By Bob Allen
Christmas is Jesus' birthday. Any child in Sunday school knows that, which is unfortunate, because it's almost certainly is wrong. The modern celebration of Christmas combines a number of traditions so ancient that their origins have become lost to all but historians and trivia buffs. Following is all you ever wanted to know (or perhaps not) about the celebration of Christmas.
Followers of Jesus celebrated his death and resurrection early in church history, but Jesus' nativity was not celebrated until 300 years later. While December 25 eventually came to be associated as Jesus' birthday, no evidence remains about the exact date of Christ's birth.
Luke's gospel tells of angels announcing Jesus' birth to shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Winter in Judea was wet and chilly. It is unlikely that shepherds would spend the night in their fields in December. More likely, scholars say, Jesus was born in the spring lambing season, when nights were balmy and shepherds would need to be awake to tend their ewes.
Early Christians were more likely to celebrate the day of a person's death than the birth. Very early in the history of the church, Christians held an annual festival commemorating the death of Jesus, as well as honoring many of the martyrs on the day of their death. Before the fourth century, churches in Egypt, Asia Minor and Antioch observed Epiphany, the manifestation of God to the world, celebrating Christ's baptism, birth and the visit by the Magi described in the Gospel of Matthew.
Early in the fourth century, Christians in Rome began to celebrate the birth of Christ. At the time, the church was embroiled in a controversy over the nature of Christ -- whether he was truly God or a created being. It is likely an emphasis on the doctrine of the incarnation, the idea that "the Word was made flesh," in John 1:14, was a factor in the spread of the celebration of Christmas.
The term "Christmas," a contraction of "Christ's mass," did not come into use until the Middle Ages. Another term used to describe the event, Nativity, is from the Latin word for "birth." Christmas appeared at first to have been observed at different times during the year. There is some evidence that the earliest Christmas festival was held in May. In the fourth century, Pope Julius I designated December 25 as Christmas, probably to coincide with pagan celebrations of the winter solstice, which many ancient religions observed as signaling the return or rebirth of the sun. The Roman Feast of the Invincible Sun was celebrated across the Roman Empire. Rather than trying to eradicate pagan holidays, church leaders sought to replace them with Christian observances. Another tradition says Jesus died on the same date as he was conceived, March 25, placing his birth nine months later on December 25. When the Julian calendar, established by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C., was replaced by the Gregorian calendar, ordered by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, 11 days were dropped. Some Christian sects refused to accept the re-dating and continued to celebrate Christmas on the old December 25, which is January 7 on the new calendar. Protestants were also slow to accept the Gregorian calendar, which became official in 1752. The Christian calendar purports to date history from the year of Jesus' birth, but it is based on a miscalculation. The census by Quirinius cited in Luke 2:2 was dated by the Jewish historian Josephus in 6-7 B.C. Herod the Great, mentioned in Matthew's gospel as the jealous king that tried to murder the Christ child, died in 4 B.C., according to Roman histories. Scholars pinpoint the year of Jesus' birth as sometime between 4 B.C. and 1 B.C.
Christmas became a public holiday by order of the Roman emperor Justinian in the sixth century. St. Francis of Assissi introduced devotion to the Christmas crib, or manger, in the 13th century. Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, expressed devotion to Christmas in sermons. English Puritans, however, tried to do away with the holiday in the 17th century. It was revived with the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, but as a more secular holiday than it had been before.
Some pre-Christian traditions became associated with Christmas and continue today. For example, in the first millennium in what is now Scotland, Druids celebrated the winter solstice by a festival honoring their sun god. Called, "Yule," the celebration included dragging a huge log into an opening and starting a bonfire. The Druids would dance around the yule log in a noisy celebration designed to wake the sleeping sun. The Druids also hung mistletoe in hopes it would bring peace and good fortune. Use of plants like holly comes from an ancient belief that such plants blossomed at Christmas.
The Christmas tree is a fairly recent addition, developing in the early 17th century in Strasbourg, France, and spreading through Germany and into northern Europe. The evergreen tree trimmed with lights and other decorations was derived from the so-called paradise tree, symbolizing Eden, in German mystery plays. The use of candles on Christmas trees developed from the belief that candles appeared miraculously on the trees at Christmas. The Christmas tree was introduced in England in 1841 by Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria. From there it accompanied immigrants to the United States.
The figure of Santa Claus, which arguably overshadows Jesus in secular celebrations of Christmas, stems from a historical character from the fourth century, Saint Nicholas. The patron saint of Russia, Saint Nicholas lived in Asia Minor, what is now Turkey. He also came to be viewed as the patron saint of children, scholars, virgins, sailors and merchants. In the Middle Ages, thieves also viewed him as their patron saint as well. The Saint Nicholas legend tells of surreptitious gifts to three daughters of a poor man, who, unable to give them dowries, was about to abandon them to a life of sin. From that story grew the custom of secret giving on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6. Because of the proximity of dates, Christmas and St. Nicholas Day became merged in many countries. Colonial settlers on Manhattan Island introduced the name Santa Claus, a corruption of the Dutch "Sinterklaas," a modification of "Sint Nikolaas."
The Twelve Days of Christmas, popularized in the carol, refers to the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany, January 6. Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God, represented in the adoration of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus and the miracle of turning water to wine at Cana.
Use of the abbreviation "Xmas," often criticized as an attempt to secularize or remove Christ from Christmas, actually has Christian roots. "X" is a Greek letter transliterated into English as "ch." It is the first letter in the biblical word "Christos," which is translated as Christ."
A CHECKERED HISTORY
Much about Christmas remains veiled and puzzling. It harbors a mystery of faith and has a rather checkered history. For more than 300 years after Jesus' time, Christians celebrated his resurrection but not his birth. The later Christmas festival was even banned in 17th century England and in early America. The observance first begin in fourth-century Rome, timed to coincide with a midwinter pagan festival honoring the imperial army's sun god, Mithra. The December date was taken over to celebrate Jesus' birthday. But, on what day he was born is unknown. Even the precise year is uncertain. However, it was likely not in the year 1 A.D., as the calendar's Anno Domini (Year of the Lord) suggests. Its dating system derived from an error about the year of Christ's birth by a sixth-century monk in Rome, Dionysius Exigus, in working out the starting point of the Christian era. Scholars since have calculated that Jesus' birth came in about 6 or 7 B.C., meaning paradoxically "Before Christ". The revised time was determined partly by the fact that Herod the Great ruled Judea when Jesus was born and history records that Herod died in 4 B.C. In what month the birth occurred, or on what day, has been a matter of speculation for centuries. Possible dates include: January 6, February 2, March 25, April 19, May 20, October 4, November 17. A British physicist and astronomer, David Hughes, has calculated that the date was September 17, 7 B.C., based on various scientific evidence, including that of a conjunction of two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, in the constellation Pisces on that date. He concludes in a book that this extraordinary celestial display was the "star" seen by the distant wise men. The 17th century German astronomer, Johannes Kepler, similarly had calculated a three-planet conjunction, including Venus as well as Jupiter and Saturn, in the same constellation in 7 B.C. In any case, a variety of months and days have been used over the centuries in different parts of the world to celebrate the occasion. Some Eastern Orthodox churches still observe it on January 6.
Christmas was banned in 17th century England when Oliver Cromwell and his puritan followers gained temporary rule, forbidding what was called the "heathen celebration of Christmas." The holiday similarly was banned in colonial New England. Christmas was not a legal holiday in Massachusetts until 1856.