The celebration of Christmas is as nearly a universal holiday as you can get. Many non-Christian or minority Christian nations like Japan strip Christmas of most of its religious significance and celebrate it. In the U.S., it is the only national holiday which has its roots in religion. To understand why this has happened, first we have to separate truth from fiction concerning the truth about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and then understand the celebration of that birth today.
The date of December 25 as the birthday of Jesus gained popularity only by the mid-fourth century in order that Christians could have an alternative to a popular pagan festival at this time of year. According to the old Julian calendar, December 25 was the winter solstice and it was on that day that Mithraism, a rival religion to Christianity, celebrated the birth of its god, Mithra. We have no idea exactly when Jesus was born or the real circumstances surrounding his birth.
The doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus, so central to the traditional Christmas story, was not part of the teaching of the first Christians who also remained within the Jewish faith (Luke 24:52-53). The apostle Paul makes no reference to the virginal conception by the mother of Jesus when speaking of Jesus' origins and divinity. His epistles were written during the 50's A.D. and predate all of the four gospels. Although Paul never met Jesus (who died about 30 A.D.), he personally did know James, the brother of Jesus. Yet despite this eye-witness link to Jesus, Paul apparently knows nothing of the virgin birth, for he states only that Jesus was "born of a woman" (Galatians 4:4) and was "descended from David, according to the flesh" (Romans 1:3), implying Jesus' birth was a normal one.
In addition, Matthew mistranslations an Old Testament prophecy to reinforce his belief in the virgin birth. He quotes from Isaiah, "therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14). The original Hebrew text of Isaiah uses the word almah (which means a young woman of marriageable age) and not the word bethulah (virgin). The actual text of Isaiah makes no reference to a virgin becoming pregnant other than by normal means.
There are no first-hand accounts of the birth of Jesus. And, the story of Jesus' birth is only told in 2 of the 4 canonical gospels of The New Testament of The Bible, those of St. Matthew and St. Luke. Unfortunately, the 2 accounts do not always agree. (Note: The birth of Jesus story according to both Matthew and Luke are printed at the end of this essay.)
Points of disagreement:
· In Matthew, Jacob was Joseph's father, while in Luke, Heli was Joseph's father.
· In Matthew, The Annunciation occurred after Mary had conceived Jesus. In Luke, it occurred before conception.
· There are further discrepancies concerning the Annunciation of Mary's virginal conception. Matthew describes the annunciation of Mary's pregnancy only to Joseph, by means of an angel in a dream, but only after she has conceived (Matt. 1:18-21); whereas in Luke, the angel Gabriel explains it all to Mary, but not Joseph, before she has conceived Jesus (Luke 1:26-34). Yet, both Mary and Joseph are strangely astonished by the shepherds' tale about the heavenly host (Luke 2:18), and inexplicably puzzled by Simeon's affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah (Luke 2:33).
· In Matthew, an angel spoke to Joseph. In Luke, an angel spoke to Mary. In Matthew, he will be called Emmanuel (translation: God is with us). Instead, in Luke he was called Jesus (the Latin version of the name, Joshua).
· In Matthew, Jesus is born in a cave; in Luke, Jesus is born in a stable.
· John's gospel, contrary to Matthew and Luke, says Jesus was not born in Bethlehem and that he was not a descendant of David (John 7:41-42).
· In Matthew, following the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt where they stay until after King Herod's death in order to avoid the murder of their firstborn by Herod. Herod slaughters all male infants two years old and under. Note: John the Baptist, Jesus' cousin, though under two at the same time as Jesus is somehow spared without fleeing to Egypt. But in Luke, following the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary remain in the area of Jerusalem for the Presentation (about forty days after birth) and then return to Nazareth without ever going to Egypt.
· There is no mention of the Roman census taking place in Roman history at that time or of the King Herod's killing of the babies (a horrific act of cruelty by the hated Herod against his own people) in either Jewish history or folklore of the well-documented life of King Herod.
· Only Luke contains has the story of angels proclaiming Jesus a savior for all people and of shepherds adoring him.
· Only in Matthew, do wise men from the east follow a star to Bethlehem and bring gifts to Jesus. Note: It does not say that the wise men were kings nor does it say that there were 3 wise men. It only says that there were 3 gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh.
· The concept of the star of Bethlehem is consistent with legends of the ancient world that had heavenly events portend the births of great men. In reality, no star high in the heavens can shine only on a particular town, let alone on a specific house as Matthew claims (Matt. 2:9-11). The Christmas star, rising in the east, then moving west to Jerusalem, and then going south to Bethlehem and finally remaining stationary would have defied the laws of celestial motion.
· If Herod, many people in Jerusalem knew of the messiah's birth (Matt. 2:3), and many people in Bethlehem witnessed the birth and angels in the heavens, why is it that later in Jesus' career, the same Gospel author claims that people had not heard of his miraculous origin and still questioned his miracles and his teachings (Matt. 13:54-56)?
