Christmas is not all About Jesus

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Old Christmas or Twelfth Night
The Nativity by Antoniazzo Romano (1430-1508)

Christmas is most widely celebrated on the 25th of December. However, in early Christian tradition it was celebrated on January 6, also known as the Twelfth Night or the Feast of the Epiphany. To this day, the Armenian and Greek Orthodox Churches, along with Irish and Amish Christians celebrate Christmas on January 6. 

Santa Claus, soulful carols, scenic cribs, shimmering stars, shining festoons, scrumptious cakes, stirring cards, festive clothes, delicious cuisines, and lots of fun and frolic – these are some of the things that throng the popular imagination as people think of Christmas, the birthday of Jesus. Ask them when Jesus was born, and most of them are likely to answer without a second thought: ‘25 December 1AD.’  If truth be told, nobody knows when Jesus was born.  

The Gospel of Luke 2: 1-5 states that “At that time the emperor issued a decree of a census of the whole empire to be taken. This first census was taken while Quirinus was the governor of Syria. Everyone had to be registered in his own town. So, everyone set out from his own city; Joseph too set out from Nazareth of Galilee … he went to Judea to David’s town of Bethlehem to be registered with Mary, his wife, who was with child.” Quirinus was appointed as the governor of Syria in 6 AD. If Luke’s account were to be right, Jesus was born in or after AD 6. Most historians do not consider that Luke was right in stating that Jesus was born when Quirinus was appointed as the governor of Syria. Bible historians and theologians absolve Luke of his supposed mistake on the ground that he was concerned about the history of human salvation rather than historical accuracy. 

Bethlehem, city of Jesus’ birth.

The Gospel of Mathew 2:1 states that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod.” However, Mathew is silent on the day, date or year of Jesus’ birth.  Based on a certain historical fact, some historians argue that Jesus was born probably somewhere between 6 and 4 BCE. King Herod the Great, the ruler of Judea, who supposedly ordered the death of all male infants under the age of two and who lived in the vicinity of Bethlehem, in an attempt to get rid of baby Jesus, the Messiah, died purportedly in 4 BCE. This would mean that Jesus was born before the death of Herod, that is either in 4 BCE or sometime earlier.

Jesus was not born on 25 December 1 AD as many of us tend to believe. In fact, no one knows the exact day, date or year of his birth. Therefore, the early church did not celebrate the birthday of Jesus. Even though Christmas is believed to have been observed from the 1st century onwards, there is no sufficient historical evidence to prove that it was celebrated either during the apostolic period (the period of the twelve apostles starting from the time of the great commissioning of the apostles by the risen Jesus somewhere around 33 AD until the death of John, the last apostle to die in AD 100) or during the early post-apostolic period. In his celebrated 19th century book, The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion, which explores the relation between religion and mythology, the anthropologist Sir James George Frazer notes that in time, the Churches in Egypt and Asia Minor (a region comprising most of present-day Turkey) began to celebrate the birth of Jesus on 6 January. The practice went on until somewhere towards the end of the 3rd century or the beginning of the 4th century, when the Western Church fixed 25 December as the official day to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. However, the Armenian Church and Greek Orthodox continue to celebrate Christmas on 6 January.

One may ask how the Western and most other Churches came to celebrate Christmas on 25 December. In his book, Christmas: its Origin and Associations, W. F. Dawson argues that “the most celebrated festivals of the ancients were held in honour of the return of the sun which at the winter solstice begins gradually to regain power and to ascend apparently in the horizon.” These festivals marked the “restoration of light and commencement of a new era” both of which were “hailed with rejoicings and thanksgiving.” Therefore, Christmas also came to be celebrated at this time of the year, namely the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere.

Sir James George Frazer notes that in time, the Churches in Egypt and Asia Minor (a region comprising most of present-day Turkey) began to celebrate the birth of Jesus on 6 January. The practice went on until somewhere towards the end of the 3rd century or the beginning of the 4th century, when the Western Church fixed 25 December as the official day to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. However, the Armenian Church and Greek Orthodox continue to celebrate Christmas on 6 January.

Frazer argues that the celebration of Christmas on 25 December is rooted in the Roman Mithraic religious practice centred on the Zoroastrian god Mithras, worshipped in Iran. According to Frazer, “Mithra was regularly identified by his worshippers with the Sun, the Unconquered Sun, as they called him.” The Unconquered Sun, (‘Deus Sol Invictus,’ or Sol Invictus, as they referred to him in short in Latin) was the sun god of the Roman Empire and the patron of soldiers. Since the winter solstice fell on the 25 December according to the Julian calendar that was in vogue from 46 BC to 1582 AD, the ancient Romans celebrated ‘Dies Natalis Solis Invicti’ (birthday of the Unconquerable Sun) on 25 December because they noticed that from that day, the duration of the day begins to get longer and the power of the sun grows stronger. The celebration on 25 December marked the rebirth of the sun and its triumph over darkness and death.   

Zoroastrian god Mithras
Zoroastrian god Mithras.

Frazer says that during the celebration of the nativity of the sun, “The celebrants retired into certain inner shrines, from which at midnight they issued with a loud cry, ‘The Virgin has brought forth! The light is waxing!’ The Egyptians even represented the newborn sun by the image of an infant which on his birthday, the winter solstice, they brought forth and exhibited to his worshippers.” The midnight Christmas liturgical celebration has strong echoes of this ancient ‘pagan’ religious ritual. 

