I admit to having squawked loudly in frustration in my younger days that whoever chose December to celebrate Christmas did not have to get to Christmas parties trudging through snowbanks in fancy Christmas attire. True, it is only half the world that has to deal with snow and cold as part of Christmas and I can’t deny that snow at Christmas can be breathtaking.
There is a unique peacefulness about a land freshly layered in a thick blanket of snow, and I am the first to appreciate the stillness and quiet as you listen to the wind in the trees, and the chirp of winter birds.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t just modern day inconveniences that leads some to challenge the origins of Christmas. According to some very sophisticated people who are certainly more educated on the topic of the birth of Christ than I am, the “nativity” may not actually have happened on December 25th. Are you mildly surprised?
It would seem that December 25 is not the date mentioned in the Bible as the day of Jesus’s birth; the Bible is actually silent on the day or the time of year when Mary was said to have given birth to him in Bethlehem.
So, not only has Christmas been an object of debate because its celebration did not originate in the Bible (what??!!) – That is correct. The celebration of Jesus’s birth would originally have been more subdued, marked simply by a Mass with prayer and personal reflection being the focus. Through the centuries many of its customs were added which were more of a mixture of non-Christian ideas which evolved from various secular and pagan cultures. But I digress. I will explore some of these points in future editions of this blog.
To get back to the interesting fact about the date, yes, there is actually a debate regarding the birth of Christ not being December 25th. Shocking! I know! According to a historian of the second century, Jesus of Nazareth would have been conceived on the 25th of March, (which the Christian Church came to celebrate as the Feast of the Annunciation). Logically, with the term of a pregnancy being nine months, he calculated that Jesus was born on 25 December and eventually it was established as Christmas.
Furthermore, it is strongly speculated that December 25th also had the convenient benefit of offering an opportunity to bridge the gap between Christian and some of the pagan traditions of the time. Such mergers were common practice during the rule of Constantine, Emperor of Rome (years 306-337), after his controversial conversion to Christ. He legalized Christianity, and by decree, combined numerous pagan customs with state Christianity. Moreover, many church leaders saw increased chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced, if it was held at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals. The coincidence was seen as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.
I have gone too deep to stop now! How interesting is it, for example, that in Rome, the supposed birthday of the pagan sun god was on December 25th, and the pagan winter feast of Saturnalia was celebrated for seven days from December 17th to the 24th, marked by a spirit of merriment, gift giving to children, and various forms of entertainment. Coincidence? Perhap, although it seems more likely that the latter was the basis for modern day Christmas gift traditions.
If you are still with me and still curious about why we do celebrate in December then here is a last bit of historical context. While there may have been push back in the early years regarding the legitimacy of celebrating Christmas in December, there were Rulers who rather liked the idea of an annual feast dedicated to the birth of Christ. The end of December was a perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking.
Isn’t this interesting? Despite the winding path through history I just took you through, it seems we are back to the topic of trudging through the snow to get to Christmas celebrations! The reality is that we find ourselves to be on the second day of December, and before COVID-19, Christmas Party season would be in full swing by now. While our celebrations might be smaller in number since the pandemic, there is still a feeling of getting together in the air. Christians believe that Jesus came to bring light to a dark world and our gatherings, whether intentional or not focus on that. December has the shortest days of the year. Let there be light in your gatherings!