· In ancient times it was often claimed that important people had miraculous births. Plato was said to have been born by the union of the god Apollo with his mother. Alexander the Great was said to have been conceived when a thunderbolt fell from heaven and made his mother Olympias pregnant before her marriage to Philip of Macedon. In the book of Genesis we read that sons of gods had intercourse with women to produce heroes (Gen. 6:4) Finally, the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls tell of the miraculous birth of Noah and how his father Lamech was suspicious that his wife had been made pregnant by an angel.
In fact, no one knows when Jesus was born. The best historical guess based the fact that King Herod died in 4BC places Jesus' birth at between 7 and 2BC. There is also the phenomenon of the so-called wandering star that guided the wise men from the east who, if they existed, were probably Zoroastrian Persian astrologers. At that time, there was no distinction made between stars and planets. At about the same time as Herod's death, astrologers as far away as China observed the retrograde motion of Mars (a phenomenon that looks like a "star" acting in an unusual way and was likely the wandering star of the "wise men") and would place Jesus' birth at between 5 and 3BC. In addition, the Roman census for taxation purposes in which everyone was expected to return to his ancestral home is not credible. The Roman Emperor Augustus, known for being practical and rational, would not have uprooted everyone in the Empire forcing them to return to their ancestral cities. Furthermore, most people in the empire could not trace their lineages back forty-two generations as Joseph is said to be able to do. Finally, because travel was more likely in the summer and because shepherds were "abiding in the fields" outdoors which they did not do in cold winter months, Jesus was likely to have been born in the summer and not in winter. All the other events surrounding Jesus' birth are shrouded in mystery.
The nativity stories of Matthew and Luke are generally not looked at as primarily historical accounts. Historical and critical scholars generally conclude that both the gospels ("gospel" means "good news" ) of Matthew and Luke were written by anonymous Christians writing after the fall of the Jewish temple in AD 70. Both used the earlier written Gospel of Mark, but the added birth narratives come from either tradition, hearsay, independent sources, or popular legends or myths.
Although we shall never be sure about the exact circumstances of Jesus' birth, we do know that approximately two thousand years ago, there was the birth of an extraordinary Jew in what is now called Palestine who was to profoundly change the course of human history.
The Meaning of the Word Christmas
The word Christmas is rooted in the compound word "Christ's-Mass" . It is derived from the Middle English word, Christemass, and from the earlier Old English phrase, Cristes mæsse, first written down in 1038. "Cristes" is from Greek, Christos, and "mæsse" is from Latin missa.
As with Jews of the 1st Century, early Christians rejected the use of musical instruments in religious ceremonies and instead relied on a cappella chants and plainsongs. One of the earliest Latin Nativity hymns Veni Redemptor Getium, was composed by Saint Ambrose in the 4th century. In the 13th century, the Franciscans encouraged Christmas songs in the native languages. The hymn Adeste Fidelis (O Come All Ye Faithful) appears in its current form in the mid-18th century, although the words may have originated in the 13th century. English Christmas carols (at that time, a "carol" was defined as danceable music) first appear in a 1426, although some carols like Good King Wenceslas and The Holly and the Ivy can be traced directly back to the Middle Ages. It was only later that carols began to be sung in church. The largest body of musical works about Christ which do not quote his words, of liturgical, of carols, and of folk music deal with the Nativity of Jesus. And, most musical Biblical Nativity narratives (actual texts from The Bible) did not come about until church music assimilated opera in the 17th Century. But after that, there was a torrent of Nativity Biblically text-based music. Among them are Bach's Christmas Oratorio. And although Handle's Messiah and the Halleluiah Chorus it contains were written for the celebration of Easter, it is often performed and associated with Christmas.
The 18th century English reformer and founder of The Methodist Church, Charles Wesley (1707-1788),understood the importance of music to worship. In addition to setting many psalms to melodies, he wrote texts for at least three Christmas carols. The best known was originally entitled Hark! How All the Welkin Rings, which was later renamed Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Famous classical music composer, Felix Mendelssohn, wrote a melody adapted to fit Wesley's words.
But perhaps the most famous Christmas hymn is Silent Night . In Austria in 1818, Father Josef Mohr (1792- 1843) and Franz Gruber (1787-1863) composed the simple words and melody for Silent Night on Christmas Eve when they were faced with a broken organ at St. Nicholas Church, Oberndorf. It was first sung by the congregation of the church with a guitar accompaniment.
Completely secular Christmas seasonal songs started in the late 18th century. Deck the Halls dates from 1784, and Jingle Bells was created in 1857.
Christmas is big business. Christmas season the most profitable time of year for businesses around the world. Gift giving was common in the Ancient Roman celebration of festival Saturnalia which took place in late December and probably influenced Christmas customs. In addition, the Nativity story contains an account of the three wise men who gave gifts to the baby Jesus. Christmas gift giving was banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages because of it pagan origins. It was later rationalized by the Church on the basis that it was done and associated with Christmas gifts given to children by St. Nicholas.
