History of Christmas, musings
Christmas looms far too large in our moral, religious, economic, and social landscapes for one to expect a tranquil uniformity of position. For Christians, it is the second highest festival and….
Excerpts from Christmas in the Crosshairs Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday by Gerry Bowler
…. one that makes extraordinary religious claims. Getting its theology and modes of celebration right has always seemed to be worth arguing about. Should one celebrate the birth of the Son of Man? If so, when? If so, how? Then follows the fight, perpetually renewed, to keep the elements of pagan midwinter festivals out of the Feast of the Nativity: the battles against crossdressing, dancing, rude social inversion, ostentatious gift-giving, and ribaldry. When particular battles are deemed unwinnable, the objectionable content is Christianized and made a sanctified part of the season. Meanwhile, the Church is giving Christmas new rituals and adorning it with art, music, and drama. In the High Middle Ages, the holiday becomes more deeply entrenched in the hearts of the common people with the invention of the St. Nicholas cult, opportunities for seasonal charity, and the Franciscans’ crèche and carols, while the Church continues to battle the innovations of unruly clergy, such as the Feast of Fools. Christmas is dealt sharp blows in the early modern period by the Triumph of Lent, with its crackdown on popular customs, and by the Protestant Reformation. St. Nicholas disappears from some lands, as does Christmas itself, in Scotland, New England, and the Puritan Commonwealth. The holiday is condemned as riotous, papist, pagan, without basis in scripture or history, and simply too much fun to be moral. When the smoke clears new magical Gift-Bringers have emerged, but Christmas is in sore repair in the English-speaking world, discredited, abandoned by the decent classes, and associated with rustics, servants, and boors.
The nineteenth century opens with Christmas in low repute. In the new American republic it is most often a raucous outdoor celebration, fueled by alcohol, and in the cities of the Northeast it is a time for mob violence and disorder. Similar scenes of riot and mayhem are recorded in Canada, Australia, Newfoundland, and Britain. The season is saved by its revival and reinvention in England and New York. Members of the American upper-middle class seek to wrench Christmas from the hands of the liquored-up mob and bring it indoors as a family festival. The fashioning of Santa Claus out of the European St. Nicholas and his rough, fur-clad helpers is decisive in this movement, as it coincides with a new child-centeredness and the wider prosperity the Industrial Revolution brings. In England, carol collectors save the great forgotten songs, Anglican clergy welcome back Christmas rituals, and Charles Dickens reminds his country of the connection between Christmas and charity. In both countries, parents (including the English royal family) and merchants conspire together in the creation of a greatly furbished season focused on love and generosity.
This success, however, does not mean that opposition to Christmas ceases—the battle is taken up in the United States by Protestant sects who have not forgotten the objections of the Puritans, in England by antiritualists, and on the Continent by left-wing political groups. Social critics emerge to argue that Christmas is hard on women, makes children greedy, and abuses shop-workers; seasonal charity is derided as merely a means to keep the poor in their place. Atheist and anti-Christian arguments now emerge, and some thinkers propose that a new godless midwinter festival must replace Christmas. In no century is the war on Christmas waged with such ferocity as the twentieth, as new totalitarian states confront the challenges posed by the cradle in Bethlehem. Marxist-Leninist tyrannies that take root in Europe after the world wars are avid promoters of atheism and attempt to root out Christianity and Christmas with it. Midwinter festivities are moved to New Year, religious Gift-Bringers are replaced by Grandfather Frost, and December 25 is made a work day. Communists in Latin America and China mimic the Soviet example. The fascist governments of Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy take a different approach, trying to make Christmas part of the state apparatus. In Germany, Hitler’s party tries to paganize and make warlike a festival of peace based on the birth of a Jewish baby. Hitler replaces the Christ Child as the object of veneration. This policy is intensified after the outbreak of World War II. when Nazis attempt to turn Christmas into a military death cult. In the late twentieth century a surprising similarity is found between atheists and Calvinist Protestants: both despise Christmas and wage war against