It's official. The Catholic Knight is retired.  I'm hanging up the helmet and passing the torch. There will be no more articles, no more commentaries, no more calls to action. THIS BLOG IS CLOSED. I've spent a very long time thinking about this, I believe the time has come, and is a bit overdue.  I want to thank my readers for everything, but most especially for your encouragement and your willingness to go out there and fight the good fight. So, that being the case, I've spend the last several weeks looking for bloggers who are fairly active, and best represent something akin to the way I think and what I believe.  I recommend the following blogs for my readers to bookmark and check on regularly. Pick one as your favourite, or pick them all. They are all great..... In His Majesty's Service, THE CATHOLIC KNIGHT

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Origin of Christmas

THE CATHOLIC KNIGHT: Each year we deck out our homes in evergreen and lights. A Christmas tree is often displayed with beautiful ornaments. Gifts are exchanged and carols are sung, but do we really know the true origin of Christmas? Most people don't think about it, and among those who do, even fewer actually know the answer to the question. I used to be one of those who thought I knew, that is, until I did a little deeper study on it. Like many people today, I once subscribed to the notion that Christmas was originally a Pagan celebration in pre-Christian Europe. I was under the impression that Christianity commandeered a Pagan celebration and used it to redirect European focus away from Pagan beliefs, and toward the Christian gospel. I couldn't have been more mistaken.

Today, a small but growing number of Evangelical Christians object to the celebration of Christmas. This is because of Christmas' alleged Pagan roots. They'll have nothing to do with Paganism, and so Christmas is out! I wish them the best of luck in this endeavor, because they're gonna need it. Around the world, the Christmas celebration is the most beloved holiday time of the year. Christmas-banning Evangelicals are going to have an uphill fight with their families and children around the holidays. It's easy to say you're gonna ban Christmas in your home, but it's quite another thing when it comes to actually doing it. Sadly, this notion is misplaced, and it's one based on ignorance of the facts.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard somebody say Christmas came from Paganism... well, let's just say I'd have a lot of nickels. There is a partial truth to this, but it is only partial. Indeed, some ancient Pagans did make a practice out of worshiping the sun. This is how the year came to be divided into four seasons: Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer. The time when the earth is closest and farthest from the sun is called a "solstice." The time when the earth is about midway from the sun is called an "equinox." The seasons of summer and winter are marked by a solstice. The seasons of fall and spring are marked by an equinox. Knowing and understanding how these seasons worked was essential to farmers in ancient times, so virtually every culture developed an elaborate method of predicting the start of spring, which was optimal for planting crops. These elaborate systems usually involved study of the stars, and especially the careful observance of the sun's movement across the sky. During the winter months, the sun moves across the sky at a much lower latitude than it does throughout the rest of the year. This lowering of the sun's path was viewed negatively by ancient Pagans, who worshiped the sun, simply because it seemed to be a sign of the sun's weakening or dying power. The fact that most vegetation goes dormant during the cold weather of winter only served to strengthen this notion. The point where the sun moves across the sky at the lowest latitude falls on December 20th through the 23rd, depending on the year. The day when the sun began moving upward in latitude again was marked as the winter solstice, and ancient sun-worshipers commenced a celebration called the "Feast of the Unconquered Sun." This feast usually fell between December 23rd through the 27th, depending on the year, according to the Roman calendar.

Caesar Aurelian (270 to 275 AD) did manage to combine the assortment of Pagan worship practices into one, and marked December 25th for their celebration. The exact reason for his specification of this date is not known. It is peculiar because although it was marked as the "Feast of the Unconquered Sun," it was not observed during the winter solstice (Dec. 20-23), and only landed on the actual day of the feast once every four years (Dec. 25). So why would a Pagan emperor do that? Why celebrate a solstice days after it had passed, and a feast that was only accurate to a fixed date once every four years?

