Everything you know about Christmas is wrong

George just posted about an old story being rehashed for Christmas, which reminded me that the regular attempts to debunk Christianity around its holy days has become my favorite tradition. What would Christmas and Easter be like without a semi-blasphemous newsweekly magazine cover questioning some central tenet of the religion?

All that to say that the Washington Post‘s piece the “The Evolution of Holiday Celebrations” is a decent entry into the genre.

It’s in the Style section, so all expectations are lowered, of course. It says stuff like this:

Early Christians did not celebrate the Nativity. Christianity had been around for more than 350 years before the church fathers in Rome decided to add that event to the Christian calendar. They did so in part because many Christians were arguing that Jesus had not been an actual human being but rather a divine spirit — a belief the church fathers considered heretical. What better way to convince Christians that Jesus was human than to commemorate his physical birth? The problem was that there was no evidence of when Jesus’s birth took place. (Neither Luke nor Matthew, the two gospel writers who included stories of Jesus’s Nativity in their narratives, had indicated the date, or even the season, of the event.)

Is it most accurate to say “many Christians” argued that Jesus wasn’t human? Is that really the central aspect of how the date for Christmas was chosen? That is a heresy that has been taught and continues to be taught but I’m not sure this is phrased the best way. As for the rest, it’s true that the Nativity was not celebrated by early-early Christians, but we also know that it was celebrated in a variety of locations well before the date was fixed. By 200 A.D., for instance, Clement of Alexandria is reporting that Egyptians have marked the date and the year of Christ’s birth. The thing was that different people were celebrating the birth on different dates. Why did it get pinned to Dec. 25? Was this a top-down effort to defeat gnosticism? Was the day something Christian laypeople noted that some church leaders tried to stop? Was it much more complex than a brief article in the Style section could broach?

The church fathers decided to place the new holiday in late December, virtually guaranteeing that it would be widely adopted because this was already a season of mid-winter revels, a holdover from pagan times. For the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, the holiday was called Saturnalia. This festival, which concluded on Dec. 23, was partly a holiday of lights that celebrated the winter solstice. But Saturn was the god of agricultural abundance, so his festival also marked the bounty of the completed harvest. Finally, the Saturnalia was a time of role reversals and seasonal license. Everyone took time off from ordinary labor. Slaves were granted temporary freedom and were treated by their masters to lavish banquets. The holiday was observed with feasting, drinking, gambling and sexual abandon.

Yeah, well, it’s certainly true that when the calendar was standardized, there was a push for Dec. 25 as the date to mark Jesus’ birth. But was this because it was a co-opting of Saturnalia? It’s certainly a theory. But Dec. 25 was one of the many dates being used by Christians to mark Christ’s birth and maybe not for the reasons you hear.

As I wrote six years ago (!) here at GetReligion:

Associated Press reporter Richard Ostling wrote about it a few years ago, first describing the theory that says Christians stole a pagan festival for Christmas. Then he cited other research, including Hippolytus of Rome’s Chronicle, written three decades before Aurelian launched Saturnalia, that says Jesus’ birth “took place eight days before the kalends of January,” that is, Dec. 25. He speaks with William Tighe, a church historian at Muehlenberg College:

Tighe said there’s evidence that as early as the second and third centuries, Christians sought to fix the birth date to help determine the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the liturgical calendar — long before Christmas also became a festival.

The New Testament Gospels say the Crucifixion happened at the Jewish Passover season. The “integral age” concept, taught by ancient Judaism though not in the Bible, held that Israel’s great prophets died the same day as their birth or conception.

Quite early on, Tighe said, Christians applied this idea to Jesus and set the Passover period’s March 25 for the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would give birth. Add nine months to the conception date and we get Dec. 25.

It doesn’t matter. Almost everyone believes something else.

The story also tackles Hannukah:

In recent times, Hanukkah, too, has largely become a child’s holiday. Many Jewish parents give their children seasonal presents as abundant — and expensive — as those received by their Christian neighbors.

And with Hanukkah as with Christmas, a vestige remains of older mid-winter festivals. This is the dreidel, a four-sided top that resembles the familiar six-sided dice and is used in similar fashion to determine how much money (or Hanukkah “gelt”) the player receives — or owes. Thus Hanukkah, originating as the celebration of a military victory, now incorporates a host of other rituals: the commemoration of a divine miracle, a seasonal celebration of light and harvest, a focus on children and even a hint of mid-winter revelry.

Over the centuries, through all those historical accidents, Hanukkah and Christmas have come to look a lot like each other.

They don’t really look much like each other, obviously, but is the dreidel just a game? It’s origin isn’t exactly known but when I was in Israel, I was told that it hearkens back to a game developed by Jews to hide the fact they were studying the Torah. During one period of their history, the penalty for teaching the Torah was death. Jews would gather in caves to study and were pretending they were gambling if spotted by soldiers.

But more than anything, it’s not what is in the article that is so bothersome but what’s left out. Or how what’s in the article is treated so flippantly. Did Christianity just happen onto the idea of Jesus being the Christ? Isn’t the Nativity story a central element of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew? Even the Winter Solstice is treated as something of an historical accident. Was Hanukkah really just a holiday that morphed into something about light?

I wonder if part of the problem is that the author of the piece typically writes very accessible history books and that this breezy style works well when you have the time to flesh out more details but when you’re given just a few hundred words in the printed page, it comes off too glib, glossing over serious religious and cultural battles. That might be a function of editing as much as anything.

Hanukkah image via Shutterstock.

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  • MJBubba

    Mollie, thanks, I suppose, for enticing me to read yet another un-serious mass media article that attributes church teachings to some implied conspiracy of church leaders. I infer an intent to bolster the position of anti-Christians by re-hashing the theory that the whole Jesus story is made up stuff from hundreds of years after the events. I would encourage anyone who is interested to read the William Tighe article from Touchstone (2003): http://touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v

    Evidence that the article is un-serious includes the correction that the event celebrated by Hanukkah happened in 168 BC, not “nearly six centuries before Christmas” (unless you think Christmas was not a real event but only a fiction that originated in the 300s AD). And the remark “a holdover from pagan times” reveals a very basic ignorance of the history of the 300s AD, which were marked by hostilities between Christians and Pagans throughout both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    Thanks, Mollie. I read yours and George Conger’s articles and, like y’all, can hardly wait for Lent and the next series of “Where’s Jesus?” made-up articles.

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