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.

Christians are numerous. What’s their problem?

Yesterday, Pew came out with a new “Global Religious Landscape” report. Much of the media coverage has been focused on the relatively high percentage of people who are religiously unaffiliated. We’ll probably need to look at how some media continue to confuse everything between atheism and multiple religious traditions into one grouping.

The Washington Post had a blog item that had a markedly different focus, headlined “Our Christian Earth: The astounding reach of the world’s largest religion, in charts and maps.” It was a bit of a disappointment, beginning:

Christmas is an official government holiday in the United States, one that coincides with a smaller and informal but well-known tradition: debating whether or not there is a “war on Christmas.” In this thinking, American Christians are obligated to ”stand up and fight against this secular progressivism that wants to diminish the Christmas holiday,” as prominent Fox News host Bill O’Reilly recently argued. “We have to start to fight back against these people.” This is often portrayed as a global fight; O’Reilly, in one of his books, suggested that the “war on Christmas” is part of an effort to “mold [the U.S.] in the image of Western Europe.”

This movement to defend one of Christianity’s most important holiday can sometimes seem to begin from the assumption that Christianity itself is on the defensive in the world, a besieged minority or at least under threat of being made one.

A very different picture emerges from a just-out Pew report, “The Global Religious Landscape.” There are a number of fascinating trends and details in the study, but it’s worth examining what it indicates about the place of Christianity in the world. And, based on this data, the world’s largest religion seems to be doing just fine.

Hunh? That second paragraph is just a mess. If you’re a reporter and you use the phrase “can sometimes seem to begin from the assumption,” your editor should probably explain to you why that’s not good journalism. Seem to whom? And about this assumption — was it made up by the reporter or is there something substantive that a journalist can point to?

The article “seems to” falsely concludes that because there are many Christians in the world, perceived attacks on Christians in the American public square are of no concern for Christians. Of course, there could be many Christians in the world, and many Christians in North America, and many Christians in the United States and there could still be attacks on Christians in the American public square.

And since the global report shows that there are growing numbers of “unaffiliated” — not just around the world but in the United States, too, the data trends there might be as important as the raw numbers, or more so. I’ve long stated my dislike for theological giant Bill O’Reilly (who once said my church didn’t follow Jesus because we oppose syncretism), but his arguments have nothing to do with the data supplied by the Pew report. Further, folks worried about the expression of Christianity in the public square include those at the Vatican, who perceive a threat from secular humanism and its effects on the church and culture. Their concerns aren’t specifically addressed by the Pew report but they’re definitely not renounced by it.

Anyway, another item is that the article was half-edited to correct an early error that asserted that Christmas is Christians’ most important holiday. It now says “one of Christianity’s most important holiday [sic].” And speaking of editing, there were some problems (on review these have been corrected since I first read the story) confusing North Africa and North America and whether 68 million Christians represent 5 percent or one-fifth of the Chinese population. The article ends:

Two of the 10 countries with the world’s largest Christian populations are not actually Christian-majority: Nigeria, which is about half Muslim, and China. Those 68 million Chinese Christians only make up about five percent of their country’s population, but it’s a remarkable toehold for the world’s largest religion in the world’s largest country. And the number of Chinese Christians appears to be growing rapidly, particularly as the government loosens long-held restrictions on free religious expression.

This data is likely to provide little comfort to the handful of Christian communities, particularly in countries such as Iraq, that are facing real persecution. But, overall, the story of Christianity in today’s world is still one of vast majorities, enormous populations, and historically unique reach. If there truly is a war on Christmas or any other facet of Christianity, then, in global terms, it doesn’t seem to be doing very well.

Again, this study is not the one to use to determine whether attacks on Christians or tenets of Christianity are doing well. This study does not even begin to broach those topics. Pew actually has looked at which religions are most persecuted in the world and found that Christians are persecuted in more countries than other religions are. As for basic tenets of Christianity, those are always in conflict throughout the world, including in the United States of America, where major battles dealing with religious liberty are being obscured by the media.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X