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Thursday, December 24, 2009

What About Christmas?

In Western Countries, Christmas is the most widely-celebrated holiday of the year. It is not entirely either a religious or secular celebration. In fact, the secular people I know tend to celebrate it with more gusto than most observant Christians. It is a day that commercial activity comes to almost a complete standstill. People spend months saving for gifts that will be opened this day, and parents teach their children that these gifts come from an imaginary man based upon a historical figure, St. Nicholas. Food is purchased and prepared, families get together, and many people attend Church for the only time all year.

What does this celebration have to do with the historical birth of Jesus, the Messiah? Christian and secular scholars alike tend to agree that the timing of this celebration probably has no connection whatsoever to the actual birth of Jesus. The celebration of December 25th as the birth of Jesus was not widely recognized until the 4th Century.

We know that the early followers of Jesus were considered a sect of Judaism and would have celebrated the Biblical feasts such as Passover and Sukkot. The New Testament shows that these were the Holy Days that Jesus himself celebrated. The followers of Jesus were later thrown out of the synagogues and became recognized as a separate religious movement in the Roman Empire. This had many implications for the still-forming faith of the early believers. The books of the New Testament were completed and being circulated before the close of the 1st Century. During the following Century, Christians started worshiping on Sunday instead of Saturday. Most also ceased celebrating the Biblical Holy days.

Why did the birth of Jesus begin to be celebrated on December 25th?
There is evidence that this date can be traced back to the calculations of Church Fathers such as Julius Africanus, who lived around 200 C,E. He is known as the father of Christian chronography. He tried to correlate various Biblical events with actual dates. Unfortunately, his methods were faulty.

Most modern scholars would argue that Jesus was more likely born in the fall, sometime around the feast of Sukkot. One evidence of this in the Biblical text is a reference in Luke 2:8 to shepherds guarding their flocks at night. Sheep were not kept outside during the winter in Judea.We also know that Jesus was crucified during the feast of Passover, during the spring.

Do modern celebrations contain reference to pagan customs?
Unfortunately, yes. December 25th is just after the Winter Solstice. This time where the days are shortest was celebrated in many cultures as a symbolic death of the Sun, with a resurrection symbolized by the days getting longer again. The Romans celebrated a winter Solstice holiday called Saturnalia, where they used greenery to decorate in celebration of longer days and the eventual return of Spring.

So yes, the origins of Christmas a questionable at best. We know that Jesus and the disciples did not celebrate such a holiday.However, this doesn't necessarily mean that early Christians had bad intentions in creating a holiday to celebrate the birth of the Messiah. Since early historiographers had decided that he was born at this time, and it was already a Roman holiday, the celebration of Christmas probably made sense to most of the Christian populace. They could have their own religious holiday at the same time pagan Romans were worshiping Saturn.

Final conclusions?
I don't have a problem with celebrating the coming of Messiah, even if the date is wrong. I skip the obvious pagan refrences and consumerism, and pray that my honest intentions will bring glory to God.

We can celebrate the coming of Jesus by sharing what we have with others, spending time with loved ones, and praying and worshiping with others.


Mama Kalila said...

:-) I'll admit we do a bit of the secular stuff... Santa comes here. But when the kids (or each one individually) are old enough to start asking questions we're going to explain who St. Nicholas really was & why we continue the tradition. There's a cute movie about him that I want to get at some point. But.. at the same time we're trying to not make all that the focus. This young its hard w/ Kalila... She sees all the shows & is excited about presents. I can't blame her & its cute... At the same time she's told us that she thinks Jesus needs a birthday cake! So I've got to rush to do that sometime tonight too lol.

I hope you have a wonderful Christmas however you celebrate it :-)

Stacy aka Fahiima said...

That's cute. We used to do a Jesus birthday cake as kids. Layla doesn't quite get what's going on either, but she loves all the lights everywhere.

Stephanie said...

I didn't know about the early Christian chronographer and that being faultily presumed as the actual date of Jesus'(saw) birth. I was under the impression that one of the early pope's used the pagan holiday as a way to Christianize a population that may have been still clinging to their old pagan traditions. So the early inherents and others could still celebrate their old holiday while also commemorating the birth of their Messiah.
Anyway, being Muslim I don't really "celebrate' Christmas but I don't shun it either as some Muslims might. I allow my kids to get presents from my non-Muslim parents and we go to dinner at my folks house. Us adults no longer exchange gifts, so I'm kind of off the hook with that one.
As for Santa, my kids have learned from a early age that he isn't real, since they do watch TV and are obviously not immune to the blitz of the commercialized Christmas of this society. I tell them that only Allah swt can judge if a person's actions are good or bad and reward them accordingly. I had an issue with the concept of Santa Clause even before I converted to Islam, and thouroghly believe I would be teaching my kids the same thing if I was still a non-denominational Christian.
Sometimes I like to drive the kids around to look at Christmas lights beause, well, they're just cool and fun to look at.

♥Tiffany Nicole♥ said...

Thanks soooo much for posting this Stacy.

We don't do the "Christmas" thing...presents & all for the past 3 years but, this year my mom MADE me go buy her gifty gifts..lol..because I just wait till the day after Christmas to catch all the sales...Hey kids always need clothes..lol

I just figure it's a day set aside to observe teh birth of Jesus....we don't get presents on anyone elses birthday do we...so why on His?

Susanne said...

Interesting post. Enjoyed it.

Btw, I got that book you recommended several months ago for Christmas. I hope to start reading it soon.

Have a great day however you celebrate!

أبو سنان said...

Good poinds. I dont think most Christian holidays really have much relationship to real events. Like someone else stated, I think they were often "PR" attemps by early Christians to tempt pagans into the fold.

I dont like the materialistic bent of the current celebrations, but it is hard not to geet sucked into the spirit of things.

I know when I was living in Europe I'd often visit the Christmas markets in Europe, especially Germany, even if I didnt celebrate the holiday. Good stuff to buy and I love the crepes! lol

angie nader said...

i admit that in my family we tend to use the holiday to get each other great gift....we dont use it so much as a relgious holiday because we are relgious througout the year...but durring the holiday season we do have a rule to keep our heads in check...we dont tith to our church durring christmas but instead donate equall amount of what give to each other. durring the holidays we give cash gifts to those we dont know...maybe we meet them online and they have a tough life...or we give money to someone on the streets...or someone in front of the mall begging for money. instead of giving to organizations, we like to take our chances and give directly to someone god sends our way. thats the only way we dont forget the meaning of the holiday spirit :)

Susanne said...

I started that book and have enjoyed it! Wow! Thanks for recommending it. I see I had a lot to learn! :)

Also thanks for the link you left on my post the other day. I watched the videos last night and another one has watched them (or some of them) as well. Not sure if you signed up to receive follow-up comments so I wanted to thank you over here as I did on my own blog. I always appreciate your perspective on things since I know you are a language lady and know your stuff.

Hope you are having a good end of year.

Abu Dhabi/UAE Daily Photo said...

"Do modern celebrations contain reference to pagan customs?
Unfortunately, yes."

Why is that unfortunate? All Abrahamic faiths adopted some form of pagan ritual as it made it easier for their followers to adapt. Consumerism, regardless of the time of year, IS unforunate, IMHO. I'm one of those humanists that celebrates Christmas with gusto...tree, lights, carols of piano...but I really don't purchase much any more. Everyone got kiva.org gift certificates this year. Getting back to religious and non-religious celebrating Christmas: If people feel compelled to be a bit kinder, more generous, more giving, and even more spiritual for 1 month out of the year, that doesn't sound unfortunate to me, either.