[Vision2020] Xmas

Debi Smith Debismith at moscow.com
Fri Dec 25 20:07:57 PST 2015

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  Why is Christmas on Dec. 25? A brief history lesson that may surprise you.

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By Valerie Strauss 
<http://www.washingtonpost.com/people/valerie-strauss> December 25 at 
10:08 AM 
<mailto:Valerie.Strauss at washpost.com?subject=Reader%20feedback%20for%20%27Why%20is%20Christmas%20on%20Dec.%2025?%20A%20brief%20history%20lesson%20that%20may%20surprise%20you.%27> 

/I published this last year, but, given that it’s Christmas, it seems 
like a good day to do it again:/

The scene at Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, revered as 
the site of Jesus’s birth, in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem 
on Wednesday. (Musa al-Shaer/AFP via Getty Images)

Christmas is on Dec. 25, but it wasn’t always.

Dec. 25 is not the date mentioned in the Bible as the day of Jesus’s 
birth; the Bible is actually silent on the day or the time of year when 
Mary was said to have given birth to him in Bethlehem. The earliest 
Christians did not celebrate his birth.

As a result, there are a number of 
<http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas> different 
accounts <http://www.christmas-time.com/cp-hist.html> as to how and when 
Dec. 25 became known as Jesus’s birthday.

By most accounts, the birth was first thought — in around 200 A.D. — to 
have taken place on Jan. 6. Why? Nobody knows, but it may have been the 
result of “a calculation based on an assumed date of crucifixion of 
April 6 coupled with the ancient belief that prophets died on the same 
day as their conception,” according to religionfacts.com 
By the mid-fourth century, the birthday celebration had been moved to 
Dec. 25. Who made the decision? Some accounts say it was the pope; 
others say it wasn’t.

One of the prevalent theories on why Christmas is celebrated on Dec. 25 
was spelled out in “The Golden Bough 
<http://www.bartleby.com/196/84.html>,” a highly influential 
19th-century comparative study of religion and mythology written by the 
anthropologist James George Frazer and originally published in 1890. 
(The first edition was titled “The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative 
Religion”; the second edition was called “The Golden Bough: A Study in 
Magic and Religion.” By the third printing, in the early 20th century, 
it was published in 12 volumes, though there are abridged one-volume 

Frazer approached the topic of religion from a cultural — not 
theological — perspective, and he linked the dating of Christmas to 
earlier pagan rituals. Here’s what the 1922 edition 
<http://www.bartleby.com/196/> of the “The Golden Bough” says about the 
origins of Christmas, as published on Bartleby.com 

    An instructive relic of the long struggle is preserved in our
    festival of Christmas, which the Church seems to have borrowed
    directly from its heathen rival. In the Julian calendar the
    twenty-fifth of December was reckoned the winter solstice, and it
    was regarded as the Nativity of the Sun, because the day begins to
    lengthen and the power of the sun to increase from that
    turning-point of the year. The ritual of the nativity, as it appears
    to have been celebrated in Syria and Egypt, was remarkable. The
    celebrants retired into certain inner shrines, from which at
    midnight they issued with a loud cry, “The Virgin has brought forth!
    The light is waxing!” The Egyptians even represented the new-born
    sun by the image of an infant which on his birthday, the winter
    solstice, they brought forth and exhibited to his worshippers. No
    doubt the Virgin who thus conceived and bore a son on the
    twenty-fifth of December was the great Oriental goddess whom the
    Semites called the Heavenly Virgin or simply the Heavenly Goddess;
    in Semitic lands she was a form of Astarte. Now Mithra was regularly
    identified by his worshippers with the Sun, the Unconquered Sun, as
    they called him; hence his nativity also fell on the twenty-fifth of
    December. The Gospels say nothing as to the day of Christ’s birth,
    and accordingly the early Church did not celebrate it. In time,
    however, the Christians of Egypt came to regard the sixth of January
    as the date of the Nativity, and the custom of commemorating the
    birth of the Saviour on that day gradually spread until by the
    fourth century it was universally established in the East. But at
    the end of the third or the beginning of the fourth century the
    Western Church, which had never recognised the sixth of January as
    the day of the Nativity, adopted the twenty-fifth of December as the
    true date, and in time its decision was accepted also by the Eastern
    Church. At Antioch the change was not introduced till about the year
    375 A.D.

    What considerations led the ecclesiastical authorities to institute
    the festival of Christmas? The motives for the innovation are stated
    with great frankness by a Syrian writer, himself a Christian. “The
    reason,” he tells us, “why the fathers transferred the celebration
    of the sixth of January to the twenty-fifth of December was this. It
    was a custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same twenty-fifth of
    December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in
    token of festivity. In these solemnities and festivities the
    Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the
    Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival,
    they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be
    solemnised on that day and the festival of the Epiphany on the sixth
    of January. Accordingly, along with this custom, the practice has
    prevailed of kindling fires till the sixth.” The heathen origin of
    Christmas is plainly hinted at, if not tacitly admitted, by
    Augustine when he exhorts his Christian brethren not to celebrate
    that solemn day like the heathen on account of the sun, but on
    account of him who made the sun. In like manner Leo the Great
    rebuked the pestilent belief that Christmas was solemnised because
    of the birth of the new sun, as it was called, and not because of
    the nativity of Christ.

    Thus it appears that the Christian Church chose to celebrate the
    birthday of its Founder on the twenty-fifth of December in order to
    transfer the devotion of the heathen from the Sun to him who was
    called the Sun of Righteousness….

