Saturday, December 26, 2009

What You Know about Christmas Might Be Wrong

The idea that Christmas celebrations are largely lifted from earlier Paganisms is pretty well embedded in the culture, even among people who don't have a dog in that fight.

So let Biblical Archaeology Review stir things up a little with the idea that the Dec. 25 (or Jan. 6 for the Orthodox) date was not necessarily chosen to ride piggyback on Sol Invictus or Mithras but is based on Jewish tradition instead, one carried on by early Christians:

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.

Read the whole thing.

Finally, Hank Stuever is the author of Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present. You can read an excerpt here in the Washington Post "Style" section.

I know that I am in the same country as those "gated-community supermoms who [have]  volleyball schedules, tutor times and carpool arrangements abuzz in the BlackBerry that is [their] brain," because I have sat in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and watched them clatter by.

This fact struck me though: Amid all the crafts-making and bazaar-holding and home-decorating, they don't know how to sew?

"It's the sparkle, spirit, and style of American Girls, yesterday and today!" intones a recorded narration as the lights go down. A Junior League member and a teenage beauty pageant winner emcee. While each young model, carrying a doll, takes her little turn on the catwalk, we learn her American Girl back story. Here's Josefina, who lived on a ranch in northern New Mexico in the 1820s. She had to sew her own clothes.

"Who here knows how to sew their own clothes?" the emcee asks. "Raise your hands."

In a room of several hundred families, nobody raises a hand.

"Moms? Anyone here ever sew? Anyone have a sewing machine?"

No hands.

"Well then, you can just imagine how hard life was."

Weird, eh? Even I have an old sewing machine for repair jobs. It makes life easier, just as my chainsaw and power screwdriver do.

UPDATE: If you have read this far and are not still muttering about Druids, take Stuever's Christmas-shopping survey.

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Blogger Green Monk said...

This is fascinating. Thanks for sharing that the date chosen for Christmas may have just been a coincidence.

11:48 PM  
Anonymous Rombald said...

I've heard that theory before. It does seem a #bit# much of a coincidence, though? It also doesn't change the fact that bits of the Christmas celebration are from northern European paganism.

I don't know much about southern European Christmas. Is there much there that's clearly from Saturnalia?

Actually, I think that Yule is pagan, but not necessarily Pagan; countries with winters need a midwinter celebration. If Europe had gone Muslim, or Buddhist, some excuse would have been found for a loud, glittering, fun, commercial, drunken feast-time in December or January. For a long time, Christmas was illegal in Scotland, and it's still frowned upon in some areas, but they've just transferred the celebration to New Year.

1:28 AM  
Anonymous Rombald said...

I've now read the article. I'm not qualified to criticise the biblical scholarship, but would you trust anything written by someone who writes this?: "The Christmas tree ... has been linked with late medieval druidic practices".

Late mediaeval druids?? The Christmas tree is not Celtic at all - fir trees aren't even native to the British Isles or northern France. According to Wikipedia, the Christmas tree is first recorded in Estonia. It was popular in northern Germany, and didn't spread elsewhere until quite recently - to the USA sometime after independence, and to the UK not until 1854.

1:48 AM  
Blogger Calla said...

Interesting article.

I think what the article shows is something we have known for a very long time - Christianity (like many religions) is syncretic in nature.

In old Jewish law and custom, birthdays were not celebrated - not even those of gods. But they were celebrated in Greece and Rome. And since Paul (a Greek) not Peter (a Jew) won out in the theological battle for the soul and future of Christianity - it's not surprising that Christianity took on a more Greek (and Roman) flavor than Jewish. So even the act of celebrating Jesus' birthday is a tinge of syncretism.

As are all the solar references to Jesus. He was the Sun, the true Sun, he had a crown of solar rays, etc. He was even pictured in the solar chariot surrounded by the heavens - exactly how Helios, Apollon, etc were pictured. Jesus took on some of the attributes of Greek and Roman pagan gods.

As for the date - I find it strange that early church fathers are trying to make the conception/death dating argument when the clearer coinciding dates would have been his birth/death argument. From the birth accounts, Jesus was born in the spring - it would not have been unbelievable that Jesus was born and died on the same day. The church fathers knew the birth accounts pointed to spring - so why were they keen to find a way to plot his birth in December? Specifically December 25th? Why substitute his conception on March 25th for his birth?

Until THAT question is answered in some other way...I find it more likely that the date was picked to coincide with the major Midwinter festivals that early Greek and Roman Christians wished to still be a part of in some way than to try to follow the tortured logic of early Christian fathers who were trying to justify why they swapped the spring birth for a spring conception.

My guess is...early (rank and file) Christians started celebrating Jesus' birth on the Dec 25th date (since he was the 'real" Sun and the Sun's birthday is the 25th of December) and the church leaders had to come up with a justification for the date after the fact. A case of..."I am my people's leader - I need to hurry to catch up to them."

6:35 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Rombald: You are of course right about the Christmas tree, but the new part to me was the tradition that Jesus's conception and crucifixion had to be on the same day, and since the latter happened at Passover, therefore ...

Calla: Don't forget that Paul was a Jew, although no doubt more at ease in Hellenized society than Peter.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Calla said...

Yep, Paul was a Jew, but a Hellenistic Jew. Paul wasn't just more at ease in Hellenized society, he was a product of it.

Unlike Peter, who was thoroughly Jewish in his upbringing and outlook. Their battles were as much a clash between cultures as they were a clash of theology.

Both before and after Jesus' time - Jewish religious leaders were trying to get Jews to come back to the middle east and away from Greece and Rome as they were becoming Romanized and/or Hellenized and losing what made them "Jewish".

Very interesting the snips that are left of these two strong-willed, articulate, and passionate men. These two did much to change the history of man.

9:42 AM  
Anonymous Thorn said...

Interesting article, Chas. Thanks. I had never heard the info about death dates and conception dates being linked in people's minds.

One thing about Jewish tradition I like to remember is, of course, that the Hebrew people started out as polytheists and that Pesach itself was likely based on an earlier spring festival. (Got that in my Jewish Studies classes).

10:25 AM  
Blogger Hecate said...

/Reads through discussion of biblical, xian, and Jewish traditions.

I can sew!

3:52 PM  

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