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As the last leaves of autumn fall, a splash of crimson and a spectacle of Christmas trees and colored lights takes over. The celebration of feasts and eggnog, of holiday sales, and Santa Claus are touted as Jesus Christ’s birthday. In most churches, sermons on the 25th of December reiterate the classical Biblical narrative: Jesus came into this world through an immaculate conception – a miracle, a divine intervention of sorts. However, little emphasized is the fact that the Bible does not specify an exact date for the birth of Jesus.
With our age-old association of Christmas and snow, it might be difficult to envision the most popular holiday of the year at another time. But the sparse references that do exist in relation to it in the Gospel of Matthew gesture towards a season other than winter. Researchers have speculated spring as being the accurate time due to the references of sending sheep into fields around Jesus’s birth:
““And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8)
So how did humans suddenly decide Christmas should be in December?
The celebration of winter solstice can be traced past the inception of Christianity and all the way back to the Neolithic (New Stone Age) people. Most early Europeans celebrated the dark days and nights of winter with pagan customs. Germans honored the pagan god Oden through their mid-winter holiday and the Scandinavian people of Norse celebrated Yule from the 21st of December. Even the Romans celebrated Saturnalia to honor the God of Agriculture, Saturn from the middle of Winter.
Okay, so the middle of winter was clearly a popular time for early Europeans due to the abundance of meat and wine then. But why did December 25, in particular, become Christmas?
Venerated above all other pagan gods by the Romans, was Mithra. The Greco-Roman Hellenistic deity considered the God of the Sun was thought to be born on the 25th of December. And so the date marked the single most holy day in the Roman Empire.
So when Pope Julius I decided to institute Christmas as a holiday in the 4th century in order to inculcate Christian values, there could be no better day than what was already the most popular festival in the Roman Empire. The Church came to realize that they could not fully purge society of pagan customs and rituals that had been an integral part of the culture for so long. But they could change them up a bit. And that is exactly what they did. Instead of changing the date altogether, they changed the cause of celebration instead.
While the holiday was transformed from pagan to Christian, the rituals also had to follow suit. What was previously a festival of intoxication (akin to Mardi Gras today), had to be subsumed by a peaceful, family-oriented holiday. Throw in Christmas trees, symbolic of the Garden of Eden and their red ornaments, symbolic of the forbidden fruit, and you got yourself a Biblical celebration.
So you must be wondering: did anyone ever try to abolish Christmas due to its lack of Biblical authenticity? Well, there was a time when Christmas was canceled. Puritans from the 17th century (reinforcing pure and undiluted Christian ideals) disapproved of Christmas altogether. Similar sentiments were felt by many during the period of religious reform in Europe. With the accession of Charles II to the throne in Britain, Christmas came to life once again. Victorian writers such as Charles Dickens revived the occasion through his work A Christmas Carol, whilst Washington Irving emphasized the virtues of charity and gratitude in a time of class conflict through his works.
The capitalistic Christmas extravaganza that we know today is so quintessentially American that most Christmas movies are set in the Big Apple. It may come as a shock to you that America only officialized Christmas as a federal holiday in 1870! In fact, even the Pilgrims arriving in the Americas purposely left Christmas out of their baggage. Through some of the 17th century, Christmas was made illegal in Boston and some other colonies and virtually never reached America till much later.
Though the holiday finds its origins in religious tradition, today the holiday has come to take on a more secular space where it has become a cultural and commercial phenomenon for Muslims, Jews, Hindus, even agnostics, and atheists alike. From Paganism to Christianity to Puritanism – Christmas has evolved through it all!
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