2005-12-23 / Community

Origins Of Lost In Antiquity Cristmas

The story of Christ's birth has been handed down for centuries, based mainly on the Christian gospels of Matthew and Luke. The gospels of Mark and John do not address the childhood of Jesus, and those of Matthew and Luke highlight different events.

According to Luke, Mary learns from an angel that the Holy Spirit has impregnated her. Shortly thereafter, she and her husband Joseph leave their home in Nazareth to travel to Joseph's ancestral home, Bethlehem, to enroll in the census ordered by the Roman emperor, Augustus. Finding no room in inns in the town, they set up lodgings in a stable. There Mary gives birth to Jesus in a manger or stall. Christ's birth in Bethlehem of Judea, the home of the house of David from which Joseph is descended, fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah.

Matthew's gospel begins by telling the genealogy and virgin birth of Jesus, and then moves to the coming of the Wise Men from the East to Christ's shelter in Bethlehem. Matthew mentions no trek to Bethlehem from Nazareth. The wise men, or Magi, first arrive in Jerusalem and report to the king of Judea, Herod the Great, that they have seen a star, now called the Star of Bethlehem, heralding the birth of a king. Further inquiry leads them to Bethlehem of Judea and the home of Mary and Joseph. They present Jesus with treasures of "gold, frankincense, and myrrh". While staying the night, the wise men have a dream that contains a divine warning that King Herod has murderous designs on the child. Resolving to hinder the ruler, they go home without telling Herod of the success of their mission. Matthew then reports that the family next flees to Egypt to escape the murderous rampage of Herod, who has decided to have all children of Bethlehem under two killed in order to eliminate any local rivals to his power. Another aspect of Christ's birth which has passed from the gospels into popular lore is the announcement by angels to nearby shepherds of Jesus's birth. Some Christmas carols refer to the shepherds observing a big star directly over Bethlehem, and following it to the birthplace. The Magi, whom Matthew reports seeing a giant star as well, have been variously interpreted as wise men or as kings. They are supposed to have come from Arabia or Persia, where they could have gotten their gifts of "gold, frankincense, and myrrh". Some astronomers and historians have proposed to explain what combination of traceable celestial events might explain the appearance of a giant star that had never before been seen, but there is no agreement among them.

The origins of Christmas

Historians are unsure exactly when Christians first began celebrating the Nativity of Christ. At times it was forbidden by the Protestant Church until after the 1800s because of its association with Catholicism. Some scholars maintain that December 25 was only adopted in the 4th century as a Christian holiday after Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity to encourage a common religious festival for both Christians and pagans. Perusal of historical records indicates that the first mention of such a feast in Constantinople was not until 379, under Gregory Nazianzus. In Rome, it can only be confirmed as being mentioned in a document from approximately 350 but without any mention of sanction by Emperor Constantine.

Early Christians chiefly celebrated the subsequent Epiphany, when the baby Jesus was visited by the Magi (and this is still a primary time for celebration in Spain and Armenia).

The context in which Christianity, and thus Christmas, was formed was the Roman Empire. The Romans honored Saturn, the ancient god of agriculture, each year beginning on December 17. In a festival called the Saturnalia they glorified past days when the god Saturn ruled. This festival lasted for seven days and included the winter solstice which by the Julian calendar fell on December 25. During Saturnalia the Romans feasted, postponed all business and warfare, exchanged gifts, and temporarily freed their slaves. These and other winter festivities continued through January 1, the festival of Kalends, when Romans marked the day of the new moon and the first day of the month and the beginning of the religious year.

In 207, during the reign of Emperor Aurelian, Sol Invictus (Indefeated Sun) became the official god of the Roman Empire. Sol Invictus was based upon the Persian sun god, Mithras. Romans celebrated the birth of the sun on the Winter Solstice with festivities in honor of the rebirth of Sol Invictus or with rituals to glorify Mithra. The Roman priesthood preserved the festival and many other traditions and beliefs in its transformation to Christianity and formation of the Catholic Church. All extant evidence indicates that Christianity was generally adopted as the official religion decades after Constantine's death in most parts of the Roman Empire.

Theories regarding the origin of the date of Christmas

Many different dates have been suggested for the celebration of Christmas. No explanation of why it is celebrated on December 25 is universally accepted. Theories include the following:

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the holiday is not included in Irenaeus's nor Tertullian's list of Christian feasts, the earliest known lists of Christian feast. The earliest evidence of celebration is from Alexandria, in about 200, when Clement of Alexandria says that certain Egyptian theologians "over curiously" assign not just the year but also the actual day of Christ's birth as 25 Pachon (May 20) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus.[2] By the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325, the Alexandrian church had fixed a dies Nativitatis et Epiphaniae. The December feast reached Egypt in the fifth century. In Jerusalem, the fourth century pilgrim Egeria from Bordeaux witnessed the Feast of the Presentation, forty days after January 6, which must have been the date of the Nativity there. At Antioch, probably in 386, St. John Chrysostom urged the community to unite in celebrating Christ's birth on December 25, a part of the community having already kept it on that day for at least ten years.

