In light of the upcoming holidays, I felt it was timely to share a few articles regarding the origins of the Christmas holiday, as well as the nativity. Before engaging with the rest of my post, I would encourage you to read the articles here, so that you have a familiarity with my sources of reference during this discussion. (I apologize for their quality, I struggle to find them sourced elsewhere.)
In the first article, by Tom Keller, we take a look at the origins of the Saturnalia holiday. Keller explains some of the common practices in this festival to the god of agriculture, including a curious event in which the slaves of Rome were given temporary freedom and were then “attended” by their masters. Keller notes that Saturnalia occurred between the dates of December 17th and December 23rd, and mentions that this time was a factor in determining the setting of Christmas. He states that the “time when the day began to increase and light triumph over darkness” was selected as an ideal time for the Christian celebration of the savior Jesus.
Along this vein, it should be noted that the Roman Saturnalia was not the only “pagan” event that worked its way into our modern Christmas celebration. On the Solstice, precisely that time when “light triumph[s] over darkness”, the Germanic pagans celebrated Yule. As to what exactly Yule incorporated, we are not certain, however, we have some educated guesses which Freyia Völundarhúsins discusses in great detail on her website, found here.
The second article, entitled Christmas in VI B.C.E, is one I often use when discussing the strange nature of Christianity’s growth and development. Among other things, Dr. Corcoran links the activities of ancient Romans to the holiday traditions we enjoy today, from shopping to Christmas cards. This is something important to note, as it gives us some insight into our shared past and shows us that we may not be as far removed from the “ancients” as we thought.
One sentiment that Corcoran touches on is something that I feel, at least given the current climate, needs to be unpacked. He mentions the “X-mas” argument, and easily dispels complaint with the explanation that the X is representative of Chi-, and so is the first letter of Christ is Greek…which also happens to be the “original” translation of the New Testament. I would like to talk about the “well-intentioned minister” that preaches these type of things and tie it to the “War on Christmas” that has supposedly been raging for years.
Whenever I read articles about our “boy king”, especially those statements he himself issues, I can’t help but notice the thanks he gives himself (and receives from the many-headed monster of his base) regarding the “permission” to say “Merry Christmas” again. I was not a supporter of President Obama, but he certainly did not discourage the wishing of Christmas to anyone…in fact, that hasn’t really changed much. There are some who would ask for a more generic greeting…a request that I don’t believe is unfounded, but there has been no “ruling mandate” asking one way or the other.
It is these times that I believe we should consider what we are bickering about. Is a seasonal greeting really worth a fight? Is the forced impression of religious beliefs something that you feel the need to justify? Is it necessary to make such a “big deal” out of the holiday season when it is shadowed by xenophobic hate of anything “other”? We are human, and we want other humans to experience a joyful season. If someone wishes “Merry Christmas”, it is likely that they are doing so to pass on a joyful experience of the holiday to you. If this is not your chosen salutation, accept it as a wish of good will and pass one along as well. While I believe in the secularization of the spirit of giving, love, and joy…I can also see the timeline realistically, and understand that this is not a battle to be won overnight. For now, I will simply and respectfully offer a “Happy Holiday” to those I greet, or return their greeting in kind.
Dr. Corcoran spends a great deal of time explaining the incorrect nature of our calendar, and places the blame on a 5th century monk who, he argues, misplaced the year 1 of the calendar. If we make the adjustment for that, this would currently be the year 2012. (Don’t worry, Doomsday Preppers is on Hulu) This misplacement of the date does hold significance, as Dr. Corcoran points our by using the biblical text, historical records, and Persian astrology to settle on a “date” for the birth of Jesus, assuming he was a historical figure.
While we have broached this subject, divinity aside, it is highly likely that a historical figure named “Jesus” did exist. As to the trials and teachings of his life, it is entirely possible that they could fall into a sensible historical scope. I do not claim to be a biblical scholar, so I will leave that work to others, however, from what I have read, the evidence available cannot definitively speak to his existence, but makes a difficult case against it. Check out the links below for further reading on the matter.
The conclusion reached by Dr. Corcoran is that, despite the time in which the Christian “Christmas” is celebrated, Jesus was likely born in the summer, around the year VI (6) B.C.E.
One of the things that I find most interesting with these articles is that they use a text of worship to help us analyze the culture of those that created it. For some, Christmas will continue to be about Saturn, or Mithras, or the celebration of rebirth at Yule…for others, it will continue to be about the birth of their savior. In my mind, no matter the reason you celebrate, the gathering of loved ones and the joy of life ang giving should always reign supreme. As I usually argue, it is in how we treat one another that our lives are measured, whether or not you need a divine being to make that judgement is for you to personally reserve. So whatever mass you celebrate, be sure to honor those individuals who take the time to celebrate with you.