In honor of the holiday season and the all-important truth, I present history without modern religious bias and ignorance. You can still enjoy the season, folks, just cut through the bullshit and embrace reality. Even if it is cliche, the truth really does set you free. If you are going to believe in something, you must do so with knowledge, humility, and open-mindedness. Otherwise it is just empty faith prone to arrogance -and that will earn you no respect with clear thinkers.
(Thanks to Lawrence Kelemen, Helen Ellerbe, and many other students of history for their words to help me present this.)
Christmas, as it was originally designed, celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean Jewish Rabbi, who Christians worship as the son of God (or God the Son incarnated) who came to rescue mankind from the “curse of the Torah,” (basically providing redemption to those who sin under the laws of the Old Testament).
Popular myth puts the birth of Jesus on December 25th in the year 1 AD. The New Testament gives no date or year for Jesus’ birth. The earliest gospel (none of which were actually written by any of Jesus’s twelve disciples) – St. Mark’s, written about 65 A.D – begins with the baptism of an adult Jesus. This may suggest that the earliest Christians lacked interest in or knowledge of Jesus’ birth date.
The year of Jesus’ birth was first determined by Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk, abbot of a Roman monastery. His calculation went as follows:
In the Roman, pre-Christian era, years were counted from ab urbe condita (“the founding of the City” [Rome]). Thus 1 AUC signifies the year Rome was founded, 5 AUC signifies the 5th year of Rome’s reign, etc.
The Roman emperor Augustus reigned 43 years, and was followed by the emperor Tiberius.
Luke 3:1,23 indicates that when Jesus turned 30 years old, it was the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius.
If Jesus was 30 years old in Tiberius’ reign, then he lived 15 years under Augustus (placing Jesus birth in Augustus’ 28th year of reign).
Augustus took power in 727 AUC. Therefore, Dionysius puts the birth of Jesus in 754 AUC.
However, Luke 1:5 places Jesus’ birth in the days of Herod, and Herod died in 750 AUC – four years before the year in which Dionysius places Jesus birth.
Joseph A. Fitzmyer – Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America, member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and former president of the Catholic Biblical Association – writing in the Catholic Church’s official commentary on the New Testament, writes about the date of Jesus’ birth, “Though the year of birth is not reckoned with certainty, the birth did not occur in AD 1. The Christian era, supposed to have its starting point in the year of Jesus birth, is based on a miscalculation introduced ca. 533 by Dionysius Exiguus.”
The DePascha Computus, an anonymous document believed to have been written in North Africa around 243 AD, placed Jesus birth on March 28. Clement, a bishop of Alexandria (d. ca. 215 AD), thought Jesus was born on November 18. Based on historical records, Fitzmyer guesses that Jesus birth occurred on September 11, 3 BC.
Why then do Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th?
Roman pagans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17-25 (coinciding with the winter solstice) . The festival honored the god Saturn, an agricultural deity who reigned over the world in the Golden Age, when humans enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the earth without labor in a state of social egalitarianism. The revelries of Saturnalia were supposed to reflect the conditions of the lost mythical age.
During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the week long celebration. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this man or woman. The holiday continued with a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days.”
The ancient Greek writer, poet and historian Lucian (in his dialogue entitled Saturnalia) describes the festival’s observance in his time. In addition to human sacrifice, he mentions these customs: widespread intoxication; going from house to house while singing naked; rape and other sexual license; and consuming human-shaped biscuits. (I wondered if the tradition of the gingerbread man had some connection to this, but I could not find it.)
In the 4th century AD, Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival hoping to take the pagan masses in with it. Christian leaders succeeded in converting to Christianity large numbers of pagans by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians. The problem was that there was nothing intrinsically Christian about Saturnalia. To remedy this, these Christian leaders named Saturnalia’s concluding day, December 25th, to be Jesus’ birthday.
Christians had little success, however, refining the practices of Saturnalia. As Stephen Nissenbaum, professor history at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, writes, “In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.” The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets (a precursor of modern caroling), etc.
The Reverend Increase Mather of Boston observed in 1687 that “the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that month, but because the heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those pagan holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.” Because of its known pagan origin, Christmas was banned by the Puritans and its observance was illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. However, Christmas was and still is celebrated by most Christians.