A number of figures of both Christian and mythical origin have been associated with Christmas and the seasonal giving of gifts. Among these are Father Christmas, Santa Clause, Pere Noel, Kris Kringle, Babbo Natale, and Sinterklaas
The most famous and pervasive of these figures in modern celebration worldwide is Santa Claus, a mythical gift bringer, dressed in red, whose origins have diverse sources. The name Santa Claus can be traced back to the Dutch Sinterklaas, which means simply Saint Nicholas in Dutch. St. Nicholas was the 4th Century Bishop of Myra (now in modern day Turkey). His feast on the 6th of December came to be celebrated in many countries with the giving of gifts- particularly in The Netherlands.
The modern popular image of Santa Claus, however, was created in the United States, and in particular in New York. The transformation from St. Nicholas to Santa Claus was accomplished with the help of writer Washington Irving (1783-1859) and cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840–1902). New York had originally been established as a Dutch colony and after the American Revolution the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition was reinvented as Saint Nicholas. At his first American appearance in 1810, Santa Claus was drawn in bishops' robes. However as new artists took over, Santa Claus developed more secular attire and by the 1880s, Thomas Nast's Santa had evolved into the robed, fur clad form we now recognize. The modern image of Santa Claus was created by advertisers, particularly the image of Santa Claus created by Coca Cola in the 1931.
The Christmas Tree
The tradition of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas started in Livonia (present day Latvia and Estonia) and Germany in the 16th century. The Christmas tree is traditionally brought into the home and was for one night, Christmas Eve, decorated originally with candles. Today, it is decorated with strings of small electric lights. ornaments, garland, tinsel and almost anything else during the days around Christmas.
Legend associates the first Christmas tree was created by St. Boniface (c. 672-754) in the German town of Geismar. The legend maintains that sometime in Boniface's life, he cut down the sacred tree of the pagan Norse god, Thor, and replaced it with a fir tree said to have been the first Christmas tree. The German word Tannenbaum literally means "fir tree".
According to the first documented uses of a Christmas tree in Estonia in 1441, the Brotherhood of Blackheads erected a tree for the holidays in their brotherhood house in Reval (now called Tallin). At the last night of the celebrations leading up to the holidays, the tree was taken to the Town Hall Square where the members of the brotherhood danced around it. In 1584, the pastor Balthasar Russow wrote of an established tradition of setting up a decorated spruce at the market square where the young men “went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame”. The early decorations were apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers.
In Britain, the Christmas tree was introduced by King George III's German Queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in early 19th century, but the custom hadn't yet spread much beyond the royal family. After Queen Victoria's marriage to her German cousin, the popular Prince Albert, the Christmas tree became more widespread throughout Britain.
Several cities in the United States with German connections lay claim to that country's first Christmas tree. Windsor Locks, Connecticut, claims that a Hessian soldier who fought with the British during the Revolution put up a Christmas tree in 1777 while imprisoned at the Noden-Reed House. And, the first Christmas tree in America is also claimed by Easton, Pennsylvania, when German settlers may have erected a Christmas tree in the early 1800s. And, August Imgard, a German immigrant living in Wooster, Ohio, was the first to popularize the practice of decorating a Christmas tree with candy canes.
But, the practice of decorating a Christmas tree has it critics on religious grounds. In The Bible (King James Version), it says the following in Jeremiah 10:1-5: Hear what the Lord says to you , O house of Israel. This is what the Lord says: "Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the sky, though the nations are terrified by them. For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good." This is interpreted by some Christians as referring to a Christmas tree, and therefore The Bible explicitly forbids the practice of tree decorating . However, most Christians believe that this passage refers only to idol worship and of the practice of making an object out of wood, silver, and gold that can be venerated.
The following lines from William Shakespeare's 1599-1601 play, Hamlet, indicate that myths and legends surrounding Christmas and the birth of Jesus are not a recent phenomenon. Even in religious Elizabethan England there were skeptics.
(Note: "the bird of dawning" is the rooster. Also note: the skeptical "in part" in Horatio's reply.)
Act 1, lines 156-164
Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.
The Birth of Jesus according to The Gospel of Matthew
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; 19 and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; 21 she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife 25 And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: He named him Jesus. (Note: The World English Bible says "and didn't know her sexually " in place of "knew her not". The Catholic Bible omits this statement totally and replaces it with "he had not had intercourse with her when she gave birth to a son". This is done to perpetuate the idea that Mary remained a virgin until she dies and that James was not the brother of Jesus even though most versions of The New Testament assert that he was.)
1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, 2 "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him." 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: 6 `And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.'" 7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; 8 and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." 9 When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; 11 and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
The Birth of Jesus according to The Gospel of Luke
1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. 4 This was the first enrollment, when Quirin'i-us was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city.4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. 7 And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11 for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!"
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." 16 And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; 18 and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.