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!
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...|
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.
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...
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.|
|Hmmm, now if I were the True Cross,|
where would I be?
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!|
|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!