Sunday, December 02, 2012

The reason for the season?

The birth of Jesus does not feature prominently in the New Testament. 

Paul, the earliest writer, doesn’t mention it, nor do any of the other letter writers. 

The two Gospels accounts overlap little, are sometimes contradictory, and give no indication of the time of year in which the nativity took place. 

Early Christians considered celebrating birthdays a pagan custom. 

Rather, they focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus, remembrance of death days of saints and martyrs, and the death of believers as a transition to immortality. 

They valued baptism as a second birth, and celebration of the baptism of Jesus on Epiphany arose in the 2nd century, though why on January 6 remains a mystery.

Once Christianity became the religion of the Roman Emperor, however, it had to compete with beloved pagan festivals. 

Three of these clustered at the turn of the year. 

The most popular Roman holiday was Saturnalia (December 17th to 24th), where vacation from work combined with feasting, drinking, gambling, social equality, the exchange of small gifts, and decoration with greenery, candles and lamps. 

December 25 was the birth of Mithras, the Unconquered Sun, a Persian god whose worship was very popular with Roman elites and the military. 

Mithraic ritual and nativity mythology had several elements similar to those found in Christianity. 

Finally came the January Kalends or New Years from January 1st to 5th, when people feasted and gave generously to others

By the mid-300s Jesus’ birth began to be celebrated on December 25, in a bid to co-opt these pagan celebrations which were too powerful to be stamped out. 

Church leaders at this time were also deciding the contentious issue of whether Jesus had been divine, human, or both. 

Once he had been deemed both, his birthday was declared a celebration of divinity entering humanity. 

In 567 the Council of Tours proclaimed that this celebration would last over the entire period between December 25 and Epiphany, creating the Twelve Days of Christmas. 

As Christianity spread into northern Europe, elements of these mid-winter festivals were deliberately absorbed into the Church, including decorating with holly, mistletoe, and evergreen trees and boughs, the Yule log, bonfires, banquets, and drinking.

Up through the Renaissance, Christmas celebrations kept largely to their early roots, being more in tune with what we might associate with Mardi Gras. 

During the Reformation some Protestant leaders such as Luther embraced the holiday with reforms, while others such as Calvin sought to suppress it entirely as pagan. 

Puritans in England and Massachusetts outlawed any observance of Christmas for decades in the mid-1600s, supported in America by sects like the Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, and Presbyterians. 

Controversy surrounding the holiday led to less observance by all people; for example, until the Civil War, Congress met on Christmas Day, schools were in session, and few businesses closed.

Innovations in the early 19th century revived and transformed Christmas into the holiday we celebrate today. 

In the early 1800s a group of prominent New Yorkers, including Washington Irving and Clement C. Moore, reinvented and popularized St. Nicholas as Santa Claus and moved the gift giving associated with the saint from December 6 to Christmas. 

The German custom of the Christmas tree became generally popular after a picture of Victoria, Albert and their children around their tree was published in the early 1840s. 

And Charles Dickens’ 1848 Christmas Carol took the popular imagination by storm, with its emphasis on selflessness and good will to all. 

Instead of a rowdy public holiday aimed at adults, where the rich gave to the poor, Christmas became a family holiday centering on children and a time to put good-will into action. 

The later rise of industrialism and consumerism increasingly dominated Christmas in the 20th century. 

All these renovating forces were secular, not religious.

When people talk about the need to “put Christ back into Christmas,” let’s remember that Christmas is the modern face of ancient celebrations rooted in pagan winter and new years traditions embellished with 19th-century secular innovations. 

As historian Stephen Nissenbaum assesses the results of placing Jesus’ birth at the traditional mid-winter festivals: 

From the beginning, the Church’s hold over Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous. 

There were always people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority. 

It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.


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