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Archive for the tag “Nativity of Christ”

The origins of Christmas

I once had to mark a university assignment, set by someone else, on the origins of the celebration of Christ’s nativity. So I read all the literature that had been recommended to the students, and tried to follow it up. All I found was speculations and urban legends (which the students swallowed, hook line and sinker).

So I devised my own scenario.

Bishop: These Arians denying the incarnation of Christ are becoming tiresome. The Council of Nicaea didn’t shut them up, and now they’re propagating their nonsense with advertising jingles. Even the emperor, who subsidised the council, is beginning to waver.

Priest: What say we have a special day to commemorate the Incarnation? I know we do it on 6 January, but the adoptionists have been misinterpreting that. Let’s have one on a different day.

Bishop: Good idea. How about the day that Jesus was born.

All priests: Amen to that.

Bishop: Um, which day WAS Jesus born on?

Silence.

Bishop: Deacon Dionysius, go and research it, and report back at the next clergy meeting.

Later…

Bishop: Well, Deacon, did you find out when Jesus was born?

Deacon: Not exactly, but I did search the scriptures and St Luke says he was conceived in the sixth month, six months after his cousin John the Baptist, and it does imply that it could have been the sixth month of the year.

Bishop: Well, that settles it. The first of April, then. Six months from New Year takes us to 1 July, and nine months after that takes us to the first of April.

Priest: Um, Your Eminence, that’s April Fool’s Day.

Another priest: It’s also the middle of Lent.

Deacon: But it was probably the Jewish New Year, not the imperial one.

Bishop: Right let’s hear it then. When is the Jewish New Year?

Deacon: Well, that’s the problem. It’s usually sometime in September but it changes from year to year.

Bishop: When was it last year?

Deacon: On 25 September.

Bishop: Right, that settles it. Six months from then is 25th March, where we can have the Annunciation. Yes, I know it’s Lent, but let people eat fish for a break. Add nine months to that and we’ll have a bash for our Lord’s birthday on 25 December. Oh, and to balance things up we’ll commemorate St John the Baptist’s birthday on 25 June. No, make that 24th, or people will start thinking 25 is a lucky number or something. Any other business? I declare this meeting cl… Oh, by the way: Deacon Dionysius, go and do some proper research and draw up a decent calendar showing when Jesus was born. No hurry, take your time over it and do a good job. We’ve got the thing we need to counter the Arians’ nonsense for now.

Roses are reddish
Violets are blueish
If it weren’t for Christmas
We’d all be Jewish.

Ungrounded speculation?

Of course.

But so is all the other stuff I’ve read about the origins of Christmas.

___

Note, this was prompted by a discussion on another blog, Winter Soulstice Matariki | Liturgy:

Winter (Summer) Solstice this year is June 22. The Northern Hemisphere Winter Solstice is linked to Christmas and winter has a number of liturgical and folk celebrations. If we want to embody liturgy better into the Southern Hemisphere – how might we celebrate it? Would we link it to the birth of John the Baptist (June 24)? [I’m not sure how we in the Southern Hemisphere can make anything special of a John the Baptist focus]

… and the comments that followed.

The Second Day of Christmas

It’s 5:30 am on the second Day of Christmas, and I’ve been up since 3:15 am, with the dogs, or one of them, barking, but our street lights are not working, so I can’t see what he is barking at. But it disturbs me, so I can’t do much constructive at this quiet hour.

In the Orthodox Church the second day of Christmas is the Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos, and we remember her whose womb was more spacious than the heavens, and contained the Uncontainable One. In our diocese most parishes celebrate Christmas according to the Gregorian Calendar, but a couple of parishes that follow Slavic traditions are still in the fast, and will be celebrating “Old Christmas” on 7 January Gregorian.

On 23 December I met Prof Germanos Marani of the Gregorian University in Rome, who came with a proposal for a missiological symposium, and I spent the whole day discussing it with him (there’s more about this on my other blog, for those who are interested). On Christmas Eve he joined us for the Vigil Service at the Church of St Nicholas of Japan in Brixton, Johannesburg. We had Great Compline followed by Matins. Though our choir director was conscious of many mistakes, I don’t think many other people noticed them, and it was very pleasant.

On Christmas morning I took a couple of families from the Klipfontein View congregation we were involved with last year to the Divine Liturgy at St Nicholas. They had been part of the Tembisa congregation, and we used to take them to the services there, but the priest who is now in charge there doesn’t have a big enough car to take them. Someone sometimes gives them a lift to St Thomas’s Serbian Church in Sunninghill, but the services there are all in Slavonic or Serbian, so it was nice for them to have an English service for a change. There were several other visitors, including old parishioners who have moved away, like the Kilner family, now living in England, but who came home to visit family for Christmas. A new visitor was Reader John Burnett, originally from the USA, but who has been working in East Africa, and who has now come to work in our diocese. I’ve been in contact with him by e-mail before, and through reading his blog, and look forward to getting to know him and possibly working with him.

We came home and had Christmas dinner — roast turkey, gem squash, cauliflour cheese and roast potatoes — a nice way to break the fast.

Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord,
as we sing of this present mystery:
the wall which divided God from man has been destroyed;
the flaming sword withdraws from Eden’s gate;
the Cherubim withdraw from the Tree of Life;
and I, who had been cast out through my disobedience,
now feast on the delights of Paradise:
for today the Father’s perfect Image,
marked with the stamp of His eternity,
has taken the form of a servant.
Without undergoing change He is born from an unwedded mother;
He was true God, and He remains the same,
but through His love for mankind,
He has become what He never was: true man.
Come, O faithful, let us cry to Him:
“O God, born of the Virgin, have mercy on us!”