it in tracts, on billboards, in public speech, and on the internet. Though it has been predicted that the century will see the triumph of freethinking and the death of religion, faith groups continue to thrive, and attempts at state atheism are abandoned. A variety of unfaith called the New Atheism arises in the Western democracies, more aggressive than previous versions. Its adherents claim the right to openly mock the religious and take particular glee in attacking Christmas. Their mockery is no fiercer than that wielded against their fellow Christians by neo-Calvinists who preserve the Puritan distaste for Christmas but have added a biting sense of humor to their arsenal. There are many Christians who wish not to abolish Christmas but to radically reform it—anticonsumerists, ecologists, foes of an Americanized Santa Claus who wish to revive native Gift-Bringers, and those worried about the loss of a Christian core in the celebrations. Christmas is also the target of Muslims who are worried about the infiltration into their cultures of Santa Claus and his holiday. There is also a war, or rather dozens of them, to appropriate Christmas—to grab a piece of its powerful meanings. Some at the margins of society seek to borrow the season’s respectability and magical glow to advance their cause, just as politicians and merchants have. The Ku Klux Klan, African American radicals, gays, terrorists, ecosaboteurs, antismoking activists, vegans, antiobesity crusaders, pagans, Occupy Wall Street, bare-chested FEMEN activists, Palestinians, pacifists, and conceptual artists all have climbed on the Christmas bandwagon and attempted to steer it in their directions. Then there are those who just hate the season and who must tell the world all about their seasonal dyspepsia. Some have termed them “Holiday Cranks,” and the media is full of their whining each December. Their numbers include those suffering from loneliness, the bereaved, the exiled, and those afflicted with spousal saturation syndrome. Those who work too hard or shop too hard labor under a burden of stress; those who receive Christmas letters from boastful correspondents are driven to anger; the visits of mothers-in-law drive husbands out of the house. Neighbors who dazzle with their Christmas lights or hospitality, holiday Muzak, and the problem of telling a fib to children about Santa also cause distress. Stores who mount Christmas displays too early are subject to vandalism; pictures of snowmen cause an eruption of academic criticism of patriarchy;
the woes of department store Santas are increasingly publicized. Finally, there are those who claim to be no foes of Christmas but wish to drive it out of the public sphere and back into homes and churches. The war to privatize the holiday threatens lawsuits, pursues court cases, and provides employment to legions and counter-legions of lawyers. We learn of a Million Santa March, the constitutional importance of plastic reindeer, the machinations of the umbrage industry, and the forgotten virtue of tolerance. Will there ever be an end to struggles against, for, and around Christmas? Almost certainly, no. Christmas is simply too important in countless ways: in the intimate lives of families, in the industrial economy, in its spiritual challenge, in art, music, and cinema. It has proved to be bigger than Oliver Cromwell, Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse-tung, Fred Phelps, PETA, and the ACLU. Humankind will be loving it, hating it, and arguing about it for centuries to come.
By the year 200, Christian writers had begun to speculate about when the birth of Jesus had taken place. Clement of Alexandria noted that some in his city had calculated that Jesus had been born in the twenty-eighth year of the reign of Caesar Augustus, 3 b.c. by our calculation. As for the exact date, there were said to be those who favored May 20 and others either April 19 or 20. January 6 was deemed to be the critical date by local Gnostics who, despising the world of the flesh, were not interested in the date of Jesus’s birth but rather the date of his baptism in the Jordan River, when God announced that he had chosen him as his Son. In Carthage, Tertullian placed the time of the year as either December 25 or January 6. The widely traveled Julius Africanus stated that the conception of Jesus took place on March 25, making a late December birth likely, and in his Commentary on Daniel, Hippolytus, writing in Rome early in the 200s, pinpointed December 25. In 243 an anonymous document produced in North Africa, known as De pascha computus, linked the birthday of Jesus to an analogous date in the creation of the world. As God was thought to have begun Creation on March 25 (the first day of spring), the birth of Jesus corresponded to the appearance of the sun and moon on the fourth day, thus making the Nativity March 28.
