Dec 24, 2009

The Big Day: the 25th

At this point we're all asking:
How did Christmas come to be celebrated on December 25?

Going back to those wacky Roman pagans. They celebrated the holiday of Saturnalia. I've been bringing it up a lot the last 23 days. What was this fun little holiday? Well, it was a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17-25. During this week, the Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the week long celebration. Whoa, what?

The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman. That sounds a lot like what we do to female pop singers or actresses?

The Greek writer, poet and historian Lucian described it for us: In addition to human sacrifice, he mentions these customs: widespread intoxication; going from house to house while singing naked; rape and other sexual license; and consuming human-shaped biscuits... Gingerbread men, anyone? So next time someone compares ancient Rome and present America - not even Larry Flint could pull this kind of 'fun' off.

By the 4th century CE, Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival hoping to bring along the unwashed pagan masses in with it. Christian leaders succeeded in converting to Christianity large numbers of pagans by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians, and keep their foreskin. But the circumcision of non-Jewish Christ followers is probably another topic for another day.

How fun is that? You still get ripped, rape and maim in the last week of the year. And Jesus will forgive you? What a deal!

The problem with including this hedonistic holiday in the Christian traditions, is that there was and is still nothing Christian about Saturnalia. [From certain points of view, anyway.] In attempt to throw some duct tape on this little gap, the Christian leadership named Saturnalia’s concluding day, December 25th, to be Jesus’ birthday.

But, those Christians had almost zero affect on dulling the practices of Saturnalia. As Stephen Nissenbaum, professor history at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, writes, “In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.” The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets. Good times!

Reverend Increase Mather of Boston observed in 1687 that “the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones. Which would be a trend in other holidays.

Because of its known pagan origin, Christmas was banned by the Puritans and its observance was illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. However, Christmas was and still is celebrated by most Christians despite the prohibition.

But let's go back to that fun Roman blood orgy. Sounds like a lot of fun, right? Well, the Catholic Church revived the customs of the Saturnalia carnival in 1466. Pope Paul II brought it back for the amusement of his Roman citizens. He forced Jews to race naked through the streets of the city. An eyewitness account reports, “Before they were to run, the Jews were richly fed, so as to make the race more difficult for them and at the same time more amusing for spectators. They ran - amid Rome’s taunting shrieks and peals of laughter, while the Holy Father stood upon a richly ornamented balcony and laughed heartily.” And I thought the modern Catholic Church had issues.

It didn't stop there. As part of the Saturnalia carnival in the 18th and 19th centuries, rabbis of the ghetto in Rome were forced to wear clown outfits and march through the city streets to the jeers of the crowd. They would then get pelted by a variety of missiles. Kind of a reverse parade. When the Jewish community of Rome sent a petition in 1836 to Pope Gregory XVI begging him to stop the annual Saturnalia abuse of the Jewish community, he responded, “It is not opportune to make any innovation.” What a dick.

On December 25, 1881, Christian leaders whipped the Polish masses into Antisemitic frenzies that led to riots across the country. It was called “The Republic of Baboonery.” In Warsaw 12 Jews were brutally murdered, huge numbers maimed, and many Jewish women were raped. Two million rubles worth of property was destroyed. Before I get into some Nazi rant, let's move on.

So when was Jesus born?

We all know that we just assume it's December 25th in the year 1 C.E. Not 0.

The New Testament gives no date or year for Jesus’ birth. This will be review, but the earliest gospel – St. Mark’s, written about 65 CE – begins with the baptism of an adult Jesus. This suggests that the earliest Christians lacked interest in or knowledge of Jesus’ birthdate.

The year of Jesus birth was determined by Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk, “abbot of a Roman monastery. His calculation went as follows:

In the Roman, pre-Christian era, years were counted from ab urbe condita (“the founding of the City” [Rome]). Thus 1 AUC signifies the year Rome was founded, 5 AUC signifies the 5th year of Rome’s reign, etc.

Dionysius received a tradition that the Roman emperor Augustus reigned 43 years, and was followed by the emperor Tiberius.

Luke 3:1,23 indicates that when Jesus turned 30 years old, it was the 15th year of Tiberius reign.

But if Jesus was 30 years old in Tiberius’ reign, then he lived 15 years under Augustus (placing Jesus birth in Augustus’ 28th year of reign).

Augustus took power in 727 AUC. Therefore, Dionysius put Jesus birth in 754 AUC.

However, as we pointed out in an earlier post about Herod, Luke 1:5 [unfortunately] places Jesus’ birth in the days of Herod, and Herod died in 750 AUC – four years before the year in which Dionysius places Jesus birth.

Joseph A. Fitzmyer – Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America, member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and former president of the Catholic Biblical Association – writing in the Catholic Church’s official commentary on the New Testament, wrote about the date of Jesus’ birth, “Though the year [of Jesus birth is not reckoned with certainty, the birth did not occur in AD 1. The Christian era, supposed to have its starting point in the year of Jesus birth, is based on a miscalculation introduced ca. 533 by Dionysius Exiguus.” Well, if he says it, I'm going to go with his expert opinion. I'm not buying a new calendar though.

The DePascha Computus, an anonymous document [more Christ fan fiction] believed to have been written in North Africa around 243 CE, placed Jesus birth on March 28. Clement, a bishop of Alexandria (d. ca. 215 CE), thought Jesus was born on November 18. Based on historical records, Fitzmyer guesses that Jesus birth occurred on September 11, 3 BCE. He's gettin' born all over the place.

So it's probably just easier they picked the Solstice.

But then what's with the 12 Days of Christmas?

*sigh* The Twelve Days of Christmas is probably the most misunderstood part of the church year among Christians who are not part of liturgical church traditions. Read Orthodox. Contrary popular belief, these are not the twelve days before Christmas, but in most of the Western Church are the twelve days from Christmas until the beginning of Epiphany (January 6th; the 12 days count from December 25th until January 5th). In some traditions, the first day of Christmas begins on the evening of December 25th with the following day considered the First Day of Christmas (December 26th). In these traditions, the twelve days begin December 26 and include Epiphany on January 6. Confused yet?

The origin and counting of the Twelve Days is as just as complicated as all the other Christmas traditions. It's all tied into the differences in calendars, church traditions, and ways to observe this holy day in various cultures. In the Western church, Epiphany is usually celebrated as the time the Wise Men or Magi arrived to present gifts to the young Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). Which we've learned might have been when he was 2.

In some cultures, especially Hispanic and Latin American culture, January 6th is observed as Three Kings Day, or simply the Day of the Kings (Span: la Fiesta de Reyes, el Dia de los Tres Reyes, or el Dia de los Reyes Magos; Dutch: Driekoningendag). Even though December 25th is celebrated as Christmas in these cultures, January 6th is often the day for giving gifts. In some places it is traditional to give Christmas gifts for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Since Eastern Orthodox traditions use a different religious calendar, they celebrate Christmas on January 7th and observe Epiphany or Theophany on January 19th.

This all ought to be over just in time for Passover.

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