Throughout the Christmas season, people are encouraged to “remember the reason for the season.” The question then becomes what is the reason? The birth of Christ? Is it the gifting, the giving and receiving of such? Could it be something else entirely? There so many stories, myths and beliefs surrounding Christmas that many people do not know they are celebrating something that began as something completely different. This globally recognized holiday is a patchwork of ideas and traditions that has morphed into a chimera of religion and commercialism. despite the obvious glaring facts of the matter, we as a society choose to believe in very specific myths about Christmas.
Jesus Was Born on December 25
The most popular idea of Christmas is that Jesus Christ was born on December 25th in Bethlehem, Israel. The story is well-known that the Roman emperor ordered all men to return to the city of their ancestry for a census. Mary, heavily pregnant, accompanied her husband Joseph, but by the time they arrived, there was no room at any of the inns. No one would take them in. Thus, they were forced to bed down in a barn. Surrounded by the barn-owner’s livestock, Mary gave birth to a boy, wrapped him in bits of her clothing and laid him in a manger.
This story also tells believers that shepherds in the fields witnessed a “heavenly host” of angels singing to mark the birth of the long-awaited Messiah. Once they heard the news, they went seeking the baby Jesus and worshiped him. Then they went spreading the news of the Saviour through the streets of Bethlehem. This is the point where logic and reality must intercede. From that time to this, in winter in the northern hemisphere, shepherds are not outside at night with their sheep.
The sheep are locked up and the shepherds are trying to keep warm in their homes. Research has shown that the birth of Jesus could not have happened on December 25th with the circumstances described in the Bible. It is more likely that he was born in the fall, when travel would have been easy and sheep would be left outside with shepherds to watch them overnight.
December 25th was a traditionally pagan day of celebration. Coming on the heels of the Winter Solstice, this was when pre-Christian peoples celebrated the time of year that heralded the strengthening of the sun. Christianity placed the birth of Christ on this date to draw in the pagan masses who were already celebrating anyway. Pagans chose to join the Christians, and eventually many of their pre-Christian traditions were integrated into the belief system surrounding Christmas as it is today.
The 3 Wise Men
The next Christmas myth that requires further examination involves the Three Wise Men, or the Magi. These men were said to have followed a star that led them to the barn where Jesus was born. These Magi carried rare and expensive gifts for the child. Another component of the story tells how these men went to the King and asked him where the newborn king was so they could pay homage to him. Once again, logic dictates a closer examination of the story elements.
First, the belief is that these men were guided by a very bright star that stopped over the barn where Mary, Joseph and Jesus were forced to stay. Stars do not travel relative to earth. When stars do move, they are not stars, they are meteors and they travel far too quickly for any human to physically follow by whatever means of transportation is available at the time. Stars also do not hover over earthbound points. Stars are not bound by earth’s gravity and rotation. They are separate entities with their own routes through space. There is no scenario that could be theorized to make this so. Physics and astronomy agree that whatever the Magi followed, it was not a star.
It has been acknowledged that the Magi came from the east, where Biblical folk believed all magic and mysticism came from. Never mind the fact that such things were strictly forbidden to them by their god; they had no choice in the matter. It is accepted that these men were educated and studied ancient writings. Traditional thought says that perhaps they were either astronomers or astrologers or both. They “saw” a sign that a great king was being born and they wanted to offer him gifts. No Hebrew would have welcomed them, as they would have been considered the antithesis of what they were taught. The lesson of King Solomon consulting a medium and keeping pagan wives was not forgotten. Signs and portents were for God’s prophets, not for shepherds and carpenters.
The next part of this myth to explore is the timing. It is believed that the Magi visited baby Jesus in the manger, but they would never have made it in time to do so. Upon their arrival, the story goes that the Magi spoke to King Herod in Jerusalem, asking where they might find the great King of Israel.
