Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Christmas: Yet Another Pagan Holiday Hijacked by Christianity

On this fourth day of Advent, let me first wish you all a Merry Christmas (get over it Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Disciples of the Cool and Mildly Miraculous Stevie Shumway), and second, completely destroy your pine-scented, holly-decked, carol sound-tracked world by informing you of this inconvenient truth: Jesus Christ wasn't born on December 25th --he was born sometime in the early spring (say, late February/early March).  And, if Constantine the Great's mother got this one right, the manger wasn't in a nice, well-kept barn, but a dirty, nasty little cave-like animal shelter.

I don't recall the particulars, because I had
JUST BEEN BORN, dumbasses!
For proof of this monstrous assertion, let's go right to the New Testament (King James edition-get over it Megga-Churches, 7th Day Adventists, UCCers, Mormons and  Disciples of the Cool and Mildly Miraculous Stevie Shumway):

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Luke, 2:8

Remember that the shepherds were the first bunch of people that the Angels told about Jesus' birth, and that they actually showed up before the Magi (who got there TWO YEARS LATER, weren't kings at all but rather astronomers/astrologers from somewhere in the vicinity of Babylon, and tipped-off Herod to the existence of a RIVAL KING born in Bethlehem! Wise-men, my left-one... oh yeah, Matthew, 2:1-2:12).

I'm so ashamed of myself...
So, why were the shepherds in the fields with their flocks AT NIGHT in the first place? It's because their flocks needed extra protection since it was lambing-season. Unfortunately, lots of ewes in labor attract just about every predator within 10 square miles for a tasty bite of newborn lamb.  Also, sheepdogs are useless during this time because something about the scent of a newborn lamb pushes the "wolf" button in their genetic make-up which completely overrides centuries of breeding and a lifetime of training and turns them into lamb-munchers for the night.  So if the shepherds wanted to save their new lambs, they spent the whole lambing season protecting their flocks.  Good thing, too, because if they hadn't been watching their flocks that night, the Angels' message would have been delivered to a bunch of sheep! (no, that was not a derogatory swipe at followers of organized religions :-P)  And what time of year is lambing-season, I heard you ask? Early spring, which arrives in Bethlehem around late February/early March.

OK Ex-Prof, then why don't Christians celebrate Christmas sometime around then, huh?  That's because of the socio-political realities of the first century CE.  Back then, the king's birthday (or the Emperor's birthday, if you were lucky enough to live within the Roman Empire) was a totally big deal. There were processions, games, races, burnt offerings at the temples --a real righteous bender for everyone. The leaders of the early Christian church DID NOT want ANY of this nonsense associated with Jesus' birth for two very good reasons: his birth wasn't nearly as important as his death and resurrection; and Jesus was not a mere earthly king, but a Heavenly King. To celebrate his birth with a big party would bring him down to the level of schmucks like Herod and Caesar Augustus and that crowd.

We'll have none of that tom-foolery, thank you.
And no, I'm not St. Cyprian.
 And so matters stood for a couple hundred of years, until St. Cyprian remarked in his De pasch Comp. xix, "O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born...Christ should be born."  What he meant by this is that by about 225 CE, those nutty Roman Christians were celebrating Christ's birth on the Winter Solstice, December 21st.  Why would they do that?  Firstly, Jesus had been identified with the sun for a long time: "the light of the World," "the Sun of Righteousness," etc., and the Winter Solstice was viewed by ancient peoples in the Northern Hemisphere as the birthday of the sun, because after the 21st, the daylight hours gradually increase. Secondly, there was already a party going on in Rome, so why not join the fun?

Excuse me, did you say party?  Yes indeed, the famous and fun-filled Saturnalia, a week of festivities that was capped on December 25th by the celebration of Sol Invictus, or "unconquered sun."  During this week, torch-lit processions filled the streets of Rome, candles were lit in all the windows after dark, domestic slaves and their master switched places for a day (I guess the commercial and industrial slaves had a day off), friends and family would visit each other and exchange little fruit-filled cookies called strenae, in homage to the Roman goddess Strenia, goddess of the new year, purification and well-being. Does any of this sound familiar?

Sol Invictus on December 25th was the climax of the week, with a huge public ritual officiated by the Emperor in his role as Pontifex Maximus, or chief priest.  After all that, Rome needed another week to clean up, sober-up and get back to work, which was concluded on January 1st when the newly elected Consuls took up their posts.

