The way I heard it, Christ wasn’t born on Christmas
December 9, 2005
Dec. 25 was chosen by the early Christians as the day of Jesus’ birth because the Roman post offices were closed on that day anyway. The common assumption back then was that the boy from Nazareth was actually born sometime in the spring, but the 25th was the start of the Romans’ annual year-end holiday – a seven-day, all-out bacchanal of eating, drinking and drinking some more. The early Christians decided to celebrate the birth of their savior by not celebrating debauchery with the Romans. Instead of partying in their togas, they chose to quietly gather in their houses – as well as their clandestine churches. Christmas came about because the Christians decided the last thing they wanted to do was align themselves with the culture of the day.Times change.
Now we have countless semi-pious politicians proclaiming they want just the opposite. Arguments for public displays of what once was private devotion are being made in courtrooms all over America. Crèches that contain the proscribed participants are demanded by religious demagogues from small towns to major cities. But a quick look at the Christian scriptures will provide scant evidence for the plaintiffs’ arguments. For instance, “Away in the Manger” has us singing about cattle lowing, but there isn’t any mention of such bovine activity in the Bible. The folk who feel the need to depict this dramatic retelling should at least get their facts straight. No cows. No sheep either, according to Matthew and Luke. And while we’re at it, what exactly is “lowing” anyway?The shepherds are out in their fields, not huddled in the innkeeper’s barn. And as for the barn, Matthew has it all taking place in a house up front rather than a stable out back. And the wise men? The same book doesn’t indicate their number or their occupation.
According to the Bible, they may have been wise, but they weren’t kings and there could have just as easily been 13 as three. So before we start placing those figurines in the public square, let’s do a little checking of the facts. And speaking of facts, even though there are conflicting references in the Bible, most Biblical scholars are now convinced that Jesus was born sometime between 6 and 4 B.C.E. which, I’m afraid, makes all of us several years older than we thought.All of this is so confusing. It may be why both Saints Mark and John left the whole birthing business out of their gospels. Sometimes, I feel like doing the same.There are times when I’m tempted to just ignore the twinkling lights and pass through the last week of December in blissful ignorance. What pleasure it would be to enter January without the worry of Christmas cards yet to be sent or Christmas bills yet to be paid.
Such fantasizing is fruitless, of course. We are quickly approaching this Roman holiday that many of us have claimed as our own. I’ve only just managed to put up the Christmas tree and have yet to hang the lights – even though both traditions, according to reliable sources, are Christmas gifts from pagans. Still, although the historical inaccuracies are abundant and the theological conclusions are often a muddle, I find myself drawn to the mystery and wonder of this holy season. Oh, I’ll still grumble and I may even grinch but, in the end, I suspect I’ll treasure this time of year – again.Rich Mayfield writes a Saturday column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.