Friday, December 12, 2014

Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

I just saw a TV program that said the whole Bethlehem story was made up and that Christmas is celebrated on December 25th because it was a way for the Church to keep people from enjoying the ancient Roman Saturnalia feast and they put Jesus’ birthday on December 25th because it was the winter solstice when the ancient Romans celebrated the feast of the Unconquered Sun. Is all this true? It must be true because I saw it on television.

Yours truly, 

Virginia Schwarzpeter 

No, Virginia. 

All this is hogwash and balderdash. Saturnalia was a feast in honor of the god Saturn and was originally celebrated on December 17th. It expanded over the years to the 23rd, the feast of the Sigillaria. Saturnalia was a kind of feast of fools. In the 400’s (AD) an ancient Christian author, Macrobius, tells us a little about the feast. “The head slave of the household, whose responsibility it was to offer sacrifice to the household gods, to manage the provisions and to direct the activities of the domestic servants, came to tell his master that the household slaves had feasted according to the annual custom. For at this festival, in houses that keep to proper religious usage, they first of all honor the slaves with a dinner prepared as if for the master; and only afterwards is the table set again for the head of the household. So, then, the chief slave came in to announce the time of dinner and to summon the masters to the table.”

It was a wild time of the year. Everything was upside down. The ancient Romans disapproved of gambling and couldn’t get enough of it. Slaves were certainly not allowed to gamble. Yet on the Saturnalia, everyone gambled and slaves were allowed to gamble with their masters! Banquets were held and a lord of misrule was appointed who could order people to do outrageous things and who had to be obeyed. Gluttony and drunkenness were the rule for all. It sure sounds like a modern Christmas to me! Saturnalia even had its Grinches. Pliny the Younger, an aristocratic intellectual, went to his country retreat during the Saturnalia. It was just too noisy for him. “(I go to my villa at Laurentum) especially during the Saturnalia when the rest of the house is noisy with the license of the holiday and festive cries. This way I don't hamper the games of my people and they don't hinder my work or studies.”  Sounds like a real Scrooge.

Eventually this feast was extended to the Sigillaria on December 23rd. Sigillaria was a feast dedicated to gift giving. Little wax or clay dolls were exchanged, rather like greeting cards. Gift giving seems to have gotten out of hand as it always does. The feast was originally a throwing off of social status and expensive gifts would add the element of social class back to the feast, so simple gifts were usually given like the little wax dolls or gag gifts. Children received toys and simple things like writing tablets as gifts. (That sounds more like Hanukah than Christmas. I have heard Hanukah described as a celebration of socks and school supplies.) 

I don’t know. It sure sounds like Christmas to me. Wait a minute!  Christmas among the early Christians was not celebrated with the giving of gifts, and certainly not with drunkenness and gluttony.  Giving was more associated with the feast of St. Nicholas and perhaps with the Epiphany when the gifts of the magi to the Christ child were remembered. Dec. 25th was Mass. Hence the name, Christ-Mass. 

Well, what about the feast of Sol Invictus and the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year?  It is true that in the old Julian calendar the 25th of December was the shortest day of the year, but this was not associated with the feast of the unconquered sun until the last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate who tried to establish the feast of the unconquered sun on December 25th as a sort of pagan anti-Christmas. 

In other words, it was just the opposite of what your TV show claimed. Christians weren’t celebrating Christmas on the 25th to distract believers from the Saturnalia or the feast of the unconquered sun. Pagans were trying to distract themselves from Christmas which was already well entrenched by the fourth century after Christ.   

So why did the Christians celebrate the birth of Christ on the 25th of December? Simple — because in certain places they celebrated the death of Christ on March 25. March 25th was celebrated and still is celebrated as the feast of the Annunciation on which the angel Gabriel told our Blessed Mother that she would be the mother of the Son of God. They celebrated the Annunciation, the Incarnation, when the Word was flesh and dwelt among us on the 25th of March, because that is when they believed Christ had been crucified.  

In the Hebrew calendar, that date was the 14th of Nissan. It was the anniversary of the first Passover, the Exodus and of the creation of the world. It was always thought that a prophet died on the anniversary of his conception and so, Jesus dying on the Passover, meant that he would have been conceived on the Passover and thus born nine months after Passover, the 25th day of December on the ancient Roman calendar.  

A further problem is that calendars were not coordinated in the ancient world. The Roman calendar had gone wildly of the tracks so that the beginning of summer might be sometime in fall. You didn’t know if it was today or half past three days from now. The 14th of Nisan was constantly re-calibrated according to the cycles of the moon and the sun and nobody quite knew what day it was when they compared calendars. Days of the week are a Jewish/Babylonian invention. Romans had ides and calends dividing their incomprehensible months into sort of double weeks of fourteen or fifteen days. Throw in the Egyptian calendars of which there were a few and the whole thing becomes an irretrievable mess. 

So, it makes great sense to celebrate the birth of Christ on the 25th of December. It is quite possibly the time around which He was born, at least according to some early authors and it has great symbolic meaning in the sense of the Hebrew Scriptures. It has nothing to do with a Roman feast. 

What about the scholars who say that there was journey to Bethlehem and that part of the story was thrown in just to make the prophecy about the messiah being born in Bethlehem come true? All I know is that the Christian author St. Justin Martyr (100 – 165 AD), a Palestinian Christian, said in his Dialogue with Trypho that the Holy Family stayed in a cave outside of Bethlehem. So, from the first days, Bethlehem and its cave were venerated and are still venerated to this day as the site of Christ’s birth. 

In 135 AD, the Emperor Hadrian built a shrine and planted a sacred grove of trees at the site venerated by the first Christians of the Holy Land in order to obliterate the memory of Christ there, just as he built a pagan temple over the site of Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher. He sure went to a lot of trouble to obliterate nothing if there was nothing there in the first place. 

Once again, Virginia, I remind you not to get your religion from TV. I am always amused that the pundits of our enlightened time know so much more two thousand years and  ten thousand miles distant from the actual events than do people who lived there a century after the fact. They hate us and always will. Bad mouthing Christians makes for good entertainment, just as did when they used to throw us to the lions in the Roman amphitheaters.  

It strikes me as humorous that we now celebrate Christmas beginning in November and by December 17th we are in full swing.  By December 25 we are so sick of Christmas that we can’t wait to get the tree down. It seems that the world really has decided to celebrate the drunken, gluttonous, gift-giving-gone-wild holiday of the Saturnalia, so let me ask you Virginia, which one are you going to celebrate this year?

Rev. Know-it-all

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