Holiday Harassment: Christmas pt. 2: Christian Origins

This is the first is a 3 part series. Part 1: Pagan origins of Christmas, Part 2: Christian origins of Christmas, and Part 3: Santa Claus and his Ilk.

In part 1, I discussed the pagan origins of Christmas. However, that is not the whole story. Christmas, in its current form, did not simply spring up or evolve from just one source, Christian, pagan or otherwise. Therefore, in the interest of fairness, here are the Christian origins of Christmas.

December 25

In the last post, I mentioned how Dies Natalis Solis Invicti was the reason that Christmas is celebrated on December 25. Well, that isn’t the whole story. While it is true that the celebration of the Sun (or Sun God) was celebrated on this day, and that some early Church Fathers commented on how appropriate it would be to celebrate Jesus’ birth on the day of the unconquered Sun, it is also true that the idea of Jesus’ birth being on December 25, predated those decisions. Hippolytus of Rome, a 3rd century theologian, makes it clear that he believes Jesus’ birth to have happened on December 25, not because of the Sun celebration, but because he believes that Jesus’ conception took place during the traditional date of the creation of the world on March 25 (which also happened to line up with the vernal equinox and often with the Jewish Passover), although he also put forth April 2nd as a date of conception in some writings. Regardless, Hippolytus felt that this proved a date of Jesus’ birth at December 25th. Still, it could have been an attempt of a Christian apologist to retroactively prove Jesus’ birth after other’s had connected the date already to Saturnalia or Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. Except… that Saturnalia was not celebrated on December 25. It was celebrated on December 17, and was lengthened over time to December 23, but never the 25. Sorry Mythicists. Further, while Dies Natalis Solis Invicti WAS indeed celebrated on December 25,  there is no mention of this celebration being held on December 25 prior to AD 354, since before this, the celebration was held every 4 years, and not on the 25th of December, and often not in December at all. This is relevant because Hippolytus died in 235, over 100 years before Dies Natalis Solis Invicti was practiced on December 25. In fact, around 200 AD, Clement of Alexandria gives us an even better clue (through his consternation), complaining in frustration that some Egyption theologians are celebrating Jesus’ birth  on December 25 (Stromata 1:21). So it seems that the December 25 date for Christmas IS actually a Christian tradition, not a lender from a pagan source.

Note: this does not actually make it true that Jesus’ was born on December 25. He almost surely wasn’t. But it does mean that Christians have honored Jesus’ birth on that day by our own (often flawed) resources, and not as a direct result of other holidays.

Christmas Trees

I did make a mention last time about Romans bringing in trees during this time, and even decorating them with 12 candles. However, no Christians are ever mentioned as taking on this tradition during the time of the Roman Empire. While this practice does seem similar to our Christmas tree tradition, the practice of bringing trees into homes to celebrate Saturnalia (or other mid-winter holidays) was long dead (by a millennium) by the time Christians began to celebrate it during Christmas time. While it is also true that many different cultures brought greenery and trees into the home during winter (from Egypt to Norway), it appears that the 16th century German Christians were the first to bring Evergreen trees into their homes and decorate them for Christmas. There is little chance that 16th century Germans relied on long forgotten Roman practice to initiate theirs. As the story goes, Martin Luther, the 16th Century German reformer, was the first to use candles and light up a Christmas tree.

And while the tree has not always been accepted as a good thing in all Christian circles, it can certainly be said however, that it too, is of Christian origin.

The Name “Christmas”

Of course, it doesn’t really take a genius to realize that the actual word “Christmas” is of Christian origin. Cristes Maesse in old English, it appeared around 1038. Christes – Christ, Maesse meaning dismissal, or colloquially, the way to refer to a church service, as in “we are dismissed to be about the mission of God.” It came to refer to the service on Dec. 25. Not much pagan there.

Nativity Scenes

The first nativity scene is said to be the work of St. Francis of Assisi. He was attempting to reverse the tide of materialism encroaching in on Christmastime around 1223 CE. Imagine if he had been around today…. mercy.  He made it up in a cave near Greccio and had live animals and people. Soon, it spread all around Italy, and was soon common practice in most churches. Statues soon replaced live people and eventually, homes adopted smaller versions. Clearly Christian in origin. St. Francis is hard to beat for sheer Christianity.

Christmas lights

Early in the  20th century, electric lights became available for use on Christmas trees (don’t believe me? Watch Downton Abby). Soon after in the mid-2oth Century, folks began using Christmas tree light on the outside of their homes. Hmmm…. since this took place mostly in America, i don’t think we can call this one Christian origin…. but it is derivative of a Christian practice.

Stockings

Well, i don’t want to spoil next week’s addition to the conversation on Santa Claus, so it will have to suffice to say that this practice of hanging stockings on Christmas Eve is particular to his legend, and not anywhere beforehand. But I won’t give anymore away, next week’s will be awesome.

So to summarize:

December 25 date: Of Christian origin

Trees in the house: Of Christian Origin (and yet attested to in many other cultures in parallel, not dependence)

The word “Christmas:” of Christian origin

Nativity Scenes: of Christian origin

Christmas Lights: of Christian origin

Stockings: of Christian origin

 

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Optimistic Chad

Chad really really hopes things are going to turn out ok. He loves his wife - with the passion of 1000 exploding suns, and is a diligent, but surely mediocre father to his brilliant and subversive children. He likes Chinese food.

