Background material on Christmas:
Origin of the word. Timing.
Conflict. When Jesus was born.
Some background material:
The term "Christmas" is really an abbreviation of the Old English "Cristes msse" (Christ's Mass).
Some people have criticized the use of the abbreviation "Xmas" because they think that it is a secular abbreviation of "Christmas." Actually, the word "Christ," which means Messiah or anointed one, is a Greek term. "X" stands for a Greek letter "chi" equivalent to the first two letters in the English word "Christ."
December 25th is not the actual anniversary of Yeshua of Nazareth's (Jesus Christ's) birthday. A few theologians and religious historians believe that Jesus never existed. In that case, he would not have had an actual birth day. However, the vast majority of people believe that he did exist. According to references in the Bible concerning the priestly rotation in the Jerusalem temple, it seems that he was born sometime in the fall.
Ancient people observed the daylight hours gradually shortening starting at the Summer Solstice, when the daylight hours are at their yearly maximum. They feared that the daylight hours might continue to shorten and perhaps reach zero. That would be an absolute disaster, because there would be no growing season during the next year. People would starve. So they held rituals about the time of the Winter Solstice -- the shortest daytime of the year -- to encourage the return of longer daytime hours. Since they lacked precision astronomical equipment, they were only able to figure out on about DEC-25 that the Solstice had passed and the daytime hours were getting longer. So they picked DEC-25 as the solstice.
The Roman Saturnalia was one of the the wildest of these celebrations at this time of year. It was called "dies natalis solis invicti," the "birthday of the unconquered sun." Numerous Pagan and other religions had DEC-25 as the birth date of their god. Christianity adopted and renamed Saturnalia as the birthday of Jesus, and the rest is history.
At the time, the Catholic Church had a policy of converting Pagan holidays into Christian holidays on the same day. Similarly, they often recycled Pagan temples and other worship sites as Christian buldings and locations. At the time, the public was already familiar with celebrating a Pagan holy day at that time of the year. It made their transition to Christianity easier to have a Christian holy day at the same time.
Thus, the original reason for the season is probably the Winter Solstice about DEC-21. This is caused by the 23.5º tilt of the
earth's rotation axis relative to its path around the sun that produces the seasons.
Disagreement about when Christmas should be celebrated:
While Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25, they don't all use the same calendar.
Most people use the Gregorian calendar which is based on a solar year of 365.2425 days or 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds long. It follows three rules:
- Most years are 365 days long.
- Every fourth year is a leap year with 29 days in February and thus 366 days in the year.
- Century years that are not divisible by 400 -- like 1900, 2100. 2200, etc. -- are not leap years and contain 365 days.
This calendar is very close to being synchronized with the Earth's passage around the Sun. It will take a few millennia to accumulate a one-day error.
However, the Orthodox Churcges retained the earlier Julian calendar which is based on a year of 365.25 days. This produced a gradual loss of synchronicity with the seasons and with the celebrations of religious holidays. For example, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrated Christmas on 2016-DEC-25 according to their Julian Calendar which was 2017-JAN-07 according to the Gregorian Calendar, an offset approaching two weeks!
Some Eastern Orthodox Churches have adopted a Revised Julian calendar (a.k.a. Milanković calendar, after its inventor, and New calendar) which dropped 13 days and modified the century leap year calculation. Others have retained the original Julian calendar.
A scary Christmas message from Danish ISIS terrorists [Islamic State] in Denmark:
Webmaster recommendation: If you are going to watch it, please see it at least half-way through.
T'is the season to be in conflict:
There has been a lot of conflict in recent years between:
- Those who favor the inclusive "Happy Holidays" greeting. It recognizes both Christmas and the wide diversity of non-Christian and secular celebrations in late December, and
- Those who want to maintain the traditional "Merry Christmas," thereby restricting recognition exclusively to Christmas while ignoring or discounting the importance of other religious and cultural celebrations.
The conflict, which has involved economic boycotts and a lot of anger, seem to have reached a peak about 2005, and dissipated in recent years. However, it still exists today, and surfaces as the end of the year approaches.
An example of the conflict was seen in the "Retail" comic strip for 2015-NOV-30. It shows two department store cashiers talking to Marla, their supervisor. The exchanges goes as follows:
- Cashier 1: "Marla, are we supposed to say 'Happy Holidays' or 'Merry Christamas' at the register?"
- Marla: "Either is fine."
- Cashier 2: "You don't think anyone will get mad at us?"
- Marla: "Oh, someone will definitely get mad at you."
- Cashier 1: "Should we just say 'Have a nice day' instead?"
- Marla: "Say whatever you want, girls. You're cashiers at Christmas time. Anger will find you eventually."
A positive response to the over-commercialization of Christmas:
There is also a great deal of concern over the commercialization of Christmas, and the immense spending that this involves. One evangelical Christian congregation decided to resist spending by having their members intentionally downsize their Christmas family budget. They gave half their usual budget to charity. This practice was picked up by a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Rochester, NY. The result each year is a positive experience for parents, for the children, for one local charity and for one international charity. See: http://www.uua.org/
A possible, Bible-based, change to the date of the annual celebration of Jesus' birthday:
One way in which we could put Christ back into Christmas, and make him the true "reason for the season," would be to reschedule Christmas from the approximate time of the Winter Solstice to the actual day of the Autumn Equinox. That day occurs between September 20th and 23rd, depending on the year. Alternately, it could be set on the nominal day of the equinox, which is September 21. Either option would be much closer to the actual birthday of Jesus, which is not precisely known. It is a day where daytime and nighttime are in balance. The celebration on December-25 could then be reclassified as a social, cultural, and family holiday, devoid of religious meaning.
Wiccans and many other Neopagans already celebrate Mabon at the time of the Autumn Equinox. There should be little difficulty in having Neopagans and Christians sharing the day. It might even save lives in the Northern parts of North America because Christmas would then be scheduled before the snow flies. Traveling is often treacherous in December.
Webmaster's full disclosure: I was born in late 1936-December, only a week or so after Pope Francis and very close to Christmas. Like many
children born at this time of year, I always felt that I was being shortchanged in my birthday presents because the timing of my birthday was so close to DEC-25. The above suggestion might possibly be motivated partly by selfish interests on my part. On the other hand, I might be just feeling guilty for disrupting my mother's Christmas by my birth eight decades ago.
Copyright © 2000 to 2017 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2000-DEC-30 (not the best of timing)
Latest update: 2017-JAN-07
Author: B.A. Robinson