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sceptical christmas killjoy stuff

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jesus celebrates his birthday in traditional style

We sceptics have a rep to maintain, of being wet blankets, what with not believing in ghosts and all that cool fun stuff, so I’m writing here to maintain the pointless, tedious fun-sucking rage.

First, the idea that we should use the day to commemorate [joyously of course] the birth of our loving-man-among-men. Of course, I don’t. I celebrate our tendency/need to make yummy food and convivialize with family and friends, and above all, to watch kids getting all excited on this day and the days leading up. And it hardly needs to be pointed out to any half-educated person [except maybe in the USA] that Jesus wan’t born on December 25. The ‘gospels’, our only record of the life of Jesus, are completely silent on the date of his birth, or any other date. The Bible didn’t do precise dates. For Jesus, though, no day, no month, no season even. We do have some negative clues. We supposedly had eastern visitors travelling through, we had a census requiring people to travel to their place of birth to register [though it should be noted that no recorded Roman census ever required people to travel to their birthplaces in this way], and we had shepherds tending their flocks in the open field. This was all very unlikely in the heart of winter, which is very cold in Palestine. So December 25 is just about the least likely date for the birth, if the gospels can be relied on [and frankly, they can’t].

So why December 25? Not only why, but how and when was this date chosen?

The early Christians didn’t celebrate the birth of Jesus, and I’ve actually found it hard to find any precise information online about its beginnings, but it’s probable that Pope Julius I [reigned 337 to 352] made the the date semi-official in around 340. This date doesn’t appear to have been discussed at any synod or council of the time. It appears to have percolated though to the wider community gradually [the Armenian and some other eastern churches celebrate Christmas on January 6]. Augustine tried a typically ham-fisted explanation of why the birthdate should be December 25 [he thought that Jesus was crucified on March 25, which is vaguely plausible because it was around passover, and that the crucifixion occurred on the anniversary of Jesus’s conception. Add nine months to March 25 and you get December 25. Scientific, eh what?], but his discussion has only served to indicate that December 25 still wasn’t a settled date in his time [around 400].

The first mention we have of an actual date for Jesus’s birth comes in the work of the Egyptian Christian, Clement of Alexandria, in around 200. He provides several dates, mostly in the northern hemisphere spring. December 25 doesn’t get a mention, but then he was using the Egyptian calendar of the time. From Clement’s writing it can be seen that there was confusion but also quite a bit of interest in this dating. By the fourth century, two dates were the front runners, Dec 25 and Jan 6 [now celebrated by many Christians as the feast of epiphany, when the eastern visitors supposedly saw the child and advertised his existence, and by some other Christians as the date of his baptism. The period between the two dates is of course the twelve days of Christmas]. In some early texts, such as that of Epiphanius, the birthdate and the date of epiphany are the same.

So that’s about as well as we can explain the how and the when – what about the why? Two explanations have presented themselves over the years. The most popular, and in my view the most likely, is that it was intended to replace a pagan festival of the time, the Saturnalia, in honour of the god Saturn, which took place in the week or so before modern Christmas – before and after the winter solstice of December 21. That’s to say, the date was chosen deliberately as an affront and a challenge to paganism. Later in the Roman Empire the god Sol Invictus [Invincible Sun] was made popular by the emperor Aurelian, and his birthday was celebrated on December 25. This god was still popular in the time of Augustine, who preached against it. The other explanation is a derivation of Augustine’s calculations, but I find it completely unconvincing. One Andrew McGowan describes it thus:

But the earliest celebrations of Jesus’ birth that we know about (c. 250-300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character. In the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E.

This would change only after Constantine converted to Christianity. From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals.

The problem with this line of argument is that there is no extant text connecting Jesus’s birth with December 25 before the reign of Constantine. If anybody can point to such a text please let me know. From Constantine’s time [he died in 337] it was de rigueur to replace pagan shrines with Christian churches and to  transform pagan festivals into Christian ones. That’s when everything really changed, and that’s why the exact date of Jesus’s birth became such an issue in about the middle of the fourth century. With legitimacy came the need for orthodoxy and uniformity.

So that’s all we need say about the date. What about Christmas trees? Very definitely a modern innovation, if you can call something 500 years old ‘modern’. The first account of a decorated ‘holiday’ [not Christmas] tree is from 1441 in Estonia. There’s a tradition that in medieval Germany, mystery plays [performed on Christmas eve] featured a ‘Paradise tree’ from which the forbidden fruit was plucked. Already, apples were designated as the fruit, and the bright round, and sometimes red, baubles hung on modern Christmas trees are possibly derived from this. By the late sixteenth century, decorated trees, from which sweet treats were plucked on Christmas day, were relatively common in protestant north-western Germany, and gradually the custom has spread through the Christian world. Of course the Catholics resisted this Protestant practice for a while, favouring the traditional Christmas crib, but now it’s standard everywhere, though I note with much amusement that it was only introduced into the Vatican by the last Pope, John Paul II, in 1982, much to the initial horror of some highly decorated and baubled cardinals, but they’ve managed to get over it.

So that’s Christmas, very partially deconstructed. Happy holidays.

Written by stewart henderson

December 29, 2011 at 1:05 am

Posted in religion, skepticism

2 Responses

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  1. That’s a good, dispassionate analysis, despite your introductory statement (“pointless, tedious fun-sucking rage”).

    I’m glad you found my blog post on the topic. I’m not surprised you found it unpersuasive … I’m not persuaded by it myself, although I regard it as a legitimate alternative. McGowan has obviously done his homework — he’s not just pulling a theory out of his butt. But it doesn’t seem to me that we have any proof one way or the other — just two competing, unsubstantiated theories.

    I certainly agree that Dec. 25 is not the correct date. According to Luke’s account (which I’m sceptical of, too, as it happens), there were shepherds in the fields tending their flocks. My understanding is that late December is not flock-tending season.

    So we can agree that the date is a later invention, with no connection to the history or the Gospels. It doesn’t really matter except at a sentimental level. The interesting question is, Why did church leaders choose that particular date? And the only point I intended to make, via my blog post, is that the usual sceptical assumption, that it was borrowed from the pagans, is unproven, and it is not the only explanation possible.


    December 31, 2011 at 4:35 am

  2. Fair enough – what surprises me is how little evidence there is, or seems to be, on how that date came to be chosen. It just seems to have been accepted gradually by consensus.


    December 31, 2011 at 10:29 am

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