 The answer may be surprising. Aurelian was known for his fairness toward Christians. He was by no means sympathetic to Christianity, but he did not persecute the faith either. Instead he held Christians under the law equally with Pagans. Aurelian came to power during a troubling time in ancient Rome's history. He was attempting to unify an empire that was falling apart. One of his methods for doing this was to streamline and organize the pantheon of Pagan religions. A practice that most Pagan religions had in common was sun worship. Because of this, Aurelian tried on many occasions to have sun worship declared the official religion of the empire. His attempts failed, but his dating of the "Feast of the Unconquered Sun" on December 25th did manage to stick, and his choice of date was extremely interesting. While most Pagan religions observed December 23rd through 27th as the celebration of this feast, a rapidly growing eastern religion (Christianity) was observing a different feast at about the same time. Was Aurelian trying to trump this growing Christian celebration by fixing the date of the Pagan feast on the same day Christians were using? Or was Aurelian simply trying to reconcile Christians and Pagans by making them celebrate their feasts together. Nobody can say for sure exactly what was going on in Aurelian's mind. The only thing we know is that he tried to standardize a Pagan celebration, that depends on a moving date for meaning and accuracy, to a particular fixed date (Dec. 25) already being used by Christians for some eastern celebration.

So what was it Christians were celebrating back then? In all probability, it was a Christian modified version of Hanukkah. You see, many of the early Christians were Jews, and it's perfectly reasonable to assume that some Jewish celebrations were carried over into Gentile Christian homes. Hanukkah commemorates the great victory of the Jews, under the leadership of Judah Maccabees, over the forces of Antiochus Epiphanes who tried to destroy the Jewish faith back in 168 BC. After years of fierce fighting, Judah Maccabees was finally able to lead his troops into Jerusalem for victory. There, the Jews began the work of purifying and rededicating the Temple, which had been defiled by the occupation of Antiochus. It is told that when Judah’s men were cleaning out the temple, they found just a single jar of holy oil. It was only enough to keep the menorah before the Holy of Holies burning for one day. There wasn't enough time to make more holy oil, so what they had would have to do. Miraculously, this one jar burned for eight days and nights, the exact time needed for re-dedication of the Temple.

 As a remembrance of this joyous occasion, every year in Jewish homes a special menorah (or candelabra) is lit, consisting of eight candles instead of the traditional seven (together with an additional ‘servant candle’ used to light the rest for a total of nine candles). A new candle is lit on each night of the festival, one candle being lit on the first night, two on the second, and so on. The dead giveaway to the origin of Christmas is found in the liturgical celebration of the Christmas feast in the Catholic Church – the most ancient Christian calendar available. According to the Roman Catholic calendar, the feast of Christmas is exactly eight days long, starting on December 25th and ending on January 1st. It is officially called the "Octave of Christmas." Octave, of course, means "eight days." The end of the octave marks the beginning of the civil new year, according to the Catholic calendar, which is observed by the entire Western world. The Biblical precedence for the early Christian observance of this Jewish feast is found in John 10:22-23 where Jesus observed the "Feast of Dedication" (or Hanukkah), by visiting the Temple in Jerusalem. There he was confronted by the Pharisees who demanded that he reveal his identity as they contended with him over his claim to be the Son of God. The feast of Hanukkah is a time marked by the light of a menorah filling the Temple. From a Christian perspective, this feast could just as easily be observed as a time marked by the Light of God (Jesus Christ) coming into the world. Such was the most ancient celebration of Christmas, (or the "mass of Christ"), an eight day feast, probably marked in the early Church by the lighting of lamps, songs and prayers.

 Yet the question still remains about December 25th. Why would a Roman caesar try to use it to trump a Jewish-Christian celebration that couldn't have existed on December 25, since Hanukkah only rarely falls on that date? To answer that, we must first look at calendars. The ancient Romans used the Julian calendar, similar to what we use today. The ancient Jews used their own Jewish calendar, still used by Jewish rabbis today. Since the Roman calendar is based on the solar year, and the Jewish calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, the months between them almost never match up perfectly. In fact, they frequently overlap with variation. This is why the date marking the start of Hanukkah always seems to change annually. Though it tends to fluctuate on the Roman calendar from year to year; on the Jewish calendar, the date for Hanukkah is fixed, always falling on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. The evening of the 24th day marks the beginning of the celebration because on the Jewish calendar, a day always begins at sundown the previous day, as opposed to midnight on the Roman calendar. Thus Kislev 24 is the "eve" of Hanukkah -- a very special night for Jews. How interesting that Christians also mark the "eve" of Christmas as an especially holy night. During this particular period of time (late third-century) the early Church would have been made up of a growing number of Gentiles and a shrinking number of Jews. The traditions of the Jewish Christians remained, but they would have been slowly taken over by Gentile Christians. These Gentile Christians probably would not have continued to use the Jewish calendar, and so the Roman month that most closely corresponds with the Jewish month of Kislev is December. Thus, the eight-day Christian celebration of Hanukkah would have switched from Kislev 25th to December 25th, and that would explain the growing number of Christian Gentiles adopting a “foreign” feast around the same time as the winter solstice. This may explain Caesar Aurelian's attempt to fix the celebration of the winter solstice, and the 'Feast of the Unconquered Sun," to a specific date. It was a date which just happened to be the exact same date used by Christians in their celebration of the Christian Hanukkah.

