The mystery of December 25th

The other day we looked at how religion news can appear in a review of a museum exhibit -- that is, outside of news pages. Last week a reader noted a couple of advice columns that discussed religion. The Oakland Tribune's "Growing Older" column discussed holidays for people who are not religious. And the Washington Post's Carolyn Hax had a religion-themed advice column. Here's the last question and answer:

Dear Carolyn:

What do you say to a family member who doesn't want to go to Christmas Eve services with the family because the church is not her religion (she decided she was a pagan a few years ago), but shows up bright and early Christmas morning to get her Christmas presents? I grit my teeth every time she gleefully opens her gifts!

Mrs. Scrooge

If you're looking to enforce religious purity, Christmas isn't the place to start. The date itself traces more credibly to winter-solstice traditions than to the birth of Christ. And, American-style Christmas was cobbled together in the 1800s, using Christian, pagan, commercial, literary and various other cultural bits and pieces. If your sister isn't giving gifts as well as receiving, then you have a case. Otherwise, smile and think generous thoughts (also a Christmas tradition).

Preach it, Rev. Dr. Carolyn Hax! Send forth the decree: Christmas is so not the place to care about silly things like religion. This is not a surprising doctrine to find espoused in the Washington Post's sacred Style section. But it's the second line of her response that I want to highlight. It's just one of many examples you can find of newspapers and other media outlets advancing the theory that Christmas was given the date of Dec. 25 in order to co-opt Sol Invictus.

This idea was put forth a few centuries ago by two different scholars, one trying to show how the church could Christianize Pagan holidays and the other trying to show how nefarious the liturgical calendar was. The theory was popularized by folks in the latter group.

So is that the end of the story? Is Hax right that the date "more credibly" traces to winter-solstice traditions? The fact is that this anti-liturgical calendar theory is not the only one out there. Associated Press religion reporter Richard Ostling wrote on the topic 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 Sol Invictus, 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, [William] Tighe [, a church history specialist at Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College] 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.

And the reason why the Eastern church celebrated, and some still celebrate, Christ's birth on January 6 was because they were using different calendars. You can read more about this theory in Tighe's essay over at Touchstone.

Anyway, the point is not that one theory about Dec. 25 is right and one is wrong but that journalists should not decide from the pulpit that one theory is right and ignore the other.

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