Holy Day Whack-a-Mole

whackamoleMerry sixth day of Christmas to all. We have commented previously on some of the downtick in War on Christmas media hype. I noticed there were also fewer stories claiming that Christmas was created by Christians to replace pagan holidays. And then in a really interesting and important piece by The Washington Post's Shankar Vedantam, the allegation rose again:

Perhaps the earliest claim on Christmas was the strategic decision by the early church to Christianize non-Christian festivals that occurred around the winter solstice.

"In the early centuries of the church, they debated whether they should fix a date to celebrate the nativity," explained [Jack] Santino [who studies folklore and popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio]. "They chose December 25: 'People are celebrating the birth of the sun, and we should convince them to celebrate the birth of the Son.'"

Now I have no idea how far along in his studies Mr. Santino is, but both he and Vedantam should know there is more to the discussion of how Christmas came to be celebrated. As I wrote last year, I realize this belief about Christmas' pagan origins is a popular notion. But it should not be inserted into stories on blind faith. The theory is only a few centuries old, created and widely trumpeted by those who thought the liturgical calendar was pernicious. But the important thing is that there is another, older theory. I'm not saying one theory is right and one theory is wrong, but reporters should not just pick one theory and run with it.

Associated Press reporter Richard Ostling wrote about it a few years ago, first describing the theory that says Christians stole a pagan festival for Christmas. Then he cited other research, including Hippolytus of Rome's Chronicle, written three decades before Aurelian launched Saturnalia, that says Jesus' birth "took place eight days before the kalends of January," that is, Dec. 25. He speaks with William Tighe, a church historian at Muehlenberg College:

Tighe said there's evidence that as early as the second and third centuries, Christians sought to fix the birth date to help determine the time of Jesus' death and resurrection for the liturgical calendar -- long before Christmas also became a festival.

The New Testament Gospels say the Crucifixion happened at the Jewish Passover season. The "integral age" concept, taught by ancient Judaism though not in the Bible, held that Israel's great prophets died the same day as their birth or conception.

Quite early on, Tighe said, Christians applied this idea to Jesus and set the Passover period's March 25 for the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she would give birth. Add nine months to the conception date and we get Dec. 25.

The point of Vedantam's piece is the relationship between commerce and Christmas. In his excellent book The Sacred Santa, religion professor Dell DeChant shows how Christmas is a holy season in this country but it's not Christian. The liturgical season extends from Thanksgiving -- or earlier -- until after the last post-Christmas sale. Worship centers are not churches but malls and Santa is the incarnation of our consumerism god. We even take children to the worship centers to sit on Santa's lap and tell him their hopes and dreams. And we keep icons of him at home.

Here's how Vedantam characterizes the change:

Business magnates who had once protested that holidays such as Christmas were a drain on the economy spotted the business potential of Christmas and encouraged the idea of gift-giving among family. Where Christmas gifts had once been primarily about charity, advertisers and marketers encouraged the notion that Christmas was primarily a family celebration and stressed the importance of reciprocal gift exchanges for friends and relatives. By the 20th century, American marketing geniuses led by Coca-Cola had seized on the advertising potential of Santa Claus. Although Santa's ancestors in Europe and Asia had various religious connotations, the modern Santa is an American invention, with growing appeal in Europe and around the world.

German immigration had quite a bit to do with the uptick in Christmas, of course. Germans celebrated Christmas both as a religious day and family day. The hearth and home aspects were a bit too alluring to reject, even if the religious aspects are regularly dismissed. Still, it's a great and important idea that Vendantam explores.

Photo via Flickr.

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