This does not mean that Christians were seeking to know the date of the birth of Jesus in order to celebrate it. The theologian Origen declared that only pagan rulers had their birthdays trumpeted and, indeed, King Herod Antipas had given birthdays a bad name in the Christian community when he had used the occasion of his celebration to order the execution of John the Baptist. 4 Despite such a view, believers were growing fonder of recounting the story of the birth of Jesus. In Rome, where Christians gathered to worship in the funeral caves outside the city, they decorated a wall with a picture of the Nativity scene. The catacomb of St. Priscilla, which dates to about 250, bears an image of three Magi advancing toward the seated Virgin and Child; a man standing beside her (probably meant to represent an Old Testament prophet) points to the guiding star in the heavens. Second-and third-century pseudo-Gospels such as The Revelation of the Magi were particularly interested in the appearance of the Wise Men who, guided by this miraculous star, became the first Gentiles to worship the Christ Child. 5 With the accession of the emperor Constantine in 312, Christianity became a legal religion, free to marks its holy days publicly, and the celebration of the Nativity soon was celebrated joyfully. Maximus, bishop of Turin at the beginning of the fifth century, contradicted Origen’s anticelebratory attitude and proclaimed: You well know what joy and what a gathering there is when the birthday of the emperor of this world is to be celebrated; how his generals and princes and soldiers, arrayed in silk garments and girt with precious belts worked with shining gold, seek to enter the king’s presence in more brilliant fashion than usual. … If, therefore, brethren, those of this world celebrate the birthday of an earthly king with such an outlay for the sake of the glory of the present honor, with what solicitude ought we to celebrate the birthday of our eternal king Jesus Christ. Who in return for our devotion will bestow on us not temporal but eternal glory! 6 The exact moment when the birth of Jesus became a feast in the Christian calendar remains a subject of some uncertainty. The earliest reference to it being settled on December 25 comes from an odd document known as the Philocalian Chronograph, a sort of almanac produced in 354, which contained lists of martyrs and bishops, birthdays of emperors, illustrations of capital cities, and a method to calculate the dating of Easter. It makes reference twice to the birth of Christ. In a list of Roman consuls it states “I p Chr. Caesare et Paulo sat. XIII Hoc. Cons. Dns. His. Xpc. Natus est VIII Kal. Ian de ven. Luna XV”: “Christ is born during the consulate of C. Caesar Augustus and L. Aemelianus Paulus on the 8th of the Kalends of January [December 25], a Friday, the 15th day of the new moon.” And in the list of martyrs it says “VIII Kal. Ian natus Christus in Betleem Iudae”: “Christ is born on the eighth of the Kalends of January in Bethlehem of Judea.” 7 Since the Chronograph refers to events in 336 it can be assumed that by that year the Nativity was celebrated in Rome on December 25. There is some evidence, however, that the hard-line sectarians known as the Donatists had marked the event earlier (beginning sometime between the years 243 and 311) in North Africa.
“Christmas: A Candid History” by Bruce David Forbes”
Early Christians had no Christmas. The first written evidence of an annual celebration on December 25 commemorating the birth of Jesus comes from the fourth century. Epiphany developed a little earlier, in the eastern portion of the Christian church, but it was not quite the same as what we now call Christmas. Compared with many other aspects of early Christianity, Christmas was a later development. This comes as a surprise for many of us, because we usually think of Christmas and Easter as the two most special times of the Christian year. It was not always that way. Early Christianity was, instead, an Easter-centered religion. The death and resurrection of Jesus were the center of the early Christian message. An expectation that Jesus would return soon, at any time, and the examples of Christians who endured martyrdom rather than honor Roman gods, caused early Christians to focus on death and resurrection themes. As an illustration, when martyrs and saints became recognized within the church, Christians noted the dates of their death, not of their birth. In a sense, the death dates had become their real birthdays, into eternal life. Origen, a prolific and influential early Christian writer (approximately 185–254), had some particularly interesting views about birthdays. He noted that both Pharaoh and Herod had birthday celebrations, according to biblical accounts, but each of them had “stained the festival of his birth by shedding human blood.” Pharaoh, on his birthday, had ordered the killing of his chief baker (Genesis 40: 20–22), and Herod had agreed to behead John the Baptist (Mark 6: 14–29, Matthew 14: 1–12, Luke 9: 7–9). Origen concluded that “not one from all the saints is found to have celebrated a festive day or a great feast on the day of his birth. No one is found to have had joy on the day of the birth of his son or daughter. Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday.” Further, he wrote that saints “not only do not celebrate a festival on their birth days, but, filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse that day.” He referred to Jeremiah (“ Cursed be the day on which I was born,” Jeremiah 20: 14), as well as similar statements attributed to Job and David (Job 3: 3–6 and Psalm 51: 5). The whole discussion communicates a general attitude held by some early Christians that birthdays were something that only “pagans” (non-Christians) celebrated, not good Christians. “The worthless man who loves things connected with birth keeps birthday festivals,” Origen wrote. 1 With that attitude, birthday celebrations, even Jesus’ birthday, would not be high on the priority list of early Christians.
