Sunday, 25 November 2012

What Are The True Origins of Christmas?

by Katherine Tobin

Early image of the Nativity
Belonging to a family with no particular religious views, the topic of Christmas for me simply implies the roast dinner, the Christmas songs hitting the radio a month in advance, the presents and, of course, the snow (fingers crossed, but still doubtful). But, obviously, to many Christians around the world, Christmas is a bit more meaningful than that - a time to celebrate the birth of their saviour, Jesus Christ. Or is it? In the run up to the momentous occasion itself (now only one month away), the topic once again arises round the kitchen table – what is the actual origin of Christmas? Was it indeed the Christians who founded this tradition? Was it the Pagans who laid out the Christmas laws? Or was it simply an excuse created in the 1800s to bring out the bottle of ageing whiskey and pull a few crackers?

Of course, there are no completely reliable facts about the origins of Christmas, given the early nature of its arrival, and the past population’s apparent inability to record accurate dates, but here are the most popular theories about where this joyous holiday came from:
1. Christian Claim
“The earliest records mention a feast held in the Church at Alexandria, Egypt, around AD 200, to honour the Nativity. The celebration of Christmas did not become a church-wide celebration until the late third and early fourth centuries. By the end of the fourth century, almost all Christian churches had accepted the December date. Though the Church at Rome maintained that December 25th was the actual birth date of Jesus, the most likely date (according to civil and historical records) was sometime around the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, which was celebrated in autumn. The unanimous adoption of the December date came about as an attempt by the Church to integrate Christian ideals into the Winter Solstice festivals celebrated during that season. “ Read more here.
 All in all, this belief seems to be credible, if not a little unlikely. Given that the birth of Christ is still not accurately known, why place a festival celebrating his birth right at the time of the Pagan festival? Seems more than a little suspicious to me… But of course the Church has a right to celebrate the birth of its saviour, and when better to do it than at the closing of the year? Makes sense really.

2. The Pagan Point of View
“Nearly all aspects of Christmas observance have their roots in Roman custom and religion. Consider the following admission from a large American newspaper (The Buffalo News, Nov. 22, 1984): “The earliest reference to Christmas being marked on Dec. 25 comes from the second century after Jesus' birth. It is considered likely the first Christmas celebrations were in reaction to the Roman Saturnalia, a harvest festival that marked the winter solstice—the return of the sun—and honoured Saturn, the god of sowing. By 529 A.D., after Christianity had become the official state religion of the Roman Empire, Emperor Justinian made Christmas a civic holiday.” Read more here.
This also seems plausible - we are aware of the Pagans as a religious movement, and it seems likely that they would honour their god. The pagans were also the creators of our Christmas tree tradition, which is familiar in many a household across the country and the world today. Of course, this view is still not widely known by people, perhaps showing not only the large number of Christians to which the Christian belief is obviously more popular, but also the incredible hold and influence the church has on the population.

3. Other Theories
“The origin of this festivity is presumed to be Mithraic and about 4000 years old. Mithra was the god of light in ancient Iran. The symbol of Mithra is Sun. Iranians used this symbol in their flag for at least the last 2500 years. The period of 17th to 24th of December was the duration of this feast. Read more here.
This is perhaps a more abstract take on the Christmas origin, but nonetheless a valid point- why are views like this not more widely known? Perhaps the origin is less substantial than the others, or maybe it has simply not been presented to the masses as an argument? It is obvious that the question is to this day still not an easily answerable one.

Of course these are just some of the many speculations on the origins or Christmas – these being the more well known versions of the story – which have accumulated over the years. But you may be perhaps wondering, what does this have to do with me?  Why does this even matter? Of course the obvious answer is: it doesn’t. In our society, what does it matter where the origin of Christmas came from? I’m just excited to be able to sing ‘White Christmas’ at the top of my voice mid-November.
Read Patrick McGuiggan's "Is it OK to listen to Christmas music in November?"; Read Dave Allen's alternative selection of Christmas songs. Read Jemima Carter's The Countdown to Christmas Begins . . .

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