As has become the tradition for Americans, the War of Christmas has begun. And by begun I mean people complaining about things that they can’t do anymore because it was always illegal or complaining about things that they can do but claim they can’t because of sub-culture X (that X often being atheists). What is great is that this pseudo-conflict gives great materials for both comedians to ridicule and for those same hated atheists to make fun of their cultural competitors.
So with Bill O’Reilly calling atheists “fascists” and Christianity “not a religion” but “a philosophy”, I may as well fight in the war as well. I don’t want to be left out. 😉
So how best to fight in a conflict that exists mostly due to one’s imagination? Well, it all seems to be about tradition, so let me spend some time debunking a particular tradition: the date of Jesus’ birth as December 25. Now, most people may already know about how that is not actually Jesus’ birthday, but I want to also talk about how that date probably did come about and why it shows much of the Christian story is a myth, let alone the particulars of Christmas.
So first off, why can we not claim Jesus was born on December 25? Let’s first consider the main sources people use when it comes to Jesus’ birthday: the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Do they give a day or time of Jesus’ birth? Not really. Luke talks of Jesus being born during the census under Quirinius in 6/7 CE, and Matthew talks of Jesus’ birth during the reign of King Herod who died in 5/4 BCE. So not only do the Gospels not specify a day, the cannot even get their stories to mesh. Treatments to fix this contradiction are treated quite fully here.
Perhaps there was some other sources that the early Christians had for Jesus’ birthday? Well, if they did, it didn’t originally include a Dec 25th date. In the late 2nd century, about 200 years after the time Jesus was said to have been born, Clement of Alexandria relates numerous opinions of when Jesus was born. In his Stromata 1.21.145-6, Clement notes that some Christians considered Christ’s birth (in the Egyptian calendar) as 25th Pachon, but others said it was the 24th or 25th of Parthmuthi. These dates would correspond as May 20 and April 20/21 in our calendar. In other words, nowhere near Dec 25. Clement himself makes an estimate and puts the birth on November 18th.
So, 200 years after Jesus and no one even speculates that Jesus was born on the winter solstice. We don’t get any sure signs of this changing for another century, the earliest that we are sure of being in the Calendar of 354, which was made in … 354 (yes, this is an episode of Jaywalking). In around this time we also get the tradition of Jesus being born on January 6th which is still used by the Armenian church and was popular in the Eastern Roman Empire for some time.
As such, we simply have no good data to go one and put Jesus’ birth on Dec 25, and the earliest reckonings of this date are much, much later than we would want, while other speculations had existed beforehand. Jesus could have been born on the winter solstice, but it’s no more likely than any other date. (And considering Luke talks about shepherds in the field to watch their flocks, it suggests it wasn’t in the chills of winter, so if anything Dec 25 is less likely than 1/365 of being Jesus birth date.)
But how did this tradition come about? I will save that discussion for next time. Hint: it’s NOT what you think!
So there is the opening salvo in my front of the War of Christmas. That need not be the only one, though. There is also the traditional way to wage such a conflict: having the best decorations and annoy your neighbors. And what way to do that better than the use of Christmas lights and K-pop?