Sunday, December 23, 2007

Taking The "Christ" Out Of Christmas. . .

I have a gripe I would like to air today. In my various holiday adventures I have seen many a person, deeply religious or other wise, complain that people (or corporations, or whomever) are taking "The Christ Out Of Christmas", by calling it X-Mas or making it to commercial or celebrating alternative Winter Holidays or whatever (I realize this sentence is running on, sorry). Well I would like to postulate that people have every right to do this if they want, as it was humans that put Christ into our current Christian Holiday to begin with!

For the first three centuries of Christianity, Christmas wasn't in December—or on the calendar anywhere.

If observed at all, the celebration of Christ's birth was usually lumped in with Epiphany (January 6), one of the church's earliest established feasts. Some church leaders even opposed the idea of a birth celebration. Origen (c.185-c.254, an early Christian scholar, theologian, and one of the most distinguished of the early fathers of the Christian Church.) preached that it would be wrong to honor Christ in the same way Pharaoh and Herod were honored. Birthdays were for pagan gods.

Not all of Origen's contemporaries agreed that Christ's birthday shouldn't be celebrated, and some began to speculate on the date (actual records were apparently long lost). Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) favored May 20 but noted that others had argued for April 18, April 19, and May 28. Hippolytus (c.170-c.236) championed January 2. November 17, November 20, and March 25 all had backers as well. A Latin treatise written around 243 pegged March 21, because that was believed to be the date on which God created the sun. Polycarp (c.69-c.155) had followed the same line of reasoning to conclude that Christ's birth and baptism most likely occurred on Wednesday, because the sun was created on the fourth day.

The eventual choice of December 25, made perhaps as early as 273, reflects a convergence of Origen's concern about pagan gods and the church's identification of God's son with the celestial sun. December 25 already hosted two other related festivals:

The Romans held a festival on December 25 called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, "the birthday of the unconquered sun." The use of the title Sol Invictus allowed several solar deities to be worshipped collectively, including Elah-Gabal, a Syrian sun god; Sol, the god of Emperor Aurelian (AD 270–274); and Mithras, a soldiers' god of Persian origin. Emperor Elagabalus (218–222) introduced the festival, and it reached the height of its popularity under Aurelian, who promoted it as an empire-wide holiday.

December 25 was also considered to be the date of the winter solstice, which the Romans called bruma. It was therefore the day the Sun proved itself to be "unconquered" despite the shortening of daylight hours. (When Julius Caesar introduced the Julian Calendar in 45 BC, December 25 was approximately the date of the solstice. In modern times, the solstice falls on December 21 or 22.) The Sol Invictus festival has a "strong claim on the responsibility" for the date of Christmas, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. Several early Christian writers connected the rebirth of the sun to the birth of Jesus "O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born . . . Christ should be born", Cyprian wrote.

Seeing that pagans were already exalting deities with some parallels to the true deity, church leaders decided to commandeer the date and introduce a new festival.

Also, it should be noted, Pagan Scandinavia celebrated a winter festival called Yule, held in the late December to early January period. Yule logs were lit to honor Thor, the god of thunder, with the belief that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year. Feasting would continue until the log burned out, which could take as many as twelve days. In pagan Germania (not to be confused with Germany), the equivalent holiday was the mid-winter night which was followed by 12 "wild nights", filled with eating, drinking and partying. As Northern Europe was the last part to Christianize, its pagan celebrations had a major influence on Christmas. Scandinavians still call Christmas Jul. In English, the Germanic word Yule is synonymous with Christmas, a usage first recorded in 900.

The pagan origins of the Christmas date, as well as pagan origins for many Christmas customs (gift-giving and merrymaking from Roman Saturnalia; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year; Yule logs and various foods from Teutonic feasts), have always fueled arguments against the holiday (In Colonial America, the Puritans of New England disapproved of Christmas; its celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. Christmas again fell out of favor in the United States after the American Revolution, when it was considered an English custom.). "It's just paganism wrapped with a Christian bow," naysayers argue. But while pandering to worldliness must always be a concern for Christians, the church has generally viewed efforts to reshape culture—including holidays—positively. As a theologian asserted in 320, "We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it."

Now some might think I am trying to be an anit-Christian buzzkill with this post. Far from it. I am a Catholic and actually ardently believe in a celebration in the Christian faith. But I also believe that, because the "taking Christ out argument" is kind of silly and ignorant to history, and especially due to the arbitrary nature of the date of this holiday, that anyone wanting to celebrate any of the other, arguably more traditional winter holiday feasts, should be able to do just that, without bother.. People can take Christ out of December 25th, because it was people who put Him in there in the first place.

So, as Krusty the Klown famously said:

"So, have a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, a kwaazy Kwanza, a tip-top Tet, and a solemn, dignified, Ramadan. And now a word from MY god, our sponsors!"



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