Stolen Holidays.

Yule Thieves.

Christmas is a funny thing; it is supposed to be a celebration of the birth of the son of the Christian god, but in reality, for most people, it is an orgy of consumerism and gluttony, which aren’t very Christian concepts. But neither is Christmas. It is, in effect, a pagan winter festival that has had Christian decorations draped upon it; a polytheist tree wrapped in monotheist tinsel. Christmas wasn’t celebrated by the first Christians, or even the second ones; not until the 4th century do we find records of the adherents of this peculiar new Jewish cult regarding the birth of their Messiah as something worth celebrating. Indeed many Christians thought that celebrating one’s birthday was a barbarous thing, particularly Origen, one of the most influential Christian theologians of Antiquity and the Middle Ages. But the time of year was already a cause for celebration before the posthumous popularity of a certain Galilean. The Romans, and many of the folk they conquered, celebrated ‘Saturnalia’ in the depths of winter, a festival of lights and feasting, where houses were covered in green-leaved branches, people were allowed time off work, and bonfires were lit. Sound familiar? Or what about the Northern Europe winter festival called Yule (or Jul), where houses were adorned with candles, animals were slaughtered, great feasts were organised, and vast quantities of beer was drunk? Jealous (possibly) of all this good clean pagan fun, the Christians jumped on the idea, and hijacked it for their own purposes.

Do you know When Jesus was born? Answers on a Postcard, Addressed to “The Pope, The Vatican, Italy”.

The Bible has very little to say about the birth of Christ; only two of the Gospels even bother give an account of that oh so special event, and they provide very little detail, and even then they don’t agree on what actually transpired (if it did), except, of course, for the crucial headline event. The best part about Jesus’ birthday is that no-one knows when it really is; nothing in the Bible even hints at when it could be, which, for a work of revelation and prophecy, is a bit ironic. Before the 4th century, the different Christian factions believed Christ to have been born in March, April, or May. And even then, the year is wrong, all thanks to a monk named Dionysius Exiguus who couldn’t do his math very well; Jesus was born sometime between 6 and  4 Before Himself, not on Year 1.

One Festival to Rule Them All…

In the West, the first mention of Jesus’ birthday is in the mid-4th century in a Roman calendar of sorts, and it declares it to be the 25th of December, a date that was soon adopted throughout the Roman Empire. Which may appear to be a bit random, since Eastern Christians seemed to prefer the idea of a spring or summer birthday. Interestingly, the 25th of December was already commemorated by many pagan Romans, such as that most crucial of Christian Emperors, Constantine, as the birthday of Sol Invictus, the sun-god (where’s a Catholic priest with no understanding of history or linguistics when you need one?).  It also happens to be around the time of the winter solstice, a time venerated in many other non-Christian religions. To co-opt one was to co-opt them all. It’s only a theory, but it seems quite reasonable to suggest that Christmas was invented to appeal to Roman pagans in particular, since they ran the world in those days, and they already had a long tradition of celebration around the 25th of December. Of course theology was later tacked on, the lengthening of the days is symbolic of the light of Christ and such, but the ‘birthday’ of the Christian Messiah has always lived in the shadow of what Christmas is really about; having a good time with friends during the darkest period of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere anyway), drinking and eating, and having a party.

Bring out Your Dead.

The Christians also swiped Hallowe’en from those rascally pagans, who had a thing for equinoxes and solstices. The early Christians seem to have been equally fond of plastering their notions over pre-existing conditions, and Hallowe’en is no different. This was, and continues to be, an essentially pagan, and particularly ‘Celtic’ (not in the sense of an ethnic group, but as a linguistic family which may have shared cultural practices) celebration, probably called something akin to Samhain (‘Sow-an’ not ‘Sam-hain’ as a certain American supernatural TV series claimed), which Christians sneakily sidled up to with ‘All Saints’ Day’, followed swiftly by ‘All Souls’ Day’ and all of a sudden it’s a harmless party-time for children, drunk students, and immature adults (don’t get me wrong, certain aspects of maturity are over-rated).

Bye-bye, mister Nazarene pie.

