The Annual Christmas Controversy


     It's that time of year again, the great hue and cry has arisen over the commercialization of Christmas, of having Christmas-themed decorations in public places, the disrespectul political correctness of wishing "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."

     Got a news flash for ya, folks: Jesus wasn't born on Christmas Day.

     There are two different historical threads that came together to put the celebration of Jesus' birth at the Winter Solstice. Let's first deal with the time of birth.

     Joseph and the pregnant Mary, if you remember, were on the road when she came to term. The reason they were traveling was they had to register for a census. At any rate, that's the gospel version. Historians and archiologists have determined that the census wasn't at the time of the Solstice. When I was a school boy I was taught that the actual date was probably early October. But that's harvest time, which is not a good time to make people leave home to take part in a census. A more likely time for Jesus' birth, according to many biblical scholars, was in the spring, after planting.

     Next up, howcomeforwhy Christmas is on December 25 instead of some time in April or maybe May? Reasonable question.

     In the beginning, which is as good a place as any to start, the birth of Jesus wasn't one of Christianity's big time holy days. Matter of fact, it wasn't celebrated at all. The mere birth paled greatly in significance compared to the Resurrection, which was the major holy day. Hey, don't get your knickers all in a twist over that. Look at ancient history. Historians can pin down the death-dates of historical personages pretty well, but are generally very shaky on birthdates, often not even being able to say for certain in what year someone was born, much less what day and month. Why? Because culturally, birthdays weren't a big deal back then. Matter of fact, some cultures that did celebrate birthdays, celebrated everybody's birthday on the same day; the first day of the year by their calendar, for example.

     Christianity started off as a small, radical Jewish sect and took some time to develop its identity as a separate religion. It didn't become big and really start spreading until Constantine the Great made it the official state religion of the Eastern Roman Empire. That's when it started to become the Church Militant, running around doing its best to convert everybody. One important step in converting the pagan masses was doing away with all their heathen holidays. The early missionaries ran into a big problem when they got far enough north and tried to do away with the Winter Solstice holidays.

     You see, just about every known culture, past and present, that has a clearly defined summer and winter, with days growing short and cold during winter, has a Winter Solstice festival of some sort. Doing away with the Winter Solstice down south wasn't too terribly difficult. After all, the days didn't get too short or too terribly cold. But farther north, say in Germany or England, days got very, very short. Short enough that people might wonder if the sun was ever going to come back. Different cultures developed different ways of determining when the solstice was, some of which were very elaborate. As an example, one function of Stonehenge may have been determining exactly which day was the shortest day. So the Winter Solstice was a major holiday, perhaps the most important. People weren't letting go of it for some johnny-come-lately religion, nossir!

     Well, the church fathers of the time weren't dummies, you know. When they couldn't do away with the Winter Solstice festivals, they usurped them! They could have put the celebration of the Resurrection there, but that already occupied the place of the spring planting festival (according to the lunar calendar, which is why Easter floats). So they gave the matter some thought and decided that since the Winter Solstice celebrated the rebirth of the sun, they'd plunk a celebration of the birth of Jesus on that same date.

     Yeah, yeah, I know, the winter solstice is December 21st, not the 25th. Blame that on the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, which took place over a couple of centuries. That and the fact that the skies have shifted against the calendar over the millinia.

     One last note, just in case I offended anybody. If I offended you, its probably because you believe in the literal truth of the Bible. Okay, cite me chapter and verse where the Bible says Jesus was born on December 25. You can't, because it doesn't.

     So chill out on December 25 being an ancient Christian sacred date that doesn't belong to anybody else. The Winter Solstice festival long predates Christianity and Christmas. Celebrating the one doesn't negate the other.

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