Sunday, December 20, 2015

Answering Ridiculous Claims to the Dating and Purpose of Christmas

Some of the kids in my religious education class were mentioning that they heard it said that Jesus wasn't actually born on Christmas Day. I told them they were right, and luckily that opened the door for some more discussion (well, as much discussion as some 6th graders can have I suppose...) on the topic of the dating for Christmas. There's plenty of excellent sources out there that can describe all this in more detail than I, but allow me to summarize the claims and rebuttals to why Christians celebrate Christmas in December, and I'll sprinkle some links to relevant articles throughout, so all can see and read more on the subject. Let's do this in a question and answer format, and make things a little easier to digest:

So what’s the deal with the date for Christmas?

Over the past several years, several atheists and others have claimed that when it comes to the celebration of Christmas, we're "a few months off due to trying to convert Pagans." That really isn't true, although it's a common narrative today. First off, Catholics and other Christians aren’t celebrating Jesus’ birthday on December 25th… we are celebrating the BIRTH of Jesus, the Son of God!

The first objection to the idea that Christmas is simply an adapted pagan festival is the simple fact that the early Christians were adamantly opposed to paganism in all its forms. They had inherited from the Jewish people the conviction that the pagan gods and goddesses were demons, and if you worshiped them you were demon possessed. That’s why the catechesis for Christian converts took so long and involved so many careful exorcisms. That’s why the early Christians would not offer so much as one grain of incense to the pagan gods. That’s why, rather than do so, they were willing to be martyred for Christ; they were deprived of their property, exiled, imprisoned, tortured and killed.
Gerard van Honthorst- Adoration of the Shepherds
What holy days (holidays) did pagans celebrate?

Some people who accuse Christmas of having pagan origins, claim that Christmas occupied the day of the feast of Saturnalia, a Roman harvest feast. In addition to having nothing to do with the winter solstice and return of the sun, Saturnalia took place from December 17-23.

Another pagan Roman feast people like to tie into Christmas was the feast of Sol Invictus. This was to celebrate the birth of the Roman sun god, Sol. Only thing is, this particular feast didn't begin being celebrated until the year 278 when Emperor Aurelian started promoting the cult of Sol. Furthermore, the feast didn't even start being celebrated on December 25th until sometime around the year 360 during Emperor Julian the Apostate's reign. This is obviously well after Emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity, and we can see this in Julian moving the day of this feast to December 25th to try and "compete" against Christmas, which was already well established by this time.

Julian is usually referred to as "the Apostate" as he left his Christian faith to return to the paganism which Rome had adhered to for centuries before. (An apostate is someone who rejects their Christian faith after baptism.) That's why he tried to bring paganism back as the state religion, thus making the change of the date for the feast of the Roman sun god to coincide with the Christian feast of Christmas. The Christians weren’t trying to compete with the pagans, it was the other way around!

OK, so then how did December 25th become the date for Christmas?

The more plausible theory for the reasoning of the date of Christmas, is something referred to as the "Integral Age". The early Church Fathers of the East are well known to have agreed that the date of Christ's death on Good Friday happened on March 25th; this is how many early Christians were able to date the feast of Easter, which was two days later. Going from that now, in the Babylonian Talmud (an extra-Biblical compendium used by Rabbinical Jews which contained writings of the Jewish Oral Tradition, legal debates, Jewish law and practices, among other things) there was a tradition written, saying that among Jewish holy men, a great prophet died on the same day of his birth or conception. They thus lived their lives in whole or “integral” years (from the Latin integer = “whole”). Moses was a specific example given here.

The Feast of the Annunciation, where the archangel Gabriel asked Mary to become the mother Of Jesus, is still commemorated by the Catholic Church on March 25th. This feast is celebrated as the day of Jesus’ conception. What's 9 months after March 25th? December 25th... Christmas.
Master Bertram- Annunciation
Who said Jesus was crucified on March 25th?

Let's see what Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin has to say:
Most notably was Tertullian (155-240 A.D.), an Early Christian Father, is frequently credited with saying this. He wrote that Jesus was crucified “in the month of March, at the times of the Passover, on the eighth day before the calends of April” (source: An Answer to the Jews 8). 
On the Roman calendar, the “calends” were the first days of the month. If Jesus was crucified eight days before the calends of April then he was crucified eight days before April 1st—in other words, on March 25th.Tertullian seems to have been the earliest author to propose this date for the Crucifixion, though it was later picked up by other Christian authors. 
Was Tertullian correct?
No.  Modern scholars have almost universally concluded that Tertullian was mistaken. The reason is that the four Gospels agree that Jesus was crucified on a Friday at Passover during the reign of Pontius Pilate (after the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar; see Luke 3:1). None of the Fridays at Passover during the relevant years fall on March 25th, so Tertullian was mistaken. 
Still, if people thought that’s when he was crucified, and if they held to the integral age view, that would still provide a rationale for the Annunciation on March 25, and Christmas on December 25.

So is the “Integral Age” theory true?

It stands to reason that many of those Jewish rabbis who studied and read the Babylonian Talmud converted to Christianity in the first two centuries A.D. It's possible that these converts played a role in the thinking of early Christians in fixing certain feast days, such as Christmas and Easter. So yes, it is totally plausible that the integral age view is where our current dating for Christmas comes from.
This makes much more sense than Christmas coming from pagan feasts that didn't even exist until over a century after Jesus's time on earth. But the most important thing to remember is, even though we may never know the ACTUAL date of Christmas, we know that God came to the world as a little baby. Jesus, true God and True Man, lived with us on Earth, and gave His life for us. It’s a good thing to celebrate His coming to the Earth on Christmas Day.

Here's some more reading on things not covered here:
More on the Dating of Christmas (specifically which year):

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