It is an appropriation of the pagan Midwinter festivals, such as the Germanic Yule and the Roman festival of the birth of Unconquered Sun, celebrated on the day after the winter solstice, or the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

It derives from the tradition that Jesus was born during the Hanukkah (25 Kislev into the beginning of Tevet). Under the old Julian calendar, the popular choice of 5 BC for the year of Jesus' birth would place the 25 Kislev at November 25.

The date of Christmas is based on the date of Good Friday, the day Jesus died. Since the exact date of Jesus's death is not stated in the Gospels, early Christians sought to calculate it and arrived at either March 25 or April 6. To then calculate the date of Jesus's birth, they followed the ancient idea that Old Testament prophets died either on an anniversary of their birth or of their conception. They reasoned that Jesus died on an anniversary of his conception, so the date of his birth would have been nine months after the date of Good Friday, either December 25 or January 6. Thus, rather than the date of Christmas being appropriated from pagans by Christians, the opposite is held to have occurred. [See Duchesne (1902) and Talley (1986).]

The apparition of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah, announcing that he was to be the father of John the Baptist, was believed to have occurred on Yom Kippur. This was due to a belief (not included in the Gospel account) that Zechariah was a high priest and that his vision occurred during the high priest's annual entry into the Holy of Holies. If John's conception occurred on Yom Kippur in late September, then his birth would have been in late June (the traditional date is June 24). If John's birth was on June 24, then the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, said by the Gospel account to have occurred three month's before John's birth, would have been in late March. (Tradition fixed it on March 25.) The birth of Jesus would then have been on December 25, nine months after his conception. As with the previous theory, proponents of this theory hold that Christmas was a date of significance to Christians before it was a date of significance to pagans.

It was appropriated from the birthday of Mithras, a solar deity of a Persian mystery religion who was popular throughout the Roman Empire. (This is the position Isaac Asimov supports in his Guide to the Bible, in which he comments, "converts could join Christianity without giving up their Saturnalian happiness. It was only necessary for them to joyfully greet the birth of the Son rather than the Sun.")

Dates of celebration

Christmas is now celebrated on December 25 in Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Catholic churches, such as the Greek and Romanian Orthodox Church. The majority of Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on January 7. This date results from their having accepted neither the reforms of the Gregorian calendar nor the Revised Julian calendar, with their ecclesiastic December 25 thus falling on the secular date of January 7 from 1900 to 2099. This calendrical difference has led to confusion on the part of those unfamiliar with the older calendar.

Some scholars suggest that Christmas occurring on December 25 was meant to allow Christmas to easily replace a celebration of the Roman sun god Sol Invictus. Others have suggested that Christmas predates the celebration of Sol Invictus and that the celebration of Sol Invictus was meant to eclipse the Christmas holiday, although few records have survived from the time of Roman persecution of Christians under Emperor Aurelian to support this.

Dates for the more secular aspects of the Christmas celebration are similarly varied. In the United Kingdom, the Christmas season traditionally runs for twelve days following Christmas Day. These twelve days of Christmas, a period of feasting and merrymaking, end on Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany. This period corresponds with the liturgical season of Christmas. Medieval laws in Sweden declared a Christmas peace (julefrid) to be twenty days, during which fines for robbery and manslaughter were doubled. Swedish children still celebrate a party, throwing out the Christmas tree (julgransplundring), on the 20th day of Christmas (January 13, Knut's Day).

ICountries that celebrate Christmas on December 25 recognize the previous day as Christmas Eve, and vary on the naming of December 26. In the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, and Poland, Christmas Day and the following day are called First and Second Christmas Day. In many European and Commonwealth countries, December 26 is referred to as Boxing Day, while in Finland, Ireland, Romania, Austria and Catalonia (Spain) it is known as St. Stephen's Day.

Customs and celebrations

An enormous number of customs with either secular, religious, or national aspects surround Christmas, varying from country to country. Most of the familiar traditional practices and symbols of Christmas come from Germany, including the Christmas tree, the Christmas ham, the Yule Log, holly, mistletoe, and the giving of presents. These practices and symbols were adapted or appropriated by Christian missionaries from the earlier Germanic pagan midwinter holiday of Yule. This celebration of the winter solstice was widespread and popular in northern Europe long before the arrival of Christianity, and the word for Christmas in the Scandinavian languages is still today the pagan jul (=yule).

The give and take between religious and governmental authorities and celebrators of Christmas continued through the years. Places where conservative Christian theocracies flourished, as in Cromwellian England and in the early New England colonies, were among those where celebrations were suppressed.[4] After the Russian Revolution, Christmas celebrations were banned in the Soviet Union for the next seventy-five years.

A few Christian denominations, notably the Jehovah's Witnesses, some Puritan groups, and some fundamentalist Christians, view Christmas as a pagan holiday not sanctioned by the Bible and do not celebrate it.

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