Saturday, December 20, 2003

Why Dec. 25th?...

What significance does December 25th have? Why was it chosen as the date to celebrate Christmas? The usual answer is that the early Church wished to celebrate Christ's birthday and co-opted a pagan celebration on or about the time of the Winter Solstice. It is thought that it followed the already celebrated Roman holiday of the birth of the unconquered sun and the Iranian celebration of the birth of Mithras. Seeing that there was already a celebration going on at the time, the early Church fathers were thought to have decided to commandeer the date and introduce a new ritual. The Western Church is said to have first officially celebrated Christmas on December 25th in the year 336. The Eastern Church continued to hold on to January 6 (Epiphany) as the date of Christ's birth and baptism. Eventually, most of the Eastern churches decided to celebrate Christ's birth on December 25th and his baptism on January 6th. In the West, January 6th is celebrated as "Kings Day," or the date of the arrival of the Magi. Further complicating things was the move to the Gregorian calendar in the sixteenth century. Enter an article in the December issue of Touchstone Magazine by William Tighe titled, Calculating Christmas. Tighe is an Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College. In the article he posits that, instead of Christianity co-opting a pagan celebration and date, "Rather, the pagan festival of the "Birth of the Unconquered Son" instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the "pagan origins of Christmas" is a myth without historical substance." He details that the idea of Christianity using a pagan ritual can be traced to two scholars, one Protestant, and one Catholic. Both, according to Tighe, had their motives for proposing the idea that there were pagan celebrations in late December prior to Christianity. Tighe claims that the Protestant was attempting to show how Catholicism degenerated from true Christianity, while the Catholic was attempting to show how Catholicism used pagan rituals without paganizing the gospel. True, there was a Roman festival with regards to the sun, but occurred in the month of August. By the second century, it was rarely practiced and the eastern cult of Mithranism, although practiced, did not have festivals during any solstices or equinoxes. It appears that the Roman emperor Aurelian (circa 270), who was hostile to Christianity, established a celebration of the "Birth of the Unconquered Sun" in an attempt to unify the crumbling empire. That it fell on an already celebrated Christian period was all the better. Note that this occurs before the official recognition by the Church of Christmas, but there is evidence that the early Church was actively involved in attempting to calculate the date of Christ's birth well before they began to celebrate it. Here Tighe reveals an interesting bit of data, "The evidence indicates, in fact, that the attribution of the date of December 25th was a by-product of attempts to determine when to celebrate his death and resurrection." (emphasis added) There seems to be a contradiction or, rather, a paradox between the Synoptic Gospels and that of John as to when Jesus was crucified. The Synoptics seem to place it on Passover Day while John places it on Passover Eve. The early Church followed John's leading and believed that Christ's death took place on 14 Nisan. Tighe informs us that, if Christ was crucified on Passover Eve, it could have only occurred in A.D. 30 or 33 since those are the only two years that Passover Eve fell on a Friday (7 April 30 or 3 April 33). At this point we are introduced to the complications inherent to using different calendars (e.g., Jewish lunar calendar vs. a solar calendar, Greek calendar vs. Roman calendar, etc.). Evidently, the Eastern Christians chose April 6th as the date of Christ's death while the Western Church chose March 25th. Tighe then fills us in on a practice, nowhere supported in the Bible, that permeated Judaism at the time of Christ - that prophets died on the same dates as their birth or conception. If a pregnancy is nine months, then add nine months to March 25th and you have... December 25th Add it to April 6th and you have January 6th. Tighe essentially closes with, "Thus, December 25th as the date of the Christ's birth appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the Church during or after Constantine's time. It is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ's birth, but it arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ's death." Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things? Hardly. But it is interesting to understand the history of some of the customs we seem to take for granted. Jehovah's Witnesses are sticklers for avoiding calendar celebrations because of pagan origins. Years ago, a JW friend of mine would always remind me that December 25th wasn't the actual date that Christ was born. I tried to convince her that it wasn't really important to me if that was the actual date or not... but that the object of my celebration was what was important. I don't think she ever got it (don't ever underestimate the power of suggestion that cults carry). Regardless, just remember the words of a theologian in A.D. 320 who said, "We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of Him who made it."

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