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One,
And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One!
Angels with shepherds glorify Him!
The wise men journey with a star!
Since for our sake the Eternal God was born as a Little Child!

Urban legends about Christmas

Recently someone posted a few items about Christmas on an interfaith discussion forum. The problem was that each item began with or contained statements about Christmas that were manifestly untrue.

Here’s one:

Oh, no — more hysteria over Christmas from Bill O’Reilly, joined now by Gretchen Carlson, the blinkered bigot host of some other Fox program. The dialog is hilariously stupid. Billo blows it early, claiming that Christmas marks “the birth of Jesus Christ, which is what the holiday is based on”, which is simply not true (Source: Pharyngula).

Now I don’t know who Bill O’Reilly or Gretchen Carlson are, but claiming that the statement that Christmas marks the birth of Jesus Christ is “untrue” (and implying that it is “hysteria”) is, well, untrue.

That’s like saying that it is untrue to say that your birthday party commemorates the anniversary of your birth (and hysterical to boot).

As we approach Christmas, urban legends about Christmas proliferate, but that has to be the most ridiculous one I’ve seen yet.

Here’s another, from the same poster:

Early in its history, the Catholic Church proclaimed December 25th as Christmas. Several centuries later Pope Gregory corrected the calendar. 12 days were displaced from the Julian calendar. What had been December 25 was now January 6. The Eastern Church refused to go aloing with the calendar change and continued to observe Christmas on the OLD December 25 which was now January 6 in the West. The Western Church still wanted to give some sort of holiness to the original December 25 so they proclaimed it a new holiday, Epiphany. Thus were born the 12 days of Christmas.

He doesn’t give a source for that one. Unlike the first one, it doesn’t make glaring errors of logic. But it strings together a series of historical “facts”, most of which are wrong, or have wrong inferences drawn from them, or both.

So what really happened?

Until about the 4th century, Christians celebrated the birth of Christ along with his baptism on 6 January (as the Armenians still do today).

Some time in early 4th century a separate commemoration of the birth of Christ began to be observed on 25 December, probably beginning in Rome. It spread throughout the Christian world (with the exception of Armenia, as noted above).

When the Gregorian calendar was first introduced in the 16th century it was 10 days ahead of the Julian Calendar. The gap grows by a day a century, except when the end of century year is divisible by 400 — so it did not increase in 1600 and 2000. The gap is now 13 days, and in the 22nd century it will be 14 days.

This means that “Old Christmas” (which is still kept by some Orthodox Churches) is on Gregorian 7 January, not 6 January. In the Old (Julian) Calendar Theophany (Epiphany) is on 19 January Gregorian.

So the story, as posted, gets the whole thing backwards. But that is typical of the urban legends about Christmas.

And here’s a third one, also from the same poster (no source quoted):

Christmas has a difficult history. Until recently, Christmas was not a major celebration. When the Protestants had their reformation, Christmas came under attack, specifically in England. It was called a Catholic holiday and many employers would fire their workers if they did not show up for work on December 25.

I suppose that one depends on what you think “recently” means. For Christians, Christmas has been a major celebration for at least 1000 years, and probably a lot longer than that.

In the Orthodox Church the Nativity of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Christmas for short) is preceded by a 40-day fast. The only other feast preceded by a fast of that length is Pascha. That makes it major.

Nativity3Now I’m sure the poster (who isn’t a Christian) was not being malicious when he posted these in the discussion forum. He maybe thought that with Christmas approaching they were timely and had interesting information. The problem is that most of the information was wrong. I suggested that he might do better to post information about festivals of his own religion, where he could be more discerning to check that the information was accurate before posting it.

But I give these three examples of a common phenomenon, especially at this time of year. The urban legends about Christmas are often spread by the media, and people pick them up by the way. The recipes columns of the newspaper will publish a page of traditional Christmas recipes, and the writer of the column, who may know something about cookery, but little or nothing about the history of religious festivals, might preface it with a couple of half-digested paragraphs compiled from an encyclopaedia article or two. And so these weird and wonderful urban legends about Christmas (and other things) spread.

So here’s a tip for any journalist who has been told by their editor to produce a column on Christmas and its origin, and the folk customs associated with it, and their origin. The book to read is The stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain by Ronald Hutton. Even if you aren’t in Britain, Hutton’s book will do for the English-speaking world. Hutton is a careful and competent historian, and knows what he’s talking about.

There also the stories one also sees around Christmas time to the effect that Christmas was “originally” Yuletide, which was celebrated at about the same time. This too is an urban legend, and a moment’s thought will show how ridiculous it is.

It’s a bit like saying that the Feast of the Annunciation on 25 March was “originally” Greek independence day, and that that was why the date was chosen.

The fact is that there are only 365 days in a year, and that if you look at a particular day when a religious or other group has a particular celebration, you will probably find another group that celebrates something else on the same day. It may be that two groups that have different celebrations on the same day may encounter each other, and each may borrow some aspects of the other group’s celebration. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the meaning changes.

Among Orthodox Christians who follow the Gregorian calendar, for example, the following are commemorated on the same day:

  • St Andrew, Archbishop of Crete (712)
  • St Martha, mother of St Simeon Stylites the Younger (554)
  • St Andrew Rublev, Iconographer (c 1447)
  • Burial of St Andrew, Prince of Bogoliubsk (1174)
  • St Finbar, Abbot of Innis Doimlile (6th)
  • St Andrew the Russian of Cairo (1174)
  • St Donatus of Libya, Bishop
  • Martyrs Theodotus and Theodota at Caesarea in Cappadocia (108)

The day is 4 July.

This does not mean that all those commemorations are derived from US independence day.

See also The real origins of Christmas.

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