Actual rare photograph of a Roman party --not really sure
how the Asian chicks got to Rome, but oh well...
So, just like that, Jesus got his "official" birth-date: December 25th.  If you think about it, the early Church Fathers like ol' St. Cyprian and St. Maximus of Turin (the dude totally rockin' the Duck Dynasty beard above) were not only A-1 theologians, but were also a fair hand at public relations.  How better to gain acceptance by the culture at large for your little Messianic offshoot of Judaism than to adopt the Pagan's big holidays as your own --just put a mild Christian spin on it so's to not annoy the Faithful, and watch the converts roll in.  Oh sure, things did end up going south a bit after the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180, what with the ensuing persecutions, martyrs and all, but Emperor Constantine put a stop to all of that with his Edict of Milan in 313.  Which brings us to the matter of the manger in Bethlehem.

Everybody who calls themselves a Christian (ok ok, only those who are western, i.e. Catholic & Protestant Christians --get over it Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Armenian, Coptics and Disciples of the Cool and Mildly Miraculous Stevie Shumway) have a variation of this image in mind of the birth scene in Bethlehem:
Yup, that's it.
It's all there: the stable, manger, Mary, Joseph, Jesus, some shepherds, their sheep, an ox, a donkey, a wise-man, a couple of angels and the star.  As discussed supra, cancel the wise-man because that lot showed up two years later.  Cancel the angels, because according to Luke 2:15, after the Angels appeared to the shepherds, they flew back up to heaven.  But most importantly, cancel the stable, because of this little lady right here:

Hmmm, now if I were the True Cross,
where would I be?
History knows her as St. Helena, but to me, she'll always be Constantine the Great's mom.  Forget the famous son; forget the fact that she lived into her eighties in an age where the average woman's lifespan was the ripe ancient age of 28; forget even that she somehow not only managed to find the exact same cross that Jesus was crucified on a mere three hundred twenty years later (and bring it home from Jerusalem to Constantinople in her carry-on luggage).  Her biggest claim to our attention today are the two churches she founded in Palestine: the Church of the Ascension and the Church of the Nativity.

St. H got all this started after her trip to the Holy Land in 324, where she was able, with the help of the locals, to find all kinds of stuff, such as:
a. where Jesus was born
b. where Jesus was crucified
c. which bakery had the best humus

Now, some cynics out there are probably thinking, "Yeah, right: the locals saw this rich, pious old lady looking for early Christian stuff and sold her anything they could pass off as the original article."  While that may be true, let me remind you that some amazing stuff has been discovered by complete amateurs (Hiram Binghan and Machu Pichu, Heinrich Schliemann and Troy), so why not St. H?  Besides, what's really important is that through her diligent research, we are more than pretty sure that the real Nativity Scene looked more like this:

Kind of nice and sung --and really, really smelly!
That's because we know from the Gospel of Luke that Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem for Caesar Augustus' tax-enrollment-thing (and you thought the roll-out of the Affordable Health Care website was a mess --just imagine the whole friggin' Roman Empire on the move just so that the locals could be registered for tax purposes!) and all the inns were full-up, so they had to take what was really just a cave at the edge of town that the locals were using as kind of an improvised animal shelter.  And give birth to the savior of the world. With no family or midwife attending.  Her first child.  And these weren't even the BIGGEST miracles this kid is connected to!
St. Francis and 3 parishioners

Oh, and the whole barn-thing? Thank St. Francis of Assisi for that.  Yup, the same saint that brought us the Franciscan Order; the same saint who preached his sermons to the birds and cute, furry little animals.  You see, Francis was having a hard time getting the whole idea of the incarnation across to his parish, mostly because they were ignorant farmers, so he did the one thing guaranteed to work: he put on a play!  He grabbed some animals, dressed a bunch of his monks up as shepherds, Magi, angels, Joseph, convinced a lady of the parish and her baby to play the part of Mary and Jesus, THEN shoved the whole cast into a barn, and voila!  

Not only did his congregation "get it," but his little Christmas tableau was copied all over the Catholic world until it became the unofficial official version of what happened.  Nobody, but NO-body could hold a candle to St. Francis in the persuasion department!

So, Merry Christmas!  And if you liked what you read about December 25th and the Nativity scene, then stick around for the next blog entry where I take on Christmas trees and Santa Claus!

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