Yet an account titled “How December 25 Became Christmas” 
on the Biblical Archaeology Society’s Web site takes some issue with 
this theory:

    Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has
    its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for
    one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection
    between the solstice and Jesus’ birth: The church father Ambrose (c.
    339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who
    outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian
    writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they
    clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they
    see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that
    God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.

Furthermore, it says, the first mentions of a date for Christmas, around 
200 A.D., were made at a time when “Christians were not borrowing 
heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.” It was in 
the 12th century, it says, that the first link between the date of 
Jesus’s birth and pagan feasts was made.

It says in part:

    Clearly there was great uncertainty, but also a considerable amount
    of interest, in dating Jesus’ birth in the late second century. By
    the fourth century, however, we find references to two dates that
    were widely recognized — and now also celebrated — as Jesus’
    birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in
    the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor). The modern Armenian
    church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6; for most
    Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6
    eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany,
    commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period
    between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of

    The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a
    mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of
    various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed,
    December 25, is marked: /natus Christus in Betleem Judeae/: “Christ
    was born in Bethlehem of Judea … ” So, almost 300 years after Jesus
    was born, we finally find people observing his birth in mid-winter.”

Bottom line: Nobody knows for sure why Dec. 25 is celebrated as Christmas.


Here’s a little more history, this on the non-religious figure of Santa 
Claus. According to the St. Nicholas Center (whose Web site has a 
subtitle: “Discovering the Truth About Santa Claus”), the character 
known today as Santa originated with a man named Nicholas said to have 
been born in the third century A.D. in the village of Patara, then Greek 
and now Turkish. It is said his parents died when he was young and that 
the religious Nicholas, who was raised by his uncle, was left a fortune. 
Ordained as a priest, he used his money to help others and become a 
protector of children, performing miracles to help them. He was, the 
center says, persecuted by Roman Emperor Diocletian and buried in 343 
A.D. in a church, where a substance with healing powers, called manna, 
formed in his grave. The day of his death, Dec. 6, became a day of 

How did this man seen as a saint become Santa Claus, the one with the 
red suit and white beard? The St. Nicholas Center says Europeans honored 
him as a saint over the centuries, while St. Nicholas was brought to the 
New World by Columbus, who named a Haitian port for him in 1492. 
According to the center:

    After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride
    their colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. John Pintard, the
    influential patriot and antiquarian who founded the New York
    Historical Society in 1804, promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint
    <http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/glossary/#term49> of both
    society and city. In January 1809, Washington Irving
    <http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/glossary/#term29> joined the
    society and on St. Nicholas Day
    <http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/glossary/#term72> that same
    year, he published the satirical fiction, /Knickerbocker’s History
    of New York/, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas
    character. This was not the saintly bishop
    <http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/glossary/#term9>, rather an
    elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of
    imagination are the source of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas
    legends: that the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of St.
    Nicholas; that St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; that the
    first church was dedicated to him; and that St. Nicholas comes down
    chimneys to bring gifts. Irving’s work was regarded as the “first
    notable work of /imagination/ in the New World.”

    The New York Historical Society held its first St. Nicholas
    anniversary dinner on December 6, 1810. John Pintard commissioned
    artist Alexander Anderson to create the first American image of
    Nicholas for the occasion. Nicholas was shown in a gift-giving role
    with children’s treats in stockings hanging at a fireplace. The
    accompanying poem ends, “Saint Nicholas, my dear good friend! To
    serve you ever was my end, If you will, now, me something give, I’ll
    serve you ever while I live.”

    ….1821 brought some new elements with publication of the first
    lithographed book in America, the /Children’s Friend/. This “Sante
    Claus” arrived from the North in a sleigh with a flying reindeer.
    The anonymous poem and illustrations proved pivotal in shifting
    imagery away from a saintly bishop. /Sante Claus/ fit a didactic
    mode, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad, leaving a “long,
    black birchen rod . . . directs a Parent’s hand to use when virtue’s
    path his sons refuse.” Gifts were safe toys, “pretty doll . . .
    peg-top, or a ball; no crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets to blow
    their eyes up, or their pockets. No drums to stun their Mother’s
    ear, nor swords to make their sisters fear; but pretty books to
    store their mind with knowledge of each various kind.” The sleigh
    itself even sported a bookshelf for the “pretty books.” The book
    also notably marked S. Claus’ first appearance on Christmas Eve,
    rather than December 6th.

Then, in 1823, the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” later known as “The 
Night Before Christmas,” became popular, and the modern version of the 
plump Santa started to become established, what his sleigh led by 
reindeer and the chimney as his delivery system. By the 1920s, a jolly 
red-suited Santa was depicted in drawings of Norman Rockwell and other 
illustrators, and by the 1950s, he was portrayed as a gentle gift-giving 
character. That Santa became the one kids in the United States and other 
parts of the world know today, though in many other countries, St. 
Nicholas — not Santa — is still celebrated, as well.

Was Nicholas real? The bottom line from the Web site on Santa:

    Some say St. Nicholas existed only in legend, without any reliable
    historical record. Legends usually do grow out of real, actual
    events, though they may be embellished to make more interesting
    stories. Many of the St. Nicholas stories seem to be truth
    interwoven with imagination. However, [certain] facts of the life of
    St. Nicholas could contain some part of historical truth. They
    provide a clear sense of his personal characteristics which are
    further elaborated in other narratives.

(You can read about those “facts” here 
<http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/real-person/> in a piece titled 
“Was St. Nicholas a Real Person?”)

So there you have it. Some history of Christmas you may not have known 
before. If you made it this far, now you do.

Why is Christmas on Dec. 25? A brief history lesson that may surprise 
you. - The Washington Post
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