“The Origins of Christmas” by Joseph F. Kelly
Although Christmas has made the Nativity the best known of all Bible stories, only two of the twenty-seven New Testament books tell of Jesus’ birth, and those are the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The other New Testament books do not even mention the Nativity. The unavoidable fact is that the earliest Christians were not particularly interested in Jesus’ birth. Why not? No one knows the exact date of Jesus’ death (nor, as we shall see, of his birth), but it was most likely around AD 33. Jesus himself wrote nothing. The earliest Christian writer was the apostle Paul, an educated Jew from Asia Minor (modern Turkey) who converted to Christianity about the year 35. He never knew the earthly Jesus. Paul wrote his first epistle or letter around AD 50 to a Christian community in a Greek city called Thessalonica. In this letter, titled 1 Thessalonians, Paul warned his readers to be prepared for the imminent end of the world, an idea he repeated in some of his other epistles and that appears in other New Testament books as well. The notion of an imminent end explains a lot about the early Christians, including their lack of interest in Jesus’ birth. They saw little need to produce accounts of him or to write books of almost any kind because the End was near. Even Paul’s letters are not formal theological treatises, so familiar from later writers, but letters written in response to immediate needs or to crises in various communities. The basic Christian message dealt not with Jesus’ birth but with his public ministry, death, and resurrection, which the Christians believed had redeemed the world from the sin of Adam and Eve. There were accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds circulating orally among the first Christians, and while Paul’s letters prove that he knew something of Jesus’ life, they make no mention of his birth. As our existence proves, the world did not end, and so the earliest Christians slowly but surely began to accept a continued existence on earth. The church was growing numerically and spreading geographically, but by the year AD 64 the three main leaders of the first Church were dead, James of Jerusalem having been killed by his Jewish enemies, Peter dying in Nero’s persecution, and Paul dying in Rome either by persecution or by having lost his appeal in a capital case (Acts 27–28). Other Christians who would have known Jesus personally would likewise have been dying. It had become necessary to preserve some account( s) of Jesus’ earthly life. The apostle Paul occasionally mentioned events from Jesus’ life, such as the institution of the eucharist, along with his betrayal and crucifixion, but as he was writing letters to churches on pressing issues, Paul never provided any comprehensive narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry. If the Church were to continue indefinitely in the world, Christians needed some biographical information about their Lord. Around AD 68, a man known as Mark provided the missing narrative in a document called a “gospel,” literally the “good news” of Jesus. Other Christian writers would follow his lead. That Mark wrote the earliest gospel may surprise people, because many believers think that the gospels are biographies of Jesus. Two of them, those of Matthew and John, have especial value because tradition holds that members of the twelve apostles wrote them. But modern biblical scholarship, which focuses on the historical background and literary styles used by biblical writers, called that tradition into question and produced some surprising results—ones now widely accepted by scholars and church leaders alike. This is not the place to discuss modern exegesis in detail, but let us consider how it impacts our understanding of the gospel Infancy Narratives. Mark’s gospel came first, followed by the gospels known as Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke (whom we will discuss in detail) used Mark’s gospel and expanded on it to produce two more. At the turn of the first century, a fourth writer, now known as John, produced the last gospel accepted by Christians as Scripture. Scholars believe that all four evangelists lived outside the Holy Land, either in Gentile territory or in the Jewish Diaspora—the residence of Jews who lived in non-Jewish areas such as Syria (especially Antioch), Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Greece, Italy, and Egypt (mostly in Alexandria). Because of the conquests of Alexander the Great (356–323 BC), Greek language and culture had spread throughout the Eastern Mediterranean world, including the Diaspora. Thus, all the books of the New Testament, from Paul’s epistles to the book of Revelation, were written in Greek. This leads us to the first major realization about our understanding of Jesus: we do not have his words in the original. Jesus, like all ancient Jews, spoke a Semitic dialect called Aramaic, but his words were preserved for us in Greek, except for the occasional phrase such as talithá cümi (“ Little girl, stand up”) and ĕphphatá (“ Be opened”), both from Mark’s gospel (5: 41; 7: 34). So we must trust the accuracy of those early Christians who translated his words. But there is another element to consider. Jesus probably died around AD 33; definitely no later than AD 36 when the governor Pontius Pilate was recalled to Rome for incompetency. But Mark wrote his gospel more than thirty years later. How did he get his information? By oral tradition. This makes us moderns uncomfortable. We have so many ways to preserve exact information, starting with writing something down to preserving it in the cloud. We naturally wonder what might have gotten lost in the oral traditions about Jesus’ words and deeds. But moderns cannot change how ancient people did things; we must work with what they left us and try to understand it. Most puzzling to us is that ancients liked oral tradition precisely because it could be changed to fit a particular situation. Amazingly, we have an example in the New Testament. Mark tells us of the story (2: 1-12) of four men who carried a paralytic to Jesus for a cure. Jesus was inside a crowded house, and the men could not get inside, so they went up on the roof and ripped it open because ancient Palestinian houses were built of daub and wattle. The men lowered the paralytic down, and Jesus, seeing “their” faith, that is, the porters, cured the man. Matthew retold the story (9: 2-8), leaving out the roof. But when Luke retold it (5: 17-26), he said that when the men went up on the roof, they “removed the tiles,” that is, he changed Mark’s account. Why? Because Luke was writing for a Gentile audience outside of Palestine, and those Christians would not have understood how people in Palestine could rip open a roof. Since Luke wanted people to focus on the essential meaning of the account, he simply changed what would have been a confusing detail. Basically, when we read the gospels, we read how Christians of the late first century understood Jesus, and so these writers included material that they wanted their readers to know. But there is more. Sometimes they disagreed on some points. For example, John says that Jesus cleansed the Temple at the start of his public career (2: 13-22) while the other three recounted that he did so at the end of his career (Matt 21: 12-13; Mark 11: 15-19; Luke 19: 45-46). Occasionally even words differed; Matthew (5: 3-12) and Luke (6: 20-26) have different versions of the Beatitudes and even different locations, Matthew having Jesus give them on a mount and Luke on a plain….
