Saturday, December 20, 2014

186.5 - And Another Thing: why Christmas is on December 25

And Another Thing: why Christmas is on December 25

So for the rest of the show we're going to go with our occasional feature, And Another Thing, where we step away from politics - or at least almost away - in favor of something else. Usually it's some cool science stuff, but this time it's some cool history stuff. I'm going to give you a very brief history of Christmas - specifically, why it comes on December 25.

Right at the top, you have to realize something. Based on how we celebrate the season, based on how we - and by that I mean Americans and to a perhaps even greater extent Europeans - engage and embrace the season, the traditions we follow in our celebrations, Christmas is expressed in symbols such as Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, brightly-wrapped presents, candy canes, wreaths, and mistletoe.

It is not expressed by a creche.

Because you know those people who go around saying that "Jesus is the reason for the season?" He isn't. And he never was. The season is because of astronomical patterns.

Now that half of you are smirking and the rest are composing nasty emails, I'll explain.

Canis Major
Until relatively recently, people were much more aware of the movements of the Sun and Moon and stars than we are now unless you are either a dedicated stargazer or an astronomer. Such movements were necessary signs of the changing of the seasons, of when to plant, when to reap, when game would be plentiful, and so on. They were your almanac, your seasonal calendar.

Some of that awareness lives on in popular expressions and mythology. For example, did you ever wonder why the hot humid days of July and August still sometimes are called "the dog days?" Ancient peoples by their observations were able to realize that the star we call Sirius, which is at its highest point in the sky in the middle of the night in the middle of winter, is at its highest point in the sky in the middle of the day in summer. Sirius is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, or the Big Dog, and is known as the Dog Star. So the middle of summer becomes the dog days.

Getting to the real point here, in prehistoric times and even well into recorded history, people believed that things like the Sun acted willfully or were controlled by gods that acted willfully - and each year watching the Sun get lower and lower in the sky each day as winter approached, a fear developed that one year, one of these great cycles, the Sun would keep sinking until it disappeared below the horizon, leaving the people in perpetual darkness and cold. So each year, when the Sun stopped sinking and began to rise higher in the sky each day, it was a promise of the continuation of life and the return of the spring: reason to celebrate.

This is the time of the winter solstice, which occurs in the Northern Hemisphere, depending an exactly where you are, around December 21 or 22. "Solstice" is derived from two Latin words - sol and sistere - which together mean that "the Sun stands still," which is what it appears to do at the solstice: to come to a stop and then reverse.

All over the Northern Hemisphere, this was a time to celebrate: ancient Egypt had celebrations, as did ancient Greece - in fact, in the earliest days of the Grecian one, it involved a human sacrifice. The Druids celebrated, it was celebrated in Iran, Native American peoples, include the Pueblo and the Hopi, had their celebrations.

The Yule Log
In pagan Scandinavia the winter festival was the yule. Great yule logs were burned; people drank mead around bonfires listening to tales of great stories of the past. A boar was sacrificed to the chief god Odin, who put on a broad-brimmed hat and magic blue cloak and sped around the world at night on his great white horse. Mistletoe was a sacred plant because it grew on the most sacred tree, the oak. Sprigs were cut and families hung then in their in doorways as good luck.

That is our first reminder that a lot of our holiday traditions - including the term "Yuletide," the time of the yule - are drawn from pagan ones, including decorating with garlands, wreaths, and the Christmas tree itself, along with the man who can magically fly around the whole world in one night.

For the date of Christmas, though, now we're getting into the space that lies between history and interpretation.

No one knows the date Jesus was born; no one even knows for sure what season of the year it was. To the extent that the Bible can be trusted as a source, we can be very confident that it was not in the winter since shepherds did not watch their flocks by night at that time of year: The flocks would most likely have been corralled. In fact, "watching their flocks by night" was most commonly done in the spring to protect the newborn lambs from wolves, which had lead some to argue he must have been born in the spring. But that is an awfully thin reed on which to try to build a foundation, much less a conclusion.

What's more, the earliest known use in English of the word "Christes-Maess," or the Feast of Christ, or Christmas, was in a list of Feast Days with Mass Days that was set down in England in 1038, a thousand years after Jesus died. No Saint's day or feast day of any sort was listed for December 25th.

In fact, not only did early church leaders (I'm talking 2nd and 3rd centuries CE here) argue about when Jesus was born - the options included January 2, March 21, March 25, April 18, April 19, May 20, May 28, November 17, November 20, and, yes, December 25 - some, such as Origen, argued that the whole thing was pointless and wrong because it shouldn't be celebrated at all. Celebrating birthdays, he said, was for pagan gods, not the one true god.

Still, by the mid-third century, the idea for having a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus was getting established. Nonetheless, it took some time for that notion to become formalized and a day to be settled on.

In 313, Constantine the Great legally allowed Christianity in the Roman Empire. Actually, he went considerably beyond that; the text actually says "it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best," which shows a lot more tolerance than many here do today, especially among our right-wing so-called Christians, the fanatics who get such a kick this time of year every year out of playing the oppressed victim under the relentless assault of the atheistic socialistic hordes - even though Christians make up over 78% of the US population.

Anyway, the first recorded date of the birth of Jesus being celebrated on December 25th was not until 336, three centuries after he died. It was not until few years after that when Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th of December.

Oh, and as a sidebar and contrary to popular belief, Constantine did not actually get baptized until shortly before his death in 337 and Christianity did not become the official religion of Rome until 380, 43 years after his death.

Okay, yeah, all well and good, but let's get back to the point: How did the chosen date come down to December 25? Why that date as opposed to any of the other possibilities? That was the question, after all.

To answer that, first remember that these developments were taking place in Rome, which by the 4th century had become the nerve center of organized Christianity.