The one major celebration the Christians didn’t steal from the pagans was Easter (just when you think you have them figured out, they go and change their game to keep you guessing). No, they stole it from the Jews, though, in fairness, the Christ-lovers do have a legitimate claim on it. Unlike his birthday, we have a better idea of when Jesus was killed, because he had become important enough to take notice of by then. He (if he existed, and I reckon he may well have, but without the magic tricks) was crucified sometime in the month of Nisan, possibly on Friday the 15th, at the beginning of, or during, Passover. Which you might think is a good deal of detail, except Jewish months move. Unlike the Roman/Gregorian/Modern calendar, which is solar, the Jewish one is lunar, so the months are not always in the same place every year. The 15th of Nisan provided the early Christians with a bit of an issue; the date of Christ’s execution wandered around a bit. Theologically, some preferred the Paschal celebration to come after the vernal equinox, the world was ‘brighter’ after the death of the Galilean, and others didn’t care, believing that they should celebrate the event on the correct date, even if it happened to fall on the wrong side of the equinox. Of course the pagans also celebrated the vernal equinox as a time of rebirth and renewal, a happy coincidence with the Christian message. The Christians didn’t steal Easter, and, to a certain degree, pagans seem to have successfully inserted their notions into the Paschal celebrations; the term ‘Easter’ comes from a pagan goddess, and bunnies, eggs, and chocolate have very little to do with the vicious scourging of a Jewish reformist.

What have we learned, then? Ignore religion and enjoy the party; life doesn’t last very long, and then you are dead.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam.

13 responses to “Stolen Holidays.

  1. Pingback: The God of Christmas « Earthpages.org

  2. Pingback: The Shocking Pagan Origin of CHRISTMAS! « One Lifetime

  3. Pingback: The spirit in which you celebrate it « Transient Reflections

  4. i am a cristian i am 13 yrs old i have read the bible and i felt love from god i am not pushing you to read it but just have a look and look deaply in to it and god will touch your heart and you will have everlasting life in paradise (heaven) and i understand if you wont try but please try to read it and live a life with cristians and if that doesnt move you im sorry to say you will be punished im try to save you from sin just have a go. and look at the evendance that there is a god for eg 8000bc the jews said that the earth was round or a sphere not a elephant holding it up and there is more evedance of the bible and how would this world come from nothing and eveloution is a theory not a fact so god is real and stop takeing people from jesus we dont brain wash people god show his love to people so read the bible and why do you always pick on god why not buda because your to scared to know the truth but the truth is amazing read the bible just realise how could everything here to the dna compacted in to a cell to the universe how could that come from nothing how can u beleve a guy in a willchair. and alubert einstine said there must be an intelegent mind out there “GOD”

    • I hope this isn’t a case of trolling…

      If you are real, thank you for your comment, but I have some criticisms…

      First off, take a heavy book, such as the Bible, and hit your English teacher with it. Your grammar is terrible, your spelling is often laughable (how can you not even spell ‘Christian’ correctly?), and please learn to use punctuation. My primary-school English teacher would have crucified me for such deplorable lapses (unless, of course, English is not your first language, in which case I will consent to a certain amount of leeway, but, even so, ‘willchair’? Really?). Furthermore, you are on the Internet; can you not check your spelling on Dictionary.com, or even refer to Wikipedia to discover the name of the man in the ‘willchair’, or the correct spelling of ‘alubert einstine’? There is no need to have ‘for’ before ‘e.g.’; ‘e.g.’ means ‘for the sake of example’, usually taken to mean ‘for example’, making what you have written ‘…for for example…’. And, finally (though I could continue at length), why do you not use capital letters? The last three letters of your tedious essay illustrate that you can find either the Shift-key or Caps Lock, so it puzzles me that you fail to use it in the preceding text. In my experience, Christians are often irked when the initial letter of God is not capitalised, which is fair enough, as it is a title. You even fail to provide Jesus with a capital letter, or even yourself. I cannot fathom why.

      Leaving aside the rules of English grammar, and while you may be only thirteen years old, you need to invest in a little more research, and not just in the Bible. The earliest references to a spherical Earth come from 6th century BCE Greece, not the Bible, the oldest sections of which were not written until around the second century BCE. I’m not sure why you allude to the Great A’Tuin, as Discworld was only discovered in 1983 by the illusory explorer Terry Pratchett, so the Jewish writers of the Old Testament (who would have lived nowhere close 8000 BC) couldn’t possibly have offered an argument against such a belief. I’m not even going to bother with the asinine “evolution is a theory not a fact”; ‘theory’ does not mean what you think it means.

