Dec 26, 2007

There's no such thing as Christmas

Now that it's the Christian holiday season, it's a good thing to remember that there's no such thing as Christmas.

The word Christmas comes to us from the Old English Cristes mæsse, Christ's mass, and Christmas is supposedly a celebration of Jesus's birth. Indeed, on last weekend's Hockey Night in Canada, Don Cherry reminded us that Christmas is Baby Jesus's birthday, and no matter how much we like Santa, we musn't forget that Christmas is all about Baby Jesus.

No it isn't.

First of all, we don't know that Jesus existed at all, but that's a longer story. Suppose Jesus did exist, though, and suppose the Gospels are a more or less correct account of what went on in Palestine around the time Jesus was born.

The traditional Christmas story everyone knows or has at least had to endure is mostly based on the second chapter of the Book of Luke. Here in Finland, Luke 2 is the "Christmas gospel". Here, the shepherds are being told about the birth of Jesus:

"8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.""
-Luke 2:8-12 (New International Version)

Here's the problem: if the shepherds are out watching their sheep, then it can't be winter. In winter in Palestine, sheep weren't kept on the fields. If the Gospel of Luke is correct and the story of the shepherds is true, then Baby Jesus's birthday can't be on the 25th of December.

None of the gospels themselves give a date. The whole idea of December 25th being the day Jesus was born dates back to the year 221 A.D., when Sextus Julius Africanus published a reference work for Christians where he recommends celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th. The custom became widespread in the Roman Empire, and modern Western society inherited the date from the Romans.

Why December 25th, though? December 25th falls conveniently close to the winter solstice, which has been celebrated in many human cultures and all over Europe as the darkest day of winter; from the solstice onward, the day starts to become longer again. Especially in Northern Europe, where the change in the length of the day is significant, the festival is especially poignant.

The Romans celebrated December 25th as the winter solstice, known as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the birth of the unconquered sun. The day of Sol Invictus was preceded by the Saturnalia festival, the biggest wintertime festival of the Romans, and one of the most popular celebrations on the Roman calendar. Saturnalia commemorated the Roman god Saturn, and was celebrated by copious eating and drinking, giving and receiving presents and wearing the pileus, the freedman's hat.

Early Christians had, in fact, celebrated the birth of Jesus either in conjunction with the Epiphany, in January, or on the vernal equinox. This practice didn't become popular, and eventually Christmas replaced Saturnalia and Sol Invictus on the Roman calendar.

In more northern Europe, Germanic tribes celebrated Yule on the day of the winter solstice. After Roman Christianity had decided on the winter solstice as the day of Christmas, Yule was suppressed with the forced conversion of the Northern European peoples to Christianity and replaced with Christmas. Those Christmas customs that don't come from the Saturnalia festival are based on the old Germanic Yule celebration.

In short, there's no such thing as Christmas. If Baby Jesus was born at all, he certainly wasn't born in the Winter. When businesses shut down at midwinter, people give each other gifts and everyone eats, drinks and makes merry, we're all celebrating Yule and Saturnalia. The floppy red hat Santa's elves wear is the Roman pileus. Giftgiving was a Saturnalia tradition, and the gifts are put under a spruce tree, a Germanic Yule tradition. The whole of Christmas is a Christian bastardization of an older tradition, a clumsy and unsuccesful rebranding of one of the oldest festivals of mankind.

Christmas isn't Baby Jesus's birthday. The "real" idea of Christmas is the winter solstice, and the winter solstice will be around for as long as humans are able to tell the changing of the seasons. It was around long before Christianity and will be around longer than Baby Jesus.