The Origin of Christmas

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Christmas is usually linked with Jesus Christ’s birthday on 1 C.E. (Common Era). However, the Christian gospel accounts don’t support this common myth. So how did this celebration originate? Before we find that answer, it may be proper to discuss Jesus’s year of birth.

The year of Jesus’s birth was determined by Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk, abbot of a Roman monastery.[1]  His calculation in ca. 533 C.E. was based on the following information:

a.       In the pre-Christian Roman era years were counted from ab urbe condita ("the founding of the City" [Rome]).  Thus 1 AUC signified the year Rome was founded.

b.     Dionysius received a tradition that the Roman emperor Augustus reigned 43 years, and was followed by the emperor Tiberius.

c.       Luke 3:1 and 3:23 indicate that when Jesus turned 30 years old, it was the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign.

d.      If Jesus was 30 years old in Tiberius’s reign, then he lived 15 years under Augustus (placing Jesus’s birth in Augustus’s 28th year of reign).

e.       Augustus took power in 727 AUC.  Therefore, Dionysius put Jesus’s birth in 754 AUC, which is commonly now equated as 1 C.E.

Unfortunately, for Dionysius, Luke 1:5 places Jesus’s birth in the days of Herod, and Herod died in 750 AUC (4 B.C.E.) –” four years before the year in which Dionysius places Jesus birth. Such contradictions within the Gospel accounts about Jesus’s birth year made Joseph A. Fitzmyer –” Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America, member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and former president of the Catholic Biblical Association –” writing in the Catholic Church’s official commentary on the New Testament, to comment about the date of Jesus’ birth, "Though the year [of Jesus birth] is not reckoned with certainty, the birth did not occur in AD 1." According to Fitzmyer, Dionysius was wrong; he had miscalculated. Fitzmyer guesses that Jesus was probably born in 3 BCE.

Still, the birth-year remains unsettled when we consider the Biblical tradition that Jesus was supposed to be no more than two years old when Herod ordered the slaughter of all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under (Matthew 2:16). Herod died before April 12, 4 BCE. So, if the Biblical story is to be believed, Jesus must have been born before 4 BCE. This has led some Christians to revise the birth year to 6 – 4 BCE. Even then, the problem is not settled when we notice that Jesus was supposed to have been born during the census of (Syrian Governor) Quirinius (Luke 2:2). This census took place after Herod’s son Archelaus was deposed in 6 CE, ten years after Herod’s death. So, one way to accommodate competing versions of Jesus’s birth will be to place the year somewhere between 6 BCE and 6 CE or shortly thereafter.

Now let’s discuss the date of Jesus’s birth. Interestingly, the DePascha Computus, an anonymous document believed to have been written in North Africa around 243 CE, placed Jesus’s birth on March 28.  Clement, a bishop of Alexandria (d. ca. 215 CE), thought that Jesus was born on November 18.  Based on historical records, Fitzmyer, however, guessed that Jesus’s birth occurred on September 11, 3 BCE, which is probably closer to the actual than any other Christian claims, especially when we recognize that in Luke 2:8 we are told that when Jesus was born "there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night". December is too cold for such shepherd activities in either Bethlehem or Nazareth of Palestine (places associated with birthplace of Jesus).[2] By mid-October shepherds would bring their flocks from the mountainsides and fields to protect them from the cold, rainy season that followed. As can be seen from the above, none of these dates agrees with December 25. So, how did this date come to be celebrated later on as Jesus’s birth date?

For this answer we have to dig into the Roman history. In ancient Rome, the pagan Romans used to celebrate the Brumalia on December 25 following the Saturnalia midwinter festival in December 17-24 to mark the sun’s new birth from its solstice. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for any evil deed. The festival began when Roman authorities chose "an enemy of the Roman people" to represent the "Lord of Misrule."  Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week.  At the Saturnalia festival’s conclusion, December 25th (Brumalia), Roman authorities believed that by sacrificing this person they were essentially destroying the forces of darkness. We are told by Lucian, the ancient Greek writer, poet and historian (in his dialogue entitled Saturnalia), that during this festival, in addition to human sacrifice, other customs included: widespread intoxication; going from house to house while singing naked; rape and other sexual license; and consuming human-shaped biscuits.

In the 4th century, when Roman emperors adopted Christianity as the state religion, the pagan festivals of Saturnalia and Brumalia were too deeply entrenched in popular custom to be set aside by Christian influence. Since no particular date was mentioned in the gospel accounts, the date of Jesus’s birth was set by the Church under Roman Emperor Justinian in 354 CE to coincide with the last day of the pagan midwinter festival (i.e., December 25). This was a clever move by the Church that allowed pagans to accept the new faith without making too much compromise. By then, Emperor Constantine had already recognized Sunday, which had been the day of pagan sun worship. The influence of the pagan Manichaeism, which identified the "Son of God" with the physical Sun, gave these pagans of the 4th century, now turning over wholesale to Christianity, their excuse for calling their pagan festival date of December 25 (birthday of the Sun-god) – the birthday of the "Son of God."