      I’m not “takeing people from jesus”; I don’t force anyone to read what I write, people should make their own decisions. Sadly, religion is often forced on people, and, yes, it is a form of brain-washing. I don’t “pick on… buda” for a variety of reasons, the greatest one being that I have never studied Buddhism. I imagine that I could find holes in it if I studied it, but, to the best of my knowledge, that faith/philosophy has never made the grandiose claims of the Abrahamic faiths, and it has made little or no impact on my life, which is why it does not raise my ire.

      I wonder which version of the Bible you read; did it leave out all those stories of your God commanding the butchering of nations, encouraging rape, assenting to slavery, among many other crimes against humanity and decency? None of that matters, I suppose, since you ‘felt love from god’. As for living ‘a life with cristians’, I do, they are everywhere, it’s actually rather difficult not to live a life with Christians. There are never enough lions…

      To be perfectly blunt, there is no God (or gods), and even if there was, I see no reason other than ignorance or fear to believe in it. Your argument, as finely crafted as it is, has not convinced me. All that you have imparted to me is a deep sense of unease concerning your education. I’m beginning to hope that this is spam, or a troll, or some other web-based malady, and not actually a real person…

  5. Well done, sir. You’ve just made me realise that the fact that so little is said about the birth of ickle baby Jesus in the Gospels actually adds to the possibility that some of what they say is true: the earliest gospel (Mark?) might be based partly on interviews with eye-witnesses. Because eye-witnesses would know about Jesus only when he was famous, i.e. galavanting and dying, not when an artisan’s wife was bearing a brat in a hotel annexe (or wheresoever she bore him).

    That adds in turn to the possibility that there really was a chap called Jesus pootling about Galilee at the relevant time.

    Before any Christian leaps to agree with me, she should note that the same line of reasoning should lead her to reject almost all claims about saints: their puddings are always overegged.

    • Thank you for your comment!

      To the best of my knowledge Mark, as you guessed, is the earliest of the canonical Gospels, from which the writers of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily. Only these latter two bother to mention the birth of Jesus, but none offer much detail on his childhood; for that we have to turn to the rather odd (and non-canonical) ‘Infancy Gospel of Thomas’. In any event, the traditional view was that the author of the Gospel of Mark was John Mark, who appears in the Acts of the Apostles, and so, in theory, it may have been possible that the author was an eye-witness, or at least knew many of the participants. The more… scholarly view is that it was written by an unknown Christian, c.70 AD, drawing from a variety of written and oral traditions. It is most curious that, whoever the author is, they are writing for a non-Jewish audience (it was written in Greek, and many Jewish and Aramaic terms are explained). If you are interesting in the story behind the construction of the Christian Bible as we know it, check out this fellow, http://www.bartdehrman.com/; his ‘popular’ works are a bit thin on references for my tastes, but he has done some interesting research.

      There probably was a historical figure who, though grossly embellished, we now identify as Jesus. Whether or not he was the son of God is a whole other debate (though the answer is quite simple: not). Ehrman notes that a variety of non-Christian authors refer to Jesus, such as Josephus and Tacitus. The myth and the man are now synonymous.

      This scenario reminds me of the issue of Saint Patrick. We are very lucky to have two short documents which appear to be genuine products of the man himself, which reveal a strikingly different character to that of the famous saint. There is also less magic in Patrick’s own writings in comparison to those written about him; he never mentions the shape-shifting, the exploding of druids into flame, or the smashing on pagan skulls which populate his Life*. Here we have an interesting parallel for Jesus; an individual we know to have existed, wrapped up (or perhaps obscured) in a fascinating and intriguing tale full of magic and fictional characters. So yes, you are quite right to compare Jesus to saints.

      Thanks again for your comment; I hope I helped to clarify some of the points which you had astutely perceived.

      *A ‘Saint’s Life’ is a biography of sorts for given saint, describing all their miraculous deeds, with the intention of inspiring awe and reverence. These were usually written long after the death of the subject, and, while they are often fantastical, they do hold some valuable historical details. Which is why I spend my days trawling through many of them.

  6. Thanks for the reply and the reference.
    Next, did Mohammed exist?

    I tried once to read the Koran (in English). Some of it was gibberish: much of it wasn’t, but the arrangement of material seemed pretty haphazard. Since it scarcely mentions Mohammed it wasn’t likely to cast much light on the question anyway.