This caused Herod some consternation, because he was the King of Israel, duly appointed by Rome. When the Magi did not come back to tell him where the “King of the Jews” was, Herod issued a decree that Hebrew boys of a certain age were to be killed, to prevent this new King of Israel from ever taking the throne. As a result, Joseph, Mary and their son –who fell within that certain age- fled the area and settled further north.
The Magi could not have seen baby Jesus in the manger because their trip of 800 to 900 miles took them to Jerusalem first. By the time they found him, he should have been a toddler.
Another assumed truth about the Magi is that there were only three. This is not clarified in any of the gospels. The belief has persisted because of the three gifts the Bible says the Magi brought to Jesus: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Once they found him and presented their gifts, the Magi are said to have worshiped the young Jesus. This, too, would not have been acceptable to any Hebrew. They were living under the oppression of the pagan Romans, and clinging steadfast to their monotheistic values. To have these men kneel and worship a child would violate the commandment against idolatry. God-fearing Hebrews would not allow such a violation.
The Reason For the Season
The final, long-standing and generally accepted myth about Christmas deals with the tradition of the holiday itself as it is celebrated today. The reason for this season was not to celebrate the birth of Christ. As previously mentioned, pre-Christian people were already marking this time of year. As far back as the Sumerian cuneiform texts, ancient peoples were aware of the days of the year when the day and the night were of equal length- the spring and autumn equinoxes as well as the waning and waxing of the sun – summer and winter solstices. Each of these days marked a turning point in the year, either a rise or a decline in the seasons.
In Rome, December 17-25 marked Saturnalia, in which Roman courts were closed and no one could be punished for anything they did during the feast. These days were filled with lawlessness and chaos as only the Romans could do it. The festival opened with the appointing of “an enemy of the Roman people” who represented the “Lord of Misrule.” Every Roman town had to select a representative who was then forced to consume, imbibe and indulge in every possible pleasure of the flesh for the entire week. This unfortunate soul became the embodiment of darkness, and on December 25th the “Lord of Misrule” was sacrificed to cleanse Rome of
In the 4th century CE, Christian leaders made the attempt to incorporate Saturnalia into their traditions with the hope that the pagans would come with it.
This did not work out very well, as the teachings of the Church were at complete odds with the very idea of Saturnalia. Church leaders assured the pagans they could continue their celebrations as they had, so long as they did it as Christians. As a result, early Christmas celebrations included “drinking, sexual indulgence (and) singing naked in the streets.”
In the 13th century Pope Paul II revived the depravity of Saturnalia for the amusement of Roman citizens. Jews were forced to run naked through the streets. They were fed a large, rich meal beforehand, to make the run harder for them. “They ran…while the Holy Father…laughed heartily.” In the 18th and 19th centuries, Jewish rabbis were forced to wear humiliating outfits and paraded through the streets as the Christians through whatever they had to hand at them.
Puritans banned Christmas as a pagan holiday. In 1881, Christian leaders agitated Anti-Semitic feeling so high that Polish Christians rioted across the country. Twelve Jews were murdered in Warsaw, others were maimed and Jewish women were raped.
With these facts in mind, it is safe to say that Christmas was not always an indulgent, gift-giving and charitable time of year. The idea that it has always been so is based on the blind acceptance of redacted rhetoric as fact.
These three myths form the basis of the worldwide celebration of Christmas. When taken together, it causes one to wonder just what the true reason for this season is. Considering the good done during this time of year, one can say that modern practices of Christmas are far more in line with humankind’s increased awareness of those less fortunate. One can also say that the commercialization of the holiday seems to grant children and adults permission to indulge in materialistic excess.
Either way, these three myths that make Christmas so important to so many are losing ground. In the end the truth behind the myths is not as important as the intent of those who believe. Globally speaking, we choose to believe in the myths of the Christmas miracle, no matter how contrary to logic, reason and science they are. Celebrating this holiday does not make anyone Christian, pagan or indifferent. It makes one human, and in many cases, it makes people happy. Perhaps, that, in essence, is the true reason for the season.
Commentary By Brandi Tasby