Today is Christmas. But not actually Jesus’ birthday. That’s because no one actually knows when Jesus was born. It was not on December 25, and it was likely not in the year 0 A.D. More likely somewhere between 2 and 7 B.C. But again, nobody really knows. And Christmas is not really about Christ. I mean, there are people who go to church on Christmas. And lots of folks sing carols. But these days Christmas is mostly about shopping. At least in the United States of America. It’s the time of the season where retailers actually get to make a profit. And the traditions we associate with Christmas are mostly yuletide traditions. The timing of the holiday itself is associated with the Winter Solstice. Some of the specific traditions that Christmas inherited from the pagan yuletide festival include:
- the Christmas tree, which is derived from solstice tradition, where holly and pine were all fertility symbols used by Pagans and Druids;
- the tradition of giving gifts, which came from “Saturnalia,” a Roman New Year’s festival, were gifts were given in honor of loved ones who died during the previous year;
- the red, white and green colors associated with Christmas;
- the mistletoe, used during the winter solstice because it was considered a divine plant and symbolized love and peace;
- the Christmas lights , representing the birth of the new God and the return of the light on the shortest day of the year;
- the Witches balls, hollow glass ornaments popular in parts of Europe in the 18th century, originally designed to ward off evil spirits and ill wishes that were directed at your family;
- the star on the Christmas tree, originally the Star of David, the Jewish six-pointed star we put on top of the tree, symbolizes the perfect union between male and female. The inverted triangle represents the feminine (Shekinah)while the upturned phallic triangle represents the male (Yahweh);
- the yule log, the center of the trunk of a tree that was dragged to a large fireplace where it was supposed to burn for twelve days.
The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336AD, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Early leaders of the Roman Catholic Church intentionally superimposed the feast of the Nativity on the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, a late December holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, to supplant allegiance to Roman deities and ensure the worship of Jesus instead. It has also been suggested that the purpose was to “Christianize” the pagan festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, celebrating the Roman “Sun God.” Pope Julius I is credited with setting the date of Christmas permanently on December 25, and separating the birth of Jesus from the celebration of “Epiphany,” honoring the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ. According to the historian Audrey Kingstrom, for most of its history the Christian Church had an “uneasy alliance” with Christmas given its “dubious connection” to Jesus’ actual birth and its “association with the carnival-like festivities and pagan traditions that dominated the celebrations.” By the time of the Reformation, the Puritans were interested in “purging the Catholic Church of its unseemly Christmas revels,” causing the Puritans to go so far as to outlaw the observance of Christmas altogether. Originally, the “Christmas season” ran from December 25 (Christmas Day) to January 6 (Epiphany), popularly known as the 12 Days of Christmas. As gift giving and shopping became more and more the driving factor in the Christmas season, it began to transform from the 12 Days to the “Advent” calendar, the beginning of the “liturgical year,” falling on the Sunday four weeks before the Christmas holiday. The economic aspects of the Christmas season have arguably overshadowed its religious nature since the middle of the 20th century. As for Santa Claus, he is descended from the Dutch figure of Sinterklass, the Dutch pronunciation of Saint Nicholas (or Nikolaos). Saint Nicholas, who lived between 270 and 343 AD, was the Greek Bishop of Myra, and has almost nothing to do with the modern conception of Santa Claus. For one thing, he was not fat. At all. He did have a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, but that’s about the only thing about him reminiscent of Santa Claus. In 325, Saint Nicholas was one of many bishops to answer the request of Constantine to appear at the First Council of Nicaea, and he was one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed, the purpose of which was to provide a doctrinal statement of correct belief, or orthodoxy. I mention all this, because in these days we tend to have such an ahistorical (or anti-historical) view of things like Christmas. Fox News and other blowhards huff and puff about having to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” — as if anybody failed to grasp that the holiday season is all about Christmas, at least in its economic sense — without any understanding of how Christmas actually came to be, and its historic relationship to other holidays. In many respects the birth of Jesus is, of course, secondary to the Easter holiday, celebrating his resurrection, which tends to coincide with the high Jewish holiday of Passover. And for many of us, who are not “Christians” in any meaningful sense of the word, the holiday is really just about family and family love.