From the above brief analysis, it is clear that today’s Christians got their Christmas from the Roman Catholics who got it from the pagan Romans. The pagan Romans in turn got it from ancient Egypt where the cult of Osiris was vibrant. The Egyptian mythology tells us that Osiris, the king of ancient Egypt, was married to Queen Isis. The myth described Osiris as having been killed by his brother Set who wanted Osiris’s throne. Isis briefly brought Osiris back to life by use of a spell that she learned from her father. This spell gave her time to become pregnant by Osiris before he again died. (In another version of the story, Isis is impregnated by divine fire.) Isis later gave birth to Horus. As such, since Horus was born after Osiris’s resurrection, Horus came to be known as a representation of new beginnings and the vanquisher of the evil Set. This combination, Osiris-Horus, was therefore a life-death-rebirth deity, and thus associated with the new harvest each year. Afterward, Osiris became known as the Egyptian god of the dead, Isis became known as the Egyptian goddess of the children, and Horus became known as the Egyptian god of the sky or the "divine son of the heaven".

There is a remarkable similarity between the myths of Osiris and Jesus. Osiris, the god of the afterlife, was reborn as Horus, the son of Isis. Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge finds possible parallels in Osiris’s resurrection story with those found in Christianity: "In Osiris the Christian Egyptians found the prototype of Christ, and in the pictures and statues of Isis suckling her son Horus, they perceived the prototypes of the Virgin Mary and her child."[3] Biblical scholar Professor George Albert Wells asserts that Osiris dies and is mourned on the first day and that his resurrection is celebrated on the third day with the joyful cry "Osiris has been found". [4] In his book –” Human Sacrifices, anthropologist and historian Nigel Davies asserts that "the agony of Osiris was a sacrifice with a universal message. As the one who died to save the many, and who rose from the dead, he was the first of a long line that has deeply affected man’s view of this world and the next." He further argues that the passion and sacrifice of Jesus Christ is linked conceptually to Osirian and other traditions in the Ancient world. [5]

After the death of Osiris, Isis propagated the doctrine of the survival of Osiris as a sprit being. She claimed that a full-grown evergreen tree had sprung from a dead tree stump, thus symbolizing the springing forth of the dead Osiris unto new life. She claimed that on each anniversary of his birth, Osiris would visit the evergreen tree and leave gifts upon it. December 25 was the birthday of Osiris, reborn as the son Horus. That explains how Christmas got its origin. Over the generations Osiris came to be known as Baal, the Sun-god, amongst the Phoenicians, and as Jupiter in ancient Rome. The names varied in different countries and languages, but the worship of this false god continued.

According to Stephen Nissenbaum, professor history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, "In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been."  The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets (a precursor of modern caroling), etc. Since Jews were identified as Christ-killers, for amusement of the public, Jews were forced by the Catholic Church to race naked through the streets of Rome. An eyewitness account from Pope Paul II’s reign in 1466 reports, "Before they were to run, the Jews were richly fed, so as to make the race more difficult for them and at the same time more amusing for spectators.  They ran… amid Rome’s taunting shrieks and peals of laughter, while the Holy Father stood upon a richly ornamented balcony and laughed heartily."[6] As part of the Christmas carnival throughout the 18th and 19th centuries CE, rabbis of the ghetto in Rome were forced to wear clownish outfits and march through the city streets to the jeers of the crowd, pelted by a variety of missiles. When in1836 the Jewish community of Rome sent a petition to Pope Gregory XVI begging him to stop the annual Saturnalia abuse of the Jewish community, he responded, "It is not opportune to make any innovation."

On December 25, 1881, Christian leaders whipped the Polish masses into Anti-Jewish frenzies that led to riots across the country. In Warsaw, twelve Jews were brutally murdered, huge numbers maimed, and many Jewish women were raped.  Two million rubles worth of property was destroyed by frenzied Christians.[8]

Because of its known pagan origin, Christmas was banned by the Puritans and its observance was illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. But nowadays the festivity is widely celebrated wherever Christian community lives. In Egypt, the Coptic Christians celebrate the Christmas day on the 7th of January, corresponding to the 29th of "Kiahk" – a Coptic month.[9] December 25 –” Christmas Day –” has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1870. Popular customs include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends and, of course, waiting for Santa Claus to come. Christmas around the world has become more of a cultural and commercial phenomenon than a sacred religious one.

In spite of its pagan origin and associated make-beliefs and customs, Christmas is observed by faithful Christians around the world as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a spiritual leader whose teachings form the basis of their religion. Jesus, the son of Mary, surely was one of the greatest teachers of all time. In Islam, he is revered as a Prophet and mighty Messenger of God.[10]

Notes:

[1]. For discussion around Jesus’s birth, see, e.g., Addison G. Wright, Roland E. Murphy, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “A History of Israel” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, (Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1990), p. 1247; http://tinyurl.com/cwe6l

[2]. See the article by John F. Loftus, “Was Jesus born in Bethlehem?” that discusses controversies surrounding Jesus’s birthplace http://tinyurl.com/yf5t83d. See also: http://tinyurl.com/yho8uus; http://tinyurl.com/e4c43

[3]. E.A Wallis Budge, "Egyptian Religion", Ch2.

[4]. "Can we trust the New Testament?: thoughts on the reliability of early Christian testimony", George Albert Wells, p. 18, Open Court Publishing, 2004.

[5]. "Human Sacrifice", Davies, Nigel. William Morrow & Sons, p. 37 & p. 66-67, 1981.

[6]. David I. Kertzer, The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001, p. 74.

[7]. Ibid., pp. 33, 74-5.

[8]. http://tinyurl.com/yzrdjl7

[9]. See, an explanation for the difference: http://tinyurl.com/yjv67dt

[10]. For an elaboration on Islamic understanding of Jesus, see, e.g., this author’s article: Isa’ –” His life and mission, Media Monitors Network, Dec. 31, 2005: http://tinyurl.com/ylgms5d

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