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.