from 1659 to 1681. In fact, in Boston anyone so much as mentioning anything to do with Christmas was fined five schillings.
Not much happened on American soil in regards to Christmas for quite some time. In the 17th century Dutch settlers brought with them their tradition of exchanging gifts and of a legend they called Sinter Klaas. In the very early 1800′s St. Nicolas makes his debut thanks to the New York Historical Society; they choose St. Nicolas as their patron saint. A few years later, Washington Irving writes a tale (under a different name) in which St. Nicolas is described as riding into town on a horse. In 1812, Irving revises the story and instead depicts St. Nicolas as riding over trees in a wagon. That’s about as much as we had regarding anything resembling Christmas up to that point, and for a while thereafter, which brings us back to Irving’s Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon in 1819.
Society was rife with class unrest during this time. Unemployment was high and there were gang riots aplenty in New York during this time of year. Remember, Christmas wasn’t even close to being any kind of official holiday yet. It wouldn’t become a federal holiday until 1870. Iriving’s sketches tell the story of a squire who warmly invites peasants into his home during the holiday. Given the class conflicts at the time, his stories were a sort of anti-reflection of actual reality. Irving felt much could be gained from the harmonious blending of social groups across wealth and social status lines. The celebrants in these stories enjoyed “ancient customs”, such as crowning a Lord of Misrule (sound familiar?). Irving’s stories revolving around this celebration in the manor were completely imaginary; he’d never attended any such celebrations. But they were so convincingly written that many historians go so far as to credit Irving with “inventing” tradition by virtue of the implication of the festivities.
Santa himself evolved over the next century:
• In 1841: J.W. Parkinson, a Philadelphia merchant, hired a man to dress up in a “Criscringle” outfit and climb the chimney of his store.
• In 1863: Illustrator Thomas Nast created images of Santa for the Christmas editions of Harper’s Magazine. These continued through the 1890′s.
• In the 1860s: President Abraham Lincoln asked Nast to create a drawing of Santa with some Union soldiers. This image of Santa supporting the enemy had a demoralizing influence on the Confederate army — an early example of psychological warfare.
• In 1897: Francis P Church, Editor of the New York Sun, wrote an editorial in response to a letter from an eight year-old girl, Virginia O’Hanlon. She had written the paper asking whether there really was a Santa Claus. It has become known as the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” letter.
What we’ve come to know and embrace as the ‘traditional’ Christmas began to aggregate around the last half of the 1800′s. In the years following the Civil War, a number of things began to influence the spread of Christmas traditions, childrens books and women’s magazines among them. Children’s books depicted scenes of trimmed trees and gifts delivered by Santa Claus, and magazines offered articles on ways to decorate for the holidays, as well as how to make the decorations.
Little by little, generation by generation, these images and new customs took hold. America began to turn the centuries-old raucous celebrations of Saturnalia into a more familial scene. Family replaced community, they decorated Christmas trees, sang carols, baked all manner of holiday goods, and eventually took to shopping. What we think of as Christmas today really wasn’t handed to us by centuries of ancestral sharing. The American Christmas is, in fact, a home-grown holiday. We blended together the customs and traditions of many countries to arrive at this venerated date.
By all means, celebrate Christmas in the spirit of its intent, but do so with the understanding that not all you’ve been fed has been good for you. Get those gifts, but don’t do it because the economy or media analysts tell you to do so. Mute those endless holiday sale commercials and just look at your tree (if you have one up). If you live where it snows, go to a quiet room with a window, turn out the lights, and watch the snow drift through the moon’s glow.
Christmas isn’t about all the external trappings; it’s really internal, and uniquely personal for each of us. Christmas abounds in the wonder in a child’s eyes, and in the giddy laughter of Christmas morning. It’s not a thing; it is ethereal.. It lives in the silent dance of a candle flame or the serene, if temporary, elan of a bedecked tree with presents brimming underneath. It’s not a destination unto itself, rather an annual respite along the journey. It’s not a secular birthday, but it is an irrefutable day of spiritual magic if we can only put aside our haughty materialism and warmly receive it.
The magic of Christmas ends when the heart stops, but its truth is eternal.