How do we know that/whether Jesus was born on 25th December? And are Christians really so dumb as to think he was born on that day? Grace Dalton considers.
In a recent online debate over abortion, I was assailed with revelation that the 25th of December was originally Yule; and that “Easter” is from Oestre, the name of a pagan Goddess. Evidently, my antagonist presumed that I’m Christian, entirely on the basis of my objection to pregnancy termination, without any mention from me of faith, God, Christ, the Bible or any related vocabulary. That presumption is something I encounter constantly; more surprising was the even less related topic of festivities being brought up. Her assumption of my Christianity was correct of course; her assumptions that these historical festive facts were new to me, and that they invalidated Christianity, were not.
Wizzard wish that it could be Christmas every day — of course, it might as well be, since every day it is true that Christ has entered humanity and that He offers us more cause for celebrate than we can ever wrap our minds around. Absurdly, Christ is now almost entirely ignored in our nation, even at the dates designated for remembering His birth and sacrificial death. Data from the Evangelical Alliance finds that 51 per cent agree with the statement “the birth of Jesus is irrelevant to my Christmas”. Christmas is once again predominantly a pagan festival — more than Jesus, Britons’ greatest focus is materialism. A myriad of unwritten but religiously held rules govern our Christmases — we must have a tree — with an artistic array of baubles, lights and tinsel; we must gorge ourselves on the regimented menu — with roast potatoes, sprouts, pigs in blankets and other essentials; we must pay homage to the god that is commercialism by buying gifts for friends who have all they need already.
“Perhaps, as Christians, our iconising, specifically when childish, is itself part of the problem. It pains me to write this, but is it not possible that the abundance of cute cartoons of the nativity has conditioned some of our contemporaries to subconsciously think of it as fictional?”
This is what Christmas has come to mean in the modern Western world. It’s strictly adherent to a schedule, the nativity “story” is a quirky add on. The Queen’s speech, the stupendous meal, opening of gifts from Santa and others; the epitome of television scheduling; are sacred and must take place on the 25th of December. Unending chocolate (cosmetic, Lego pieces, beard oil); leaving out stockings for Santa must take place the day before, the beginning of the January sales must have occurred by the day after, and both the lead up and wind down from the big day will involve socialising and shopping with religious fervour. Britons lament their inability to participate in the rituals of Christmas day, and the timetable is the most unifying factor in our varied festive activities.
To axe the birth of Jesus thus feels an inconsequential evolution to most.
Perhaps, as Christians, our iconising, specifically when childish, is itself part of the problem. It pains me to write this, but is it not possible that the abundance of cute cartoons of the nativity has conditioned some of our contemporaries to subconsciously think of it as fictional?
Father Christmas must be a part of the problem also, as much as I love the tradition. All but a few children in Britain are introduced to him from infancy, and we can’t remember life before. Then, we discovered that he’s purely a fabrication. Even if subconsciously, many people surely feel that it’s a logical progression to conclude that the other supernatural story of Christmas characters is merely myth too, like Santa.
“As we progress through the education system, the history on the curriculum becomes increasingly recent and Western, and thus has recorded dates. History becomes something of which precise dates are an integral part; thus without an exact date — month and day — attached to it, the birth of Jesus is presumed to be another myth, there’s no consideration that it might have been a historical event.”
The primary school curriculum examines Ancient Greece or Rome, making us aware from an early age of mythology in the civilisations of past millennia. As we progress through the education system, the history on the curriculum becomes increasingly recent and Western, and thus has recorded dates. History becomes something of which precise dates are an integral part; thus without an exact date — month and day — attached to it, the birth of Jesus is presumed to be another myth, there’s no consideration that it might have been a historical event.
In the 21st century Western world, there is not only a culture of presumed naturalism, but also detachment from the setting of the nativity. It’s surely harder to entertain beliefs about an event when the only environment we’ve experienced is entirely different. Babies are born in hospitals, most of us have only visited animal barns several times at most; we never use stars for navigation, we have GPS; and that rulers would force long journeys, let alone slaughter infants, is unthinkable. Maybe the disparity between the lives we live and those of the nativity’s figures contributes to some peoples’ refusal to consider the possibility that it was a reality.