    • You are more than welcome.

      As for Mohammed… That is an even sticker quagmire than the issue of Jesus, but, as far as I understand, it is largely agreed that he was also a historical figure.

      The tradition behind that Koran is that Mohammed dictated it, so it is not surprising that he would not appear in it. It seems, however, that parts of that text were floating about Yemen before the time of Mohammed, which would suggest that he was not spinning an original yarn. I haven’t read it myself, I imagine one needs to be in a certain frame of mind to undertake such a task, and at the moment I am trying to wrap my mind around early Irish monasticism. Though it is on my ‘must read’ list, the Koran will have to wait (at least until I finish my struggle with the Vulgate!).

      Thanks again for another intriguing question!

  7. I should complete the set: did Moses exist?

    • Hahaha! Very good. ‘Gotta catch ‘em all’, as the kids say…

      I have been reading a very interesting book on the archaeology of the Holy Land, ‘The Bible Unearthed’ by Finklestein and Silberman (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bible-Unearthed-Archaeologys-Vision-Ancient/dp/0684869136/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1348058273&sr=8-3), which argues that the whole Exodus and conquest of Israel and Judea took generations, and that the Bible account is highly compressed (it should be noted that this book may now be a touch dated). In any case, whatever this book argues, a historic individual whom we call Moses may well have existed, a leader of great importance who led the migration of the Jews out of Egypt (I understand that it is no longer held that the Jews were slaves in Egypt, nor did they exactly flee either).

      Abraham, to preempt the obvious follow-up question, is a rather more murky figure, as, to the best of my knowledge, there is nothing in the Bible related to him which can be historically confirmed. He may well have existed, but there is next to no evidence outside of the Bible.

      The simple fact of the matter with all these characters is that, while there may have been a historic individual, they have become so wrapped up in myth, retold as an oral tradition for centuries before being written down, such that it becomes nearly impossible to discern the truth.

  8. hhhhmmm its been an interesting read and i see that you sir are atheist, so your belief is a little bios don’t you think ? i can gather all the history that you have procured in your blog if you will…. however, dispute as you may there was another monotheistic religion before the Jewish and Christians….have you by any chance read the history on that? also yes Mohammed was real and this he heard stories and incorporated them blah blah…..GOD closes some ppls minds and eyes and hearts to test believers faith….. Quran :) …….1 question for you and then i am done…….have you ever looked at the land scape of the monotheistic religions ???? it is odd how these religions all seem to come from a close region and proximity however, so many years in between the prophesying of each…. just makes you think a little and i have read the entire bible did not care to memorize it, read te entire Quran as well……believe the Quran

    • Thank you for you (rather confusing) comment.

      First off, I should probably point, while you might indeed argue that my atheism may necessarily impose a certain bias, atheism isn’t a belief, and that’s kinda the point. Hints of monotheism have been found in Classical Greece (‘Zeus’, after all, simple means ‘God’), and the earliest Jews were polytheist (of which God wasn’t even the most senior), but they went on a deity diet, trimmed down, and settled on one rather angry god. And from there things get complicated. And yes, Mohammed was probably real and he “heard stories and incorporated them blah blah”, as you so eloquently put.

      Why would God want to test your faith? Being omnipotent, surely he would already know the depth of your belief, and, depending on your branch of faith, god also predestines each individual, making tests irrelevant as he would already know the outcome. But this begs the larger question of why would one want to believe in a god which claims to love you, but tests this love: how callow and infantile of it.

      And now we arrive at the ‘one question’. It is not at all surprising that three closely related religions spring from the same region. That is perfectly understandable, even expected. If each one had appeared independently in disparate locations, then your point would make sense. Of course they appeared in the same area; Christianity began as a reform Judaism (to be really simplistic), and Islam draws heavily on these two faiths. It really isn’t surprising at all. That is akin to saying “Isn’t amazing that French, German, and English are all different languages, but use the same writing system, and have some words in common? I mean, like, wow, that is inexplicable”, except that it is completely explicable. As is the fact of three closely related monotheistic faiths arising in the same region over the course of three thousand years.

      While I have read much of the Bible, I have yet to embark upon the Quran; will hopefully do so someday when I have the time. But I sincerely doubt that I will believe a single iota or jot of it.

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