 This was intentional, because Caesar Aurelian was attempting to unify the empire by getting everybody celebrating their various feasts on the same day. The point here is that Christians were using the fixed day of December 25th, as their Christian Hanukkah, long before that date was set for a Pagan feast by a Roman caesar. The fixing of the winter solstice, and the 'Feast of the Unconquered Sun,' to an artificial date (Dec. 25), was an attempt to unify the empire and preserve the dying Pagan religions. December 25th was selected as the day because Aurelian knew Christians would not change their own celebration to accommodate an order for some other date (like Dec. 22nd or Dec. 23rd for example). The only people who would obey his decree were Pagans, and so Aurelian ordered that Pagans change the dates of their Pagan celebrations to accommodate the Christians, not vice versa. December 25th was a fixed date for Christian celebration long before the Pagans adopted it, and it remained a Christian celebration long ager the Pagan religions died out.

In the centuries to follow, the Christian Hanukkah came to be known simply as the "Christ Mass" (or Christmas) for the birth of the Christ child, with the first day of the Octave marked by the "Feast of the Nativity" announcing the Light of God (Jesus Christ) entering the world. Some relatively harmless Pagan practices, (such as mistletoe, evergreens and yule logs), did eventually find their way into the Christian celebration. Surprisingly, the Christmas tree wasn't one of them. That actually came from Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation.

 Legend has it that Martin Luther admired the custom of Eastern Orthodox Christians, in which they displayed a fruit tree in the early part of December to commemorate the “Feast of Adam and Eve.” He wanted to do something similar in the Protestant Church of Germany. So he brought a fir tree into the chapel and decorated it with candles, placing a nativity beneath it. The candles were designed to represent the star of Bethlehem and the choir of angles that sang “Glory to God in the highest...” Eventually the Eastern Orthodox custom, and the Protestant Lutheran custom, merged together resulting in the decoration of the tree with round ornaments to represent the Orthodox fruit tree, stars and angels to represent the Lutheran concept.

The modern tradition of Santa Claus is a commercialized version of the original Christian observance of the Feast of Saint Nicholas, which usually falls on December 6th. The original Saint Nicholas was a Catholic bishop who lived in the middle 4th century. He is the patron saint of children, and was widely known for his charitable giving. There are several legends associated with that. The merging of this tradition with the myths of elves, reindeer and the north pole came about as the result of commercial marketers in the middle to late 19th century. The image of Santa Clause as a fat old man was part of a marketing campaign by the Coca Cola company in the early 20th century, and was accompanied by department store “Santas” as a gimmick to bring Christmas shoppers into their stores.

Today, Christians can get in touch with the spiritual roots of the Christmas celebration simply by extending their own observances of Christmas out to the full eight days from December 25th through January 1st.

Rather than trying to cram it all into one day, (as the commercialized celebration has taught us over the last 100 years), we can spread things out a little, giving ourselves some breathing room to actually enjoy the season a little bit more. We could light a candle for each day of the octave, similar to the Jewish practice, which is probably where the Christian celebration came from anyway.  The reason for the whole celebration is remembering that Christmas marks the coming of the Light (Christ) into the world.  That's what the feast is about.  I don't know anybody who believes Jesus was really born on December 25th, and that's not the official teaching of the Church either.  Regular church attendance should be central to the observance of this Christmas Octave, and the continuation of Christmas songs and prayers throughout the week will also help. Of course the end of the Octave is already well marked for us with the celebration of the new year, and isn't it fitting that an eight-day feast marking the coming of Christ into the world should end with a really big party.