Just as early Christians recruited Roman pagans by associating Christmas with the Saturnalia, so too worshippers of the Asheira cult and its offshoots were recruited by the Church sanctioning “Christmas Trees”. Pagans had long worshipped trees in the forest, or brought them into their homes and decorated them, and this observance was adopted and painted with a Christian veneer by the Church.
Norse mythology recounts how the god Balder was killed using a mistletoe arrow by his rival god Hoder while fighting for the female Nanna. Druid rituals used mistletoe to poison their human sacrificial victim. The Christian custom of “kissing under the mistletoe” is a later synthesis of the sexual license of Saturnalia with the Druidic sacrificial cult.
In pre-Christian Rome, the emperors compelled their most despised citizens to bring offerings and gifts during the Saturnalia (in December) and Kalends (in January). Later, this ritual expanded to include gift-giving among the general populace. The Catholic Church gave this custom a Christian flavor by re-rooting it in the supposed gift-giving of Saint Nicholas.
Nicholas was born in Parara, Turkey in 270 AD and later became Bishop of Myra. He died in 345 AD on December 6th. He wasn’t named a saint until the 19th century.
Nicholas was among the most senior bishops who convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and helped create what would be called the New Testament (essentially choosing which books they felt fit their growing church’s agenda).
In 1087, a group of sailors who idolized Nicholas moved his bones from Turkey to a sanctuary in Bari, Italy. There Nicholas supplanted a female boon-giving deity called The Grandmother, or Pasqua Epiphania, who used to fill the children’s stockings with her gifts. The Grandmother was ousted from her shrine at Bari, which became the center of the Nicholas cult. Members of this group gave each other gifts during a pageant they conducted annually on the anniversary of Nicholas’ death, December 6.
The Nicholas cult spread north until it was adopted by German and Celtic pagans. These groups worshipped a pantheon led by Woden –their chief god and the father of Thor, Balder, and Tiw. Woden had a long, white beard and rode a horse through the heavens one evening each Autumn. When Nicholas merged with Woden, he shed his Mediterranean appearance, grew a beard, mounted a flying horse, rescheduled his flight for December, and donned heavy winter clothing.
In a bid for pagan adherents in Northern Europe, the Catholic Church adopted the Nicholas cult and taught that he did (and they should) distribute gifts on December 25thinstead of December 6th.
In 1809, the novelist Washington Irving (most famous his The Legend of Sleepy Hollow andRip Van Winkle) wrote a satire of Dutch culture entitled Knickerbocker History. The satire refers several times to the white bearded, flying-horse riding Saint Nicholas using his Dutch name, Santa Claus.
Dr. Clement Moore, a professor at Union Seminary, read Knickerbocker History, and in 1822 he published a poem based on the character Santa Claus: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in the hope that Saint Nicholas soon would be there…” Moore innovated by portraying a Santa with eight reindeer who descended through chimneys.
The Bavarian illustrator Thomas Nast almost completed the modern picture of Santa Claus. From 1862 through 1886, based on Moore’s poem, Nast drew more than 2,200 cartoon images of Santa for Harper’s Weekly. Before Nast, Saint Nicholas had been pictured as everything from a stern looking bishop to a gnome-like figure in a frock. Nast also gave Santa a home at the North Pole, his workshop filled with elves, and his list of the good and bad children of the world. All Santa was missing was his red outfit.
In 1931, the Coca Cola Corporation contracted the Swedish commercial artist Haddon Sundblom to create a coke-drinking Santa. Sundblom modeled his Santa on his friend Lou Prentice, chosen for his cheerful, chubby face. The corporation insisted that Santa’s fur-trimmed suit be bright, Coca Cola red. And Santa was born – a blend of Christian crusader, pagan god, and commercial idol.
In a large sense the original idea of Christmas has been transformed into a secular holiday no thanks to the influence of the same Church trying to promote their religion. For those who are not Christian or perhaps not religious, this isn’t a bad thing, as the holiday as it exists today certainly brings joy for millions, regardless of its history or religious purpose. For millennia, pagans, Christians, and even Jews have been swept away in the season’s festivities, and very few people ever pause to consider the celebration’s intrinsic meaning, history, or origins.