Secular Sunday XI – Christmas

closePlease note: This post was published over a year ago, so please be aware that its content may not be quite so accurate anymore. Also, the format of the site has changed since it was published, so please excuse any formatting issues.

Every year on December 25th we celebrate Christmas. Well, perhaps you don’t celebrate Christmas, but I do, along with over half of the population of the world. One popular sentiment is that, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but that’s not exactly true.

The Bible doesn’t go into specifics about when Christ was actually born, but in the year 221, Sextus Julius Africanus (how’s that for a name?) published a history of the world entitled Chronografiai, which named 25 December as the official date of Christ’s birth. As was the case back then, no real evidence was necessary to make any statement true, so everyone just jumped on board.

When evidence is brought into play, it’s still a tough sell (which is pretty much always the case with Christianity). December 25th is nine months after March 25th, which was the date of the vernal equinox (on the Julian calendar), which was the fourth day of the creation of the world (on which there is light), and therefore, an appropriate day for Christ’s conception.

Another idea, and one that is much more likely, is that the Christian church “borrowed” the day from the Pagans. The Romans had this awesome week-long holiday in mid-December called Saturnalia, which basically consisted of getting drunk, getting naked, cantillating, and gambling. Saturnalia was celebrated from the 17th through the 24th, and honored Saturn, the god of agriculture. The poet Catullus described Saturnalia as the, “best of days,” and with all that partying, I’m sure he was right.

On December 25th, the Romans celebrated Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, which translates as, “the birthday of the unconquered sun.” Wait, the unconquered sun? Don’t the Christians have an unconquered son? Even The Catholic Encyclopedia states that the Sol Invictus festival has a “strong claim on the responsibility” for the date of Christmas. Many Christian writers pointed out that the apparent coincidence between the dates is awfully convenience, and even Saint Cyprian made light of it, saying, “O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born…Christ should be born”

It’s also interesting to note that, for a long time, the celebration of Jesus’ birth was observed on January 6th, the date of his baptism.

The traditions of Christians and Pagans that are celebrated at this time of year have more in common than just the dates.

Christmas trees have been the subject of much debate in recent years, and the banning of Christmas trees in the Seattle-Tacoma airport a few years ago left a sour taste in the mouths of many Christians. I don’t have any problem with Christmas trees, since the practice is a Pagan one. Germanic tribes in pre-Christian times would sacrifice 9 males of each species (how this was accomplished is beyond me) at the sacred groves every ninth year. There were many important trees, one of which was Thor’s Oak. In 723, Saint Boniface (then called Winfrid) was doing missionary work in Germany. In a rather dramatic display, he called upon Thor to strike him down if he chopped down the oak, which he proceeded to do. When the tree was felled and Boniface stood unharmed, the locals agreed to be baptized.

Boniface is credited with inventing the Christmas tree, because after felling Thor’s Oak, he pointed out a small fir tree growing in the roots of the oak and said, “This humble tree’s wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the center of your households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days: let Christ be your constant light. Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top points to heaven: let Christ be your Comfort and Guide.” At first, Christmas trees were hung upside-down from the ceiling — a practice that is becoming popular again today. Martin Luther is credited with turning the tree right-side up and adding lights.

Other Norse traditions celebrated by Christians are the burning of a Yule log, the hanging of mistletoe and holly, the eating of Christmas ham, and stuffing Christmas stockings. Even elements of Santa Claus predate Christian Christmas celebrations.

I’m not advocating for Christians to stop celebrating Christmas; after all, what Christians are really celebrating is the birth of Christ (at least, that’s what they’re supposed to be celebrating). What I am advocating is for people to know the real history of their beliefs and traditions, and not to simply accept what other people say as the absolute truth.

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  1. Is it particularly anti-theist of me to have started writing this while watching a T.V. program called In the Footsteps of Jesus and while my wife and mother-in-law were at church?

  2. When I was a teacher, I gave a lesson on Christmas to my jr. high students. In preparing the lesson, I researched the origins of many of our traditions. Pretty interesting stuff! The death of Baldur (mistletoe) was my favorite. I wish it were tradition to tell that story at Festivus. ^_^

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