ONE of the most powerful, persistent fake news that has been around for many centuries is that December 25 is the birthday of Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity, the biggest religion today with 2.4 billion adherents. This is not opinion or conjecture, but has been a well-established fact, even by Catholic scholars.
The only other competing thesis of course, is that the man called Jesus has never existed. Indeed, ancient religions all had similar man-gods — born of a virgin, with a God as invisible father — even born around December 25 — or near the December 22 solstice, that marked the beginning of the end of the “dark and cold” period of winter.
In the first place, the widely accepted account of Jesus’ life, the New Testament, doesn’t of course mention the date of his birth, by whatever calendar the Jews or the Greeks used in that time. In fact, the Bible’s reference to shepherds tending their flocks at night when they hear the news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8) points to a spring date.
Guess who designated December 25 as Jesus’ birthday? The Roman Empire did, after it made Christianity its state religion. (And the fact that it was the largest such empire in the world in that era, and had Europe as its descendants, explains how Christianity became the world’s biggest religion — and not that is the “truest” religion.)
Andrew McGowan, dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University, in an article in the scholarly journal Bible Review wrote: “The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked : ‘Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.’”
That December 25 was designated as Jesus’ birthday bolsters the widespread view among scholars on religion that the clever Roman emperors — in their (very successful) attempt to establish a single state religion which made ruling easier — merged the emerging Jewish cult that was spreading in the Mediterranean Greek-speaking world to the Romans’ more ancient religion in which the supreme God was the sun personified — Sol Invictus.
Sol Invictus’ feast day of course was — scholars argue over the exact date — December 21 or December 25. This roughly coincides with the winter solstice or the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year. Since after that, the days become longer. That day was seen as the day when Sol is reborn again after the long death of winter. As the Sol image was merged with that of Christ, it was logical to assume that Jesus, if he existed, and Sol were born on the same day.
Historian Kenneth Davis in a recent CBS program similarly pointed out: “Most of the traditions that we have that relate to Christmas relate to the solstice, which was celebrated in ancient Rome on December 25. So, when Christianity became the official religion in a sense, in Rome, they were able to fix this date… There’s a little discrepancy about it, but there’s no question that the fact that it was celebrated in Rome as an important day with gift giving, candle lighting, and singing and decorating houses really cemented Christmas as December 25.”
Many of the practices during Christmas originated from pagan customs in pre-Christian Europe as Christianity spread. Ronald Hutton, a historian at Bristol University in the United Kingdom pointed out in an article in the reputable website Livescience.com:
“As Christians spread their religion into Europe in the first centuries AD, they ran into people living by a variety of local and regional religious creeds. Early Christians wanted to convert pagans, Shaw said, but they were also fascinated by their traditions.”
“Christians of that period were quite interested in paganism,” he said. “It’s obviously something they think is a bad thing, but it’s also something they think is worth remembering. It’s what their ancestors did.”
Perhaps that’s why pagan traditions remained even as Christianity took hold. The Christmas tree is a 17th-century German invention. But it clearly derives from the pagan practice of bringing greenery indoors to decorate in midwinter. The modern Santa Claus is a direct descendant of England’s Father Christmas, who was not originally a gift-giver. However, Father Christmas and his other European variations are modern incarnations of old pagan ideas about spirits who traveled the sky in midwinter.”
The Livescience.com article pointed out: while gift-giving may seem inextricably tied to Christmas, it used to be that people looked forward to opening presents on New Year’s Day.
“They were a blessing for people to make them feel good as the year ends,” Hutton said. “It wasn’t until the Victorian era of the 1800s that gift-giving shifted to Christmas.”
And, of course, gift giving both at Christmas and New Year’s Day has been a boon to capitalism, more precisely to its retail section. In the United States, sales for November and December account for 25 percent of retailers’ sales, with each of the other 10 months just 7.5 percent of their sales.
But don’t misinterpret me, and I don’t mean to steal Christmas.
In fact, I subscribe to the competing claim that what the ancient Romans celebrated was not Sol Invictus, but the earlier Olympic god of agriculture, Saturn. After all, in that epoch whether people lived a life of happiness or misery in the year that was ending depended on how good or bad the harvest was.
Called “Saturnalia,” this was a days-long festival held on December 17 of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to December 23. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted and masters provided table service for their slaves as it was seen as a time of liberty for both slaves and freedmen alike.”
That’s the kind of Christmas I’d prefer, instead of a boring celebration of a birthday of somebody we’re not sure was really born.
However, it originated, and less the superstition, let’s all enjoy these days when we celebrate the sheer joy of having families and friends, and well, a fact emphasized this year of the pandemic, just being alive. Life is short, so very short. Enjoy it.
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