December 24, 2007

The True Nature of Christmas

Two of the biggest embarrassments in infotainment, Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson, claim there is a "War on Christmas" being waged by atheists and secularists designed to denigrate the role of religion and diminish it's role in American life. Mr. O'Reilly, in particular, has gone so far as to claim the crass commercialism that now sees Christmas decorations installed in retail stores prior to Halloween is actually an important part of the holiday, and denounced those who want to make December 25th a more purely religious observance.

While there are unquestionably religious roots in the celebration of Christmas, as the Wall Street Journal points out in an excellent article, there are, in fact, two Christmases; one a celebration of the Christian nativity, the other marking the winter solstice as observed by nearly every faith or cult that preceded the spread of Christendom:
The Christmas of parties and presents is far older than the Nativity. Most ancient cultures celebrated the winter solstice, when the sun reaches its lowest point and begins to climb once more in the sky. In ancient Rome, this festival was called the Saturnalia and ran from December 17 to December 24. During that week, no work was done, and the time was spent in parties, games, gift giving and decorating the houses with evergreens. (Sound familiar?) It was, needless to say, a very popular holiday.

In its earliest days, Christianity did not celebrate the Nativity at all. Only two of the four Gospels even mention it. Instead, the Church calendar was centered on Easter, still by far the most important day in the Christian year. The Last Supper was a Seder, celebrating Passover, which falls on the day of the full moon in the first month of spring in the Hebrew calendar. So in A.D. 325, the Council of Nicea decided that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first full moon of spring. That's why Easter and its associated days, such as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, are "moveable feasts," moving about the calendar at the whim of the moon.

It is a mark of how late Christmas came to the Christian calendar that it is not a moveable feast, but a fixed one, determined by the solar calendar established by Julius Caesar and still in use today (although slightly tweaked in the 16th century).

By the time of the Council of Nicea, the Christian Church was making converts by the thousands and, in hopes of still more converts, in 354 Pope Liberius decided to add the Nativity to the church calendar. He also decided to celebrate it on December 25. It was, frankly, a marketing ploy with a little political savvy thrown in.

History does not tell us exactly when in the year Christ was born, but according to the Gospel of St. Luke, "shepherds were abiding in the field and keeping watch over their flocks by night." This would imply a date in the spring or summer when the flocks were up in the hills and needed to be guarded. In winter they were kept safely in corrals.

So December 25 must have been chosen for other reasons. It is hard to escape the idea that by making Christmas fall immediately after the Saturnalia, the Pope invited converts to still enjoy the fun and games of the ancient holiday and just call it Christmas. Also, December 25 was the day of the sun god, Sol Invictus, associated with the emperor. By using that date, the church tied itself to the imperial system.
Further, the nature of the Christmas holiday has changed throughout history, with the flavor of observance ranging from wild bacchanalia to sober piety and back again. The idea that Christmas is something that has remained unchanged until recent attacks by the ACLU and the un-religious is clearly unsupported by historical fact or the current rampant commercialism we see today. There are groups that would argue that the Christmas of John Gibson and Bill O'Reilly is the real sham, and individuals who seek to return it to an earlier, more purely religious celebration.

Whatever one's vision of Christmas, however - whether as a time or worship, gathering, gift exchanges or over-indulgence - there remains one common theme: the coming together of families and friends. And while we might not all concur on the significance of the holiday, hopefully we can all agree that bringing together those most important to us is a good thing. May you have a wonderful Christmas, in whatever manner you choose to observe (or not observe) it.

Happy holidays! Sensen No Sen will return in 2008.

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