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Holiday Harassment: Christmas pt. 1: Pagan Origins

Let it not be said that I hate Christmas. I don’t. I rather like it. However, like abortion, gay rights, and taxes, it has become something in-between a political football and a litmus test for the “correct” sort of belief (or lack thereof). In the interest of truth being the antidote to ignorance, let’s take a ride on the bus of no bull$h!t for a bit, and talk about Christmas. This is the first is a 3 part series. Part 1: Pagan origins of Christmas, Part 2: Christian origins of Christmas, and Part 3: Santa Claus and his ilk.

Pagan origins of Christmas:

First off, I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet. I absolutely hate it when I see/hear/experience the “keep Christ in Christmas/put Christ back in Christmas” crowd. Often, people who say this have a profound lack of insight into the historical roots of the holiday, and an even more profound lack of understanding about the nature of Christianity itself. On the second point, Christians who advocate that they should have some special rights to safeguard their desired way of living to the detriment of the way others want it should look at Jesus, who obviously felt so diametrically opposed to this that he was willing to die than to advocate for his “rights.” The Apostle Paul also mentioned how Christians are obligated to lay down their rights when they become Christians in order to win others by love (notice how hard it is to love someone when yelling at them or belittling them or trying to force your beliefs on them).

But i digress. To the first point, weren’t Christians were the ones who put “Christ” into Christmas in the first place? Might it be more appropriate for non-Christians to shout, “take the Christ back out of Christmas?”

While many cultures the world over have celebrated the Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year in terms of daylight), it was the practices of the Roman Empire that are most relevant to the discussion of Christmas.

Saturnalia

Saturnalia was the festival of the god Saturn (Chronos in Greek). He was regarded as an agricultural god and was thanked for abundance. However, it was also recognized that Saturn was king of the gods before Jupiter (Zeus) was, and, since Saturn/Chronos was also the god of time, the celebration of Saturnalia was a celebration of chaos, in that the current reign of Jupiter was suspended in favor of recognizing Saturn once more. As such, the celebrations tended to be chaotic to match.

This celebration lasted from December 17th to December 23rd (NOT December 25, as many misled or angry folk are prone to mistakenly say). During this time, gifts would be exchanged, merriment would be ongoing for extended periods, folks would wander from home to home, singing carols, and many would bake treats in the form of humans (Gingerbread folk, anyone?) to eat.

Now this might cook your noodle… Saturnalia was adopted in 217 BCE, when the Romans suffered a great loss to Carthage, who had a counterpart god to Saturn/Chronos named Ba’al Hammon. Ba’al Hammon, in various forms is mentioned in the Bible as Moloch (regarding the practice of child sacrifice) and the Levantine deity Dagon. Pagan indeed. The celebration was adopted to appease the god after the defeat, and thus included a practice of allowing Carthaginian slaves to participate in the celebrations.

While there is no strict correlation between Christmas and Saturnalia, a number of practices migrated to Christmas celebrations due to cultural remnants of a waning of pagan religion and the proximity of the dates involved.

There are some scattered references to Romans bringing in trees during this time, and even decorating them with 12 candles. However, this practice was not picked up by early Christians, and the idea of this lay dormant for almost a millennium …

Dies Natalis Solis Invicti

This was the celebration of the cult of the Sun. The cult itself was introduced by Emperor Aurelian in 274, and the celebration followed and was placed on the date of the Winter Solstice, December 25. This was because the festival commemorated the birthday and the re-birth of the Sun, and of course the Solstice is when the sun is at its least influential. When the Sun shines so little, yet always comes back to full power, it was said to be unconquerable. It should be noted, however, that there is no mention of this celebration being held on December 25 prior to AD 354, since before this, the celebration was held every 4 years, and not on the 25th of December, and often not in December at all.

The takeaway here is that early church fathers such as Chrysostom commented about how, based on the Hebrew scripture Malachi 4:2, that Jesus was the “Sun of righteousness,” and stands alone as the “unconquerable” one, therefore it is natural that the birth of Christ be celebrated on this day.

Roman New Year

Briefly, it should be noted that the proximity of date to the new year, also encouraged a crossover of the Roman new year traditions of bringing greenery into homes, celebrating with lights, and doing various charity work.

Non-Roman Traditions

From northern Europe, traditions of yule-logs and lighting them in a fire, while singing merry songs have made a major influence on traditional Christmas celebrations, and still do, most potently in those northern European nations.

 

Conclusion: These are the things Christians did not invent, and it would be foolish for Christians (or non-Christians alike) to pretend that Christmas and all of its practices are of Christian origin.

Celebrating a late December/solstice celebration: NOT of Christian origin.

Carolling/singing merry songs door to door: NOT of Christian origin.

Making treats in the form of people (precursor to Gingerbread men): NOT of Christian origin.

Exchanging of gifts: NOT of Christian origin.

Bringing trees into the house and decorating them: NOT of Christian origin, however, no direct link to pagan practice, either.

Charity work during winter Season: NOT of Christian origin.

Yule logs, open fires, communal singing: NOT of Christian origin.

A Date of December 25 as the celebration of the birth of our Lord: NOT of Christian origin…. MAYBE…. stick around to the next in the series….

Optimistic Chad

Chad really really hopes things are going to turn out ok. He loves his wife - with the passion of 1000 exploding suns, and is a diligent, but surely mediocre father to his brilliant and subversive children. He likes Chinese food.

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