The date of December 25 brings us back to the winter solstice. The Romans, like many other ancient peoples, had solstice celebrations. In Rome it was called Saturnalia. This was originally a feast day to the god Saturn, but over time it grew to a gigantic fair and a festival of the home. It began with sacrifice of a pig and involved riotous merry-making, feasting, and gambling; houses were decorated with laurel and evergreens; schools were closed; the army rested; no criminals were executed. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewelry, incense, and the like. Temples were decorated with evergreens. Processions of people danced through the streets, with their faces blackened or wearing masks and fantastic hats. Masters feasted with slaves, who could do and say what they liked - supposedly, anyway. I doubt they really felt free to push the privilege very far since a day or at most a few days later they would be back to just slaves, but hypothetically, anyway.

(Notice, by the way: traditions including decorating your home. Laurels. Visiting friends. Gift-giving. Holiday parties. Not Christian traditions, Roman ones. Pagan ones.)

The old Roman goddess of the solstice was Angerona, whose festival day was, logically enough for a goddess of the solstice, December 21. But when Mithraism, personified by the god Mithra, was introduced to Rome, the goddess was largely supplanted in favor of Mithra's day of seasonal rebirth, which was December 25.

Mithra, himself a composite of earlier beliefs, became amalgamated with a Roman sun god named Solis indigeni, a god which in turn came from the Pelasgean titan of light named Helios.

This new being, this composite of two composites, was Solis invicta, the invincible sun, and Mithra's day became dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the birthday of the unconquerable sun. When the emperor Aurelian proclaimed Mithraism the official religion of the Roman Empire in 274, the day became an official holiday.

So, put it all together. Before Constantine the Great issued his Edict of Milan, being a Christian in Rome could get you killed. Refusal to participate in the Imperial cult was considered treason.

During the Great Persecution carried out by the emperor Diocletian from 303 to 311, Christian buildings and the homes of Christians were torn down, their sacred books collected and burned. Christians were arrested, tortured, mutilated, burned, starved, and condemned to gladiatorial contests to amuse spectators.

So if you wanted celebrate the birth of the man you regarded as your savior - and the idea of having such a celebration was by then pretty widely accepted among Christians - you had to hide it. So since the time is purely symbolic and basically arbitrarily chosen because no one knows the actual date for certain and it's really based on tradition and nothing more - consider all the saints' days; there is no assertion that one of those saints were born on that particular day, it's just a day to make note of them - since it's arbitrary, what better time to do it than during Saturnalia, when everyone else was celebrating and so no one would notice? And what better day to pick than December 25, the birthday of the unconquerable "Son?"

St. Chrysostom
Indeed, according to St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, writing in the late 4th or very early 5th century, the "Roman Church purposefully placed the keeping of Christmas between two popular folk festivals, Saturnalia and the Kalends of January, in order to give Christians something to celebrate about [undisturbed] while others were engaged in secular merrymaking."

By the year 354 CE, December 25 had been accepted in Rome as the date of the Feast of Christ, or Christ-Mass, Christmas. Gradually most of the Christian Church agreed. Once Christianity became the legal religion of Rome, the church began appropriating what old pagan customs it could, with the result that the merry side of Saturnalia was gradually adopted and adapted to the observance of Christmas.

And so that is why Christmas in on December 25: Christians hid within, then adopted, then adapted, pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. By 1100 Christmas was the peak celebration of the year for all of Europe.

But let me finish up by saying that even then the idea was not universally accepted. Origen's conviction that celebrating the birth of a god was for pagans persisted among conservative Christians for centuries, including among the separatists and Puritans who settled Plymouth and Boston. They regarded Christmas as a pagan celebration with no Biblical justification. In fact, there were laws against it. In his journal entry for 1621, Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford, writing 10 or 12 years later, recalled what he called a passage "rather of mirth then of weight." (Spelling has been modernized.)
A page from Bradford's journal
On the day called Christmas day, the Governor called them out to work, (as was used,) but the most of this new company [referring to some people who had arrived the month before, in November 1621] excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led away the rest and left them; but when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar and some at stool-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them that it was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it a matter of devotion, let them keep to their houses, but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing has been attempted that way, at least openly.
And it wasn't just here: In 1647, Great Britain's Puritan-dominated parliament abolished the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, which is known in the US as Pentecost.

In 1659, the MassBay colony - that is, Boston - banned celebrating Christmas altogether. The ban remained in place for 22 years, until 1681, and even then it was a governor appointed by the restored British monarchy who revoked it. Despite the lifting of the ban, the first recorded celebration of Christmas in Boston wasn't for another five years, in 1686.

For many years, Thanksgiving remained the most important seasonal holiday in New England.

Even in other parts of the country Christmas did not become a major holiday until a religious revival in the early 1800s spurred interest in Christmas, particularly in the South. In 1837, Louisiana became the first state to make the day a holiday.

New England continued to lag behind: In Plymouth, the very first time Christmas was mentioned in the town’s oldest newspaper wasn't until 1825. As late as 1856, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that "The old Puritan feeling prevents [Christmas] from being a cheerful hearty holiday“ in the region, but "We are in a transition state." And so it was: By 1860, just a few years later, that same Plymouth paper was filled with ads for Christmas presents and by the end of the century Christmas was as much a part of Plymouth as it had become in the rest of the country.

So in the spirit of Constantine, let me say Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Chanukah, Happy Festivus, for all the atheists like me, Happy Winter Solstice, and to all of us, Happy Holidays. Like the man in the story said, we are halfway out of the dark.


"The Christmas Connection," lecture at Plymouth Antiquarian Society, Plymouth, MA, November 15, 1979

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