The conspiracy that Jesus never existed has thrived in recent years. A mere few published books on the fabricated notion have been sufficient to seed a fallacy that’s spread and taken root both sides of the Pond. The internet offers anyone keen to know the truth a wealth of articles that present some of the extra-biblical evidence for Jesus, and Wikipedia quotes numerous historians to conclude that Jesus mysticism is regarded as a fringe theory lacking support amongst academics. But to many in the wider population, it is evidently an attractive idea; if Christ is fiction, they feel secure in not addressing the sin that He commands us to flee, and once they have decided that this is what they’d like to believe, they’ll reject entirely any further discussion about Him. One popular pretence of mythicists is that Jesus is merely a reimagining of the fictional religious character Mithras, who was also born supernaturally on the 25th of December. Mithras was worshipped in the Roman empire, shortly after Jesus walked the Earth, and some atheists — including Stephen Fry to an audience of millions on QI — argue that Jesus simply derived from Mithras. In fact, the obvious reality is that the Roman solstice was selected as the date of celebration for both.
This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. John 3:19
Christmas marks the Light of the World entering it — to deny that Light, burying one’s head in the sand, is primarily an attempt to justify succumbing to the heart’s blackest temptations.
The accusation was fundamentally lacking; Christmas is not simply an appropriation of Yule. Christmas’s history is complex, but the a more accurate summary is that Christmas is celebrated on the 25th of December on account of the Roman solstice. As Christianity progressed through the Roman empire, the young Church assigned to it the commemoration of Christ’s birth. In part, this was a means to deflect people from engaging in pagan practices that accompanied the solstice; festivities were held by the Romans in honour of the Sun god Sol Invictus on December the 25th.
“It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day.”
12th-century Syrian bishop, cited in Ramsay MacMullen, ‘Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries’ (Yale: 1997)
Selection of the solstice was also symbolic — Jesus, the light of the world enters at the point of daylight hours beginning to increase. Augustine, in his 192nd sermon, posited, “Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.”
Additionally, there was a belief that the date of the Annunciation might have been the 25th of March; since a Jewish tradition held that that Holy men would live, from conception to death, an exact number of years. As the 25th of March was considered to be the date the crucifixion — coinciding with Passover — the pre-born human Christ must have been conceived at that date, rendering the 25th of December as His date of birth.
Yule was celebrated at the point in the calendar ultimately assigned as Christmas; contrary to the commenter’s assertion, Christmas was not a mutation of Yule; rather, both are dated to accord with the winter solstice. Belying the attestation that Christmas was derived from Yule, is that earliest evidence of Yule is from the 4th century, postdating attempts to determine the anniversary of Jesus’ birth. Clement of Alexandria wrote, around A.D. 200, “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day” (Andrew McGowan, How December 25 Became Christmas).
Though indeed, Western Christmas has adopted facets of Yule — and whilst I’m certainly grateful at Christmas that chocolate roll cakes are common alongside fruit cake (yule logs and Christmas pudding/cakes respectively) it truly is a tragedy that festive food is demonstrably manifold more important to our society than the Bread of life.
Intriguingly however, some of our festive institutions have long held Christian meaning to those celebrating. For those in past generations who employed Holly in carols and decorations at Christmas, it represented Jesus’ crown of thorns, its red berries drops of His blood. Ivy, meanwhile, is heart shaped, and thus deliberately used to represent love — which is made manifest in Jesus; whilst the robin has been imagined to have a red breast because one was sent to warm the newly born baby Jesus in the cool of an animal shelter. So whilst Christmas has long been infused with secular traditions, the faith of Christians through the centuries is evidenced in motifs that still warm hearts today.
“As Christians, it’s incumbent on us to make known that what we celebrate at Christmas is truly a historical reality; and that it’s incomparably more important than festive fripperies, fairy lights and family feasts.”
Although materialism is the primary focus of our agnostic compatriots at Christmas and Easter, they are the lynchpins of non-Christians’ experience of Christianity; people (nowadays) largely unfamiliar with the myriad of reasons and experiences on which Christians’ faith is built. For a Christian, faith is not dependent on the details of these festivities, since our relationships with God comprise so much more.
The Yule comment that sparked this evidenced that choosing to assert the non-existence of Jesus can be motivated by desire to defend an unrelated opinion; in this case, suggesting that Jesus is a myth is a desperate attempt to strike a blow in a debate about abortion. Would she be less hasty in deciding what she believes about Jesus if she weren’t trying to run from the implications?
It’s incumbent on us to make known that what we celebrate at Christmas is truly a historical reality; and that it’s incomparably more important than festive fripperies, fairy lights and even family feasts — but incomparably more exciting too than the issues about which they’re keen to argue.
- William J. Collinge, Historical Dictionary of Catholicism, p.99
- Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries. Yale: 1997, p.155
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Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright ©1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). UK trademark number 1448790.