Christmas is a strange holiday. There is more than meets the eye to it. From a religious angle, it is natural to associate Christmas with the virgin birth, Jesus’ life and death, his teachings, the Cross and the resurrection. But the proof is really in the pudding (or the stuffing in the roast turkey) and Christmas is not as simple as that. I think there are five things you should know about Christmas before you kiss your sweetheart under the mistletoe, sink your teeth into that log cake or belt out the usual Christmas carols in Church.
I like to call them the Christmas unmentionables because they are not exactly the traditional Christmas messages you hear over the Church pulpit. So strap up and let me unwrap the FIVE unmentionables of Christmas for you.
1) Unmentionable No. 1: Jesus was not born on the 25th day of December. I know we all know that. In fact, no one knows for sure the exact day and month of his birth. Some say 6th or 10th January. Some say 20th May. Others prefer dates in September or October. In The Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry, it is written, “there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ’s birth.” Alas, whatever the month picked, December is definitely not it. I know it is all about commemoration and the exact date is not that important. And we can blame the puritans, who actually boycotted Christmas celebration altogether, for being nitpicking and calculative. But the truth is, 25th December is not even an appropriate date to commemorate the birth of the man who has changed the world. Why? This brings me to the next point.
2) Unmentionable No. 2: 25th December was actually a pagan holiday. It was a holy day for the Roman Empire. But why holy day? Because it was the birthday of their legendary light god Mithras. To make it even more paganistic for us modern folks, 25th December also marked the end of the week-long Saturnalia festival. This festival is a heathen party to celebrate the harvest god then known as Saturn. But that’s not all. There is another pagan god that I have missed out. It is the sun god known as Sol Invictus. Under the Julian calendar, 24th December (Christmas eve) was the date of the winter solstice, when the nights were longest and the days were shortest. But the next day, 25th December marked the reverse of that trend where the days start to grow longer than the nights. And the pagans during that time attributed this to the power of their sun god. Yes, Sol Invictus. So, we have the celebration of all four gods or deities on the same day. And they say three’s a crowd. Well, if it’s any consolation, Jesus was the one true God who took human form whilst the rest of them demonstrated no such humility (among other differences of course). But, what pushed the Church Fathers to select a pagan holiday to celebrate Jesus’ birth? This leads me to the next point.
3) Unmentionable No. 3: Docetism. That’s a 8-letter word, which is double the profanity of the 4-letter word that we are all so familiar with. You see, the Church fathers in the year 395 CE were trying to suppress a heresy that was gaining some unruly adherents. This heresy is no less profane in their holy book. It was a heresy about Jesus coming to us not in a physical form but in a pure spirit. He only appeared to have a body to the people he met at that time. A Greek word for that is, yes you guessed it, Docetism, meaning “to seem.” So what did the Church do? Well, this is where the idea of assigning a birthday for Jesus took flight. I mean, nothing would make Jesus more physically human than having a birthday right? For this reason, they did the yellow-pages finger walking on the pages of the Roman Calendar and came up with 25th December. There could be no better date to celebrate the alleged birth of the king of kings since that date also coincided with the general celebrations of the trinity of gods, Mithras, Saturn and Sol Invictus. I guess the Church Fathers did not want to reinvent the wheel and pick an inconvenient and highly remote date, say, 29th February? May as well flow with where the real action was.
4) Unmentionable No. 4: Christmas is actually an afterthought. For 400 years after Jesus’ death, the Church resisted the idea of celebrating Jesus’ birthday. The main reason for this is that they did not want to follow the Roman example of celebrating the birthdays of their pagan gods. The Church wanted to distinguish themselves from the rituals and practices of the pagan world. Well, they deserved a standing ovation for their uncompromising faithfulness until Emperor Constantine passed the Edict of Milan in 313 CE and gave Christianity its much sought-after recognition (this was followed about 200 years later by Emperor Justinian who officially christened 25th December as a civic holiday). Thereafter, it was a time of freedom and absolute power for the Church. They grew in authority, almost bloated beyond recognition, and probably diluted the core message of Jesus over time. So when desperate times call for desperate measures, that is, the Docetism threat, the Church comingled with the pagan world and slept with the enemy. You can call it a Romanized version of the Crossover project.
5) Unmentionable No. 5: Somehow, I get this feeling that Christmas was not what Jesus had in mind when he broke the bread and offered the cup and said, “…do this in remembrance of me.” I guess divining from the hypothetical abbreviation of WWJD (What Would Jesus DO) would have at least hinted to us that celebrating his birthday is secondary to remembering what he did for us at Calvary and his victory over death thereafter. If anything, the day of Easter or the observance of Lent or the celebration of the season of the Advent would be more meaningful for Christians remembering Jesus’ ministry on earth and his Second Coming rather than having a feast on that pagan holiday (that is, 25th December), which celebrates his birthday with one tiny technical issue - it's just not.
So I have come to the end of my ventilation. I hope the above unmentionables have shed some light on the commercialized Day of Our Lord. I know I have been a wet blanket to some believers out there. But my point is not to make Christmas wet, cold and cheerless. My point is to tell it as it is. Historically, Christmas is more about the mirth and the merry-making (and keeping a tight hold on power) than it is about Christ (and channelling all power to feed the hungry and the poor).
So the question is, what will I be doing this coming Christmas? Well, there is no doubt that I am going to enjoy it with my family and in-laws just as I have been doing since I became a Christian 28 years ago. You see, knowing the historical origin of Christmas, which is less than pretty, to put it mildly, and knowing that it is an afterthought, a convenient, and even self-serving, deliberation by the Church Fathers and the rulers at that time, should not in any way detract it from the true motivation behind the celebration.
No doubt things could have been different. The Church could have been more circumspect. They could have given the dates more thought. They could have treated the matter as a whole more seriously. And all that jazz. But if history has taught us anything, it is this: Every single drop creates a ripple. The good and the bad make the historical facts that we have come to know and study today. The wars and the peacemaking happened in such a way that they happened to bring about the current present that we are living in (and we should be no less thankful). And since history is created by man, in the course of their interaction with the environment, I can naturally expect many hidden agendas, conniving schemes, misdirection, compromises, and Machiavellian twists, along with the other good stuff, all thrown into the unsettling mix.
But in relation to Christmas, all that does not change the historical fact that Jesus was born, he lived, he touched lives, he died on the Cross, he changed the world, and he declared with love and devotion that he has found the way. Now, that’s something for us to really celebrate. It is something to reflect upon and to inspire us to make a difference in this world.
I know his birthday could have been another day (even if it were to be never known for sure). Maybe there could have been more originality to it. It could have been a more sacred and solemn day. At the very least, it shouldn’t be a day that the other three deities have laid claim to. But then, if you think long and hard about it, Jesus nevertheless outwit, outplay, outlast all of them. He emerged triumphant over them. He changed history whilst the other three deities were past history. Jesus is the future. What’s more, he is the real thing, so to speak.
Jesus literally took the world by storm and made everyday a cause for celebration. And 25th December is just one of the days that echoes his enduring legacy. Maybe that legacy is echoed a bit louder on that day as compared to the rest of the calendar year because he not only declared that the truth shall set you free, he also won over the hearts of the people from the clutches of the light, harvest and sun gods. Now that is the Jesus I know. And that is also why that slice of the honey baked ham and stuff turkey would taste extra jolly this Christmas. Cheerz.