Since the ancient Romans were primarily agrarian people, they also worshipped Saturn, the god of agriculture, and celebrated a week-long festival called Saturnalia in honour of Saturn. One school of thinking argues that the festival of Saturnalia began on 21 December and ended on 23 December while another school of thinking argues that it began on 21 December and ended on 25 December. In any case, the celebration coincided with two things: 1) the winter solstice that occurs usually either on 21 or 22 December in the northern hemisphere which is also the shortest day in the same hemisphere; 2) the supposed rebirth or regeneration of the sun after the winter solstice. With the passage of time, probably somewhere around 217 BCE, the Romans merged ‘Dies Natalis Solis Invicti’ with Saturnalia. And from then on, Saturnalia became the most popular festival and holiday on the ancient Roman calendar. 

During the festival of Saturnalia, the Romans decorated their houses with flowers, boughs of greenery and festoons. They hung small tin ornaments on bushes and trees. They wrapped presents and gifted them to children, family members and friends. During this time, they sang, played music, enjoyed good food, drink, and engaged in gambling – all the regular party elements. With work suspended and much to celebrate, it was the most popular of the Roman festivals and holiday time. At night, they would go around from house to house singing Saturnalia songs. The seasonal greeting, ‘io Saturnalia,’ used to be heard everywhere during this season. The customs of the Christmas tree, Christmas decorations, Christmas cakes, Christmas gifts, Christmas carols and other associated festivities have come down to us from the customs associated with the festival of Saturnalia

 
Festival of Saturnalia painted by Antoine Callet.

One of the highlights of Saturnalia was the switching of traditional roles, particularly between a master and his slave. Everyone got to wear the red pileus hat or freedman’s hat. Slaves were free to be as impertinent to their owners as they wished. (However, despite the appearance of a reversal of social order, there used to be some strict boundaries. A master might serve his slaves dinner, but the slaves were the ones who prepared it — this kept Roman society in order, but still allowed everyone to have a good time). Christian communities around the world have adopted their own versions of festive fun and frolic that keep their society in order and in poise.  

Saturnalia continued to be celebrated and remained popular long after Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman empire in 312 AD. Constantine permitted Christians to practice their religion freely by 336 AD, and he himself became a Christian on his deathbed in 337 AD. When the emperor became Christian, the empire became Christian. It was around this time, in all likelihood in 336, that Christmas came to be celebrated officially for the first time in Roman history. After Rome embraced Christianity, Constantine himself banned Saturnalia and other so-called ‘pagan’ festivals in the Roman empire. However, Saturnalia continued to be celebrated in some form or the other.  In fact, even after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 and the worship of ‘pagan gods’ was declared a punishable offence, Saturnalia would be celebrated. 

At night, they would go around from house to house singing Saturnalia songs. The seasonal greeting, ‘io Saturnalia,’ used to be heard everywhere during this season. The customs of the Christmas tree, Christmas decorations, Christmas cakes, Christmas gifts, Christmas carols and other associated festivities have come down to us from the customs associated with the festival of Saturnalia.

As the Church noticed that those who embraced Christianity from the so-called ‘pagan religions’ also participated in Saturnalia, it wanted them to celebrate not the sun and the ‘pagan god,’ Saturn, but the Son of God through whom, as per the Christian faith, God the Father created everything in the world including the sun. Therefore, instead of eradicating Saturnalia, in 353 A.D, Pope Julius co-opted and solemnised it declaring 25 December as the date for the celebration of the birth of Jesus and 6 January as the day for the celebration of the feast of Epiphany (feast of the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ). Thus, the Church ensured that the new converts to Christianity would celebrate the birthday of Jesus on 25 December instead of Saturnalia. Since no one knew the actual date of Jesus’s birth, 25 December was a perfect date for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the ‘light of the world,’ who would triumph over the darkness of sin in the world. As the Church co-opted and baptized all the so-called ‘pagan’ celebrations associated with ‘Dies Natalis Solis Invicti’ and ‘Saturnalia, the Church also provided them with new meanings. Different aspects of the present-day Christmas festivities are remnants of Dies ‘Natalis Solis Invicti’ and ‘Saturnalia.’ 

A special mass celebrated at midnight on the eve of Christ’s birth marked the high point of the Christmas celebration during the Medieval period. In fact, it was only on this special occasion that the Catholic Church allowed the celebration of mass at midnight. In Middle English, this mass was called ‘Cristemasse’ (Christ’s Mass, meaning the festival of the birth of Christ) a variation of the Old English word, ‘Cristes-messe’ which also means Christ’s Mass. The word Christmas is derived from ‘Cristemasse.’ At different times in history, the word, Christmas, has been used and spelt differently until the word and the spelling, ‘Christmas,’ replaced them all. The word ‘Christmas’ is often abbreviated as ‘Xmas,’ probably because the Greek letter, ‘X’ (named ‘chi’ and pronounced ‘kai’) is the abbreviation for Χριστός (Christos), the Greek name for Christ. 

From a Christian perspective, Christmas announces the Divine project of human redemption through God incarnate in the person of Jesus. However, Christmas is not all about Jesus. The aspect of Christmas which is about Jesus, has absorbed into it that which is not about Jesus, namely, aspects of different ancient faiths, rituals, cultures, customs and conventions. Christmas, as it has come down to us, is a confluence of many a thing. 

Images courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

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