As children most of us were taught that we celebrate Christmas because it is the birthday of Jesus. This is an easy idea for a child to grasp, since from a tender age we are made aware of the importance of our own birthday, by virtue of the celebration that attends it. We learn to blow out the candles on our cake, and we discover that the people in our lives will give us nice presents simply because we have survived yet another year. Because we eagerly acquire the concept of our own birthday, it is a simple step to grasp the notion that December 25 is Jesus' birthday, and to look upon Christmas as a kind of huge party celebrated in his honor, though with a very appealing difference: on his birthday we get gifts, just as we do on our own.
Later on in life, we may find ourselves asking the question, "How exactly do we know that December 25 was the birthday of Jesus?" If we go looking through the Bible to confirm this date, we quickly learn that there is no mention of it in the Gospels. We discover that the source of the December 25 date is something called tradition, though this hardly satisfies our intellectual curiosity. If a tradition is nothing more than what people have believed to be true for a long time, then what made them start to believe it? Did the people who really knew Jesus pass on to subsequent generations the information concerning his birthday, either orally or through documents not found in the Bible?
The first documented attempt to pinpoint Jesus' birthday came from St. Clement of Alexandria who lived in Egypt between 150 and 215 AD. Prodigiously learned, Clement came up with a date that we are apt to find a bit surprising: May 20. Why Clement selected May 20 is not clear, but it is fascinating to think of how differently we would have conceived of Christmas if we had been long accustomed to celebrating it in the darling lusty month of May. Instead of alluding to sleigh rides and icicles, our Christmas carols would have been full of buzzing bumble bees and the songs of larks. There would be no winter wonderland to wander through, but rather sunlit fields of vernal flowers.
Luckily for the future writers of Christmas carols, St. Clement's suggestion never took hold, and within a century and a half after his death the Catholic Church had forever fixed Jesus' birthday on the date that we now commemorate, the first recorded celebration of which occurred in the year 336 AD. But where did this date come from?
To the mortification of many latter-day Christians, December 25 turned out to be the birthday of another god, Mithras, who came originally from Persia, and was a favorite among the military class. Thus December 25 was already a Roman holiday. It was the day on which festivities were held to celebrate the birth of the "Sun of Righteous" — Natalis Solis Invicti, the birthday of the unconquerable sun. The decision to honor this day as the birth date of Jesus, therefore, had nothing to do with any genuine historical evidence about the actual date of Jesus' birth. There were not even pseudo-historical traditions to support this date. Thus the impression is unavoidably left that Christians fixed upon this date in order to co-opt the pagan holiday by re-christening it (pun unavoidable.)
Additional support for this conclusion comes from looking at the period during which this innovation took place. The Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, had begun the process of converting the pagan Roman Empire to Christianity shortly after the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. Eleven years later, in 321, he ordered that Sunday, the Christian day of worship, should become a public holiday. This was also Mithras' day, the day of the sun god -- another suspicious coincidence.
Yet even before the worship of the Sun god, the Romans had been celebrating the period that we now call the Christmas season. The Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival that ran from December 17 to December 24. During this week there was an abundance of merry-making and an exchange of presents, just as there is today. Nor was this week without astronomical significance: the winter solstice came in the midst of the Saturnalia, marking the shortest day and the longest night, the much dreaded dead of the winter.
The Romans, however, were not alone in holding mid-winter festivities. In the eighth century, when St. Boniface began his great work of converting the German barbarians, he had to reckon with their Celtic Yule rites, which included Yule logs and Yule cakes, along with the standard carousing and partying, accompanied, once again, by an exchange of gifts and greetings. In a stroke of genius, St. Boniface persuaded the Germanic barbarians to replace the sacred oak of Odin with the fir tree. The oak sheds its leaves in winter, but the fir tree is evergreen, making it a natural symbol of the triumph of life over death, of life over darkness. This is the ultimate origin of the German custom of putting up a fir tree, aka, Tannenbaum, to celebrate Christmas. Our Christmas tree came by way of Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, who introduced his native German Christmas traditions to England, where the brilliant imagination of Charles Dickens was employed to elevate Christmas into the national holiday that we now take for granted.
Today, when we read Dickens' Christmas Carol, we are amused by Scrooge's "Bah! humbug!" attitude toward the holiday, and we are apt to conclude that the reason Scrooge hated Christmas was because he was too stingy to buy anyone a present. We overlook the fact that Ebenezer might simply have detested Christmas out of religious scruples, as his Puritan ancestor did—and that Scrooge had Puritan ancestors is clearly indicated by his outlandish Christian name, though Ebenezer is not quite as bad as another Puritan favorite: "Put-Your-Faith-in-Christ-and-Flee-Fornication."
During the English Civil War, the victorious Puritans under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell had suppressed traditional Christmas festivities on the grounds that they were merely pagan rituals that had been given a thin veneer of Christian respectability. The Puritans who came to America brought their righteous horror of Christmas with them, and it may even be reasonable to speculate that they hit upon the feast of Thanksgiving as an ersatz Christmas that could help them get through the bleak coming of winter without endangering their souls by adopting heathenish customs. Yet in the end, most Protestant congregations in North America found themselves irresistibly drawn to the old pagan rites, so that today the few hold outs, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, strike us as distinctly odd.
So what are we celebrating when we celebrate Christmas?
How about the creativity of the human spirit when faced with adversity? St. Clement of Alexandria might have been fine with a spring Christmas, but that was because Clement was a native of Alexandria, Egypt, and lived in a part of the world that is not known for its harsh and forbidding winters. No one in Egypt needed to devise joyous festivities to keep them from abandoning hope and turning to despair in the midst of a cold cruel December. But the same thing could not be said of those who lived on the northern side of the Mediterranean, especially the German and Celtic barbarians. They desperately needed a way to get through the hard times, and the customs they had devised were brilliant adaptations to their dismal circumstances.
The worst thing about northern winter is its monotony. Anything that could be done to break the appalling boredom would be a life-saver. Start a big fire—that's always exciting. Plus it gives off warmth and light, brightening up the dull winter world. Get drunk—that is a sure cure for boredom. Turn ordinary items into surprises—take something of your own and give it as a gift to someone else. What you have no need for can give delight to another. Even if you are merely re-arranging the property of your small community, the effect is like re-arranging the furniture in a room that has stayed the same way too long; it costs nothing but a little labor, but it can create a whole new atmosphere. Go around and make visits to other people, another sure way of fighting off monotony. Cut down a tree and decorate it with lights.
One can only admire the humanity and wisdom of those Christians, like St. Boniface, who chose to Christianize the pagan festival, instead of outlawing it, just as one can only deplore the fanaticism of those, like the Puritans, who refused to celebrate Christmas simply because it was once honored as the re-birthday of the Sun God. But what can be said about those fanatics who today wish to apologize and minimize Christmas out of a misplaced sense of multicultural sensitivity, considering that Christmas is itself a great multicultural festival, weaving together what is most precious and valuable from a host of different traditions—Hebrew, Greek, Persian, Roman, Celtic, Germanic?
This Christmas season in Great Britain a trio of religious leaders made a joint statement in which they begged the British to stop worrying about the alleged offense caused by their traditional celebration of Christmas. One of the religious leaders was a Sikh, one a Hindu, one a Muslim—all had come to England from the East, and each had come to accept Christmas as their holiday, too. And why shouldn't it be?
Once again three wise men from the East have shown us the importance of Christmas. They have reminded us that we are being arrogant to think that it is "our" holiday alone.