Recently, a judge in Santa Monica upheld the right of the city to ban a Nativity scene in a public park. Seasonal advocates moved the Nativity scene to private property, but the incident has served as a catalyst for the War on Christmas debate that wages every year. This got the Fox News pundits ablaze, and it also got the Archivist thinking about Christmas and history. How did Christmas become a tradition? Why do we celebrate Christmas and exchange gifts?
Traditionally, Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. This begs the first and most obvious question, was Jesus Christ born on December 25th? All available evidence points to no. A quick caveat before I go on, there is virtually no consensus regarding the historical Jesus Christ other than he was a teacher from Galilee, and he was crucified in Jerusalem on the order of the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate, everything else is hotly debated.
So why do many scholars believe the historical Jesus was probably not born on December 25th? The gospel of Luke claims that when Jesus was born shepherds were in the fields at night with their flock. Many Jewish scholars assert that by December, the weather was too cold to keep sheep and livestock out in the open. The exact date of Jesus’ birth is not important to me-simply because no one knows conclusively, and more importantly, I don’t care.
What is more important, and more interesting to me is why was December 25th chosen as Jesus’ birth? The answer lies in where Christianity took root, in the Roman Empire. Some of you might be thinking: “hey idiot, Jesus was born in modern day Israel not in Rome!” First, don’t call me an idiot. Second, you’re right, Jesus was born in Galilee in present-day northern Israel. But that region was controlled and administered by the Roman Empire. Christianity was shortly brought back to Rome, where it competed within a tapestry of religions, mostly polytheistic pagan religions; imagine Rome as having a free market of religions (although for a while it was not fun to be Christian, unless your idea of fun is being mauled alive by a lion, if so, then it was probably a hoot).
Pagan religions often worshipped the natural world-the sun, the moon, the seasons, etc. A major Pagan celebration was known as Saturnalia, which was during the winter solstice, and it fell on the week of December 25th. Saturnalia was a week of debauchery and drunken antics; every lewd and lascivious behavior imaginable was practiced. It was apparently great fun, and if Saturnalia existed now Chico State would have banned it already. Christian leaders decided to incorporate Saturnalia in their own holiday, to try and win over converts from the Pagan ranks.
Someone, its unclear who, came up with the bright idea that they should claim Jesus was born on December 25th, and that is why they should celebrate. Roman pagans came over to the ranks of Christianity partly because Christianity incorporated so many Pagan holidays into their own theology. Christians were really good at this-St. Patrick, yes the same one you drink to on March 17th-converted thousands of Irish Pagans by incorporating Pagan symbols into Christian doctrine. The Celtic cross is a direct descendent of this incorporation. The sun was a symbol that was worshipped in Pagan dogma, St. Patrick superimposed the sun on the cross, and made worship that much easier for them.
So, this Christmas season, let’s gather by the tree, open presents, be thankful. Then privately sneak off, down a goblet of mead, and run naked through the streets celebrating Saturnalia…er…Christmas. Merry Christmas!