All of this can be disturbing since so many Christians consider the gospels to be biographies of Jesus. But in fact, scholars consider the biographical information we have about Jesus to be very reliable, more than for many other ancient figures. We must accept that we cannot say things like “Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan on March 11 in the year 31”—the kind of detailed information so common for modern figures. But we can still say a great deal about his life. Here is an outline of his life: • He was born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod, the Roman-appointed king of Judea, and the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus. • His parents were named Miriam (Mary) and Joseph, both pious Jews. • He grew up in Nazareth. • Joseph was a carpenter, and Jesus took up that trade, a standard practice for boys in the ancient world. • His parents brought him up to be a pious and learned Jew, as he demonstrated when he dialogued with scholars in the Jerusalem Temple. • Joseph apparently died before Jesus’ public career since there is no mention of him in the gospels when Jesus is an adult. • He could read (Luke 4: 14) and write (John 8: 6). • His career began shortly after that of the charismatic prophet John the Baptist. • Jesus gathered disciples to himself—both men and women—in Galilee. • He chose twelve of the male disciples for a special role with him. • He preached among the people and won great success. • He cited the Old Testament and frequently used parables to teach. • He was revered as a miracle worker and one who could perform exorcisms. • He was a charitable person, often helping those on the bottom of society. • He showed particular kindness toward women, giving them the respect ancient society routinely denied them. • He spoke the truth to all people, regardless of the consequences. • He respected the Jewish Law and always followed it.
Confident that the gospels do provide biographical information on Jesus, we can now turn to what the gospels tell us about his birth. Since Mark was the earliest evangelist, we can start with him, but we will not get very far since Mark does not mention Jesus’ birth. Mark focuses completely on Jesus’ public career. This may sound odd, but Mark is actually in very good company in this regard, as neither John nor Paul even mentioned it. In addition, the birth of Jesus is not mentioned in any of the non-Pauline epistles (James; 1–2 Peter; 1–3 John; Jude), the Acts of the Apostles, or the book of Revelation. Only Matthew and Luke wrote about the Nativity, and they did so at the beginning of their gospels. We have to ask why they had such an interest in the Nativity. What had happened in the life of the early Church to make the Infancy Narratives relevant? Mark’s gospel opens with an account of Jesus’ baptism by the charismatic prophet John the Baptist. When Jesus has been baptized by immersion in the River Jordan and is emerging from the water, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1: 10-11). Matthew and Luke do not explain their interest in the Infancy Narratives and why they added them to their gospels, but modern biblical scholars have deciphered the answer. It may seem natural to think that people simply wanted to know more about Jesus. He had then been dead for a half-century, and disciples who had never met the earthly Jesus personally were growing in number. The problem with this is that Matthew and Luke tell us nothing about Jesus between his birth and public career thirty years later, except for a brief story Luke tells of the twelve-year-old Jesus. If they had wanted to give biographical information about him before his public career, why leave out so much, yet include include accounts of his birth? The answer is that their concern was more theological than biographical and that the baptism of Jesus in Mark’s gospel (the first gospel) presented them with a genuine theological problem. Christians believed that Jesus was the Son of God, not in the way that the Jews believed all women and men to be God’s daughters and sons, but in a special, unique way. Yet Mark’s gospel portrayed this truth in a way that was potentially problematic. He says that immediately after Jesus had been baptized by John the Baptist, the voice from heaven acknowledged him as the unique Son of God. Matthew and Luke, like all Christians, believed that Jesus had been God’s Son for his whole life, and it disturbed them that Mark’s gospel implied, even if unwittingly, that Jesus had been recognized as God’s Son only as an adult and only after his baptism by John. Indeed, they may have feared some people would see a causal relationship between the baptism and the recognition, that is, a divine sonship occurring as a result of the baptism by John….