Breaking away from my schools-related posts, I thought I'd touch on the whole issue of Christmas seeing that the day is now less than two weeks away. Every year we inevitably have the politically correct crowd that "doesn't want to offend" by saying "Merry Christmas" and the equally boisterous crowd that insists on saying "Merry Christmas" and is offended when someone says "Happy Holidays". The other day I noticed some posts regarding the term "Xmas" (or "X-mas") and even a letter to the editor in the local paper. It definitely got me thinking about the nature of the Christmas holiday itself and how so many people seem to be in the dark about the origins of the Christmas holiday in terms of why we celebrate it this time of year and all of the symbols and traditions that have come to be associated with it. While I certainly won't be going into all the all the many symbols and traditions that we use in the various Christmas celebrations in the US and around the world, I will try to touch on some of the basics.
The next one that I've found a lot of people don't realize is why Christmas is celebrated in December. Was Jesus really born in December? Most likely not. Latter-day Saint tradition generally views April 6 as the day, though the church does almost nothing to formally observe or even acknowledge it and celebrates Christmas in December just like most other Christian denominations. There is also no formal church declaration of that as doctrine; it's generally interpreted from a verse in the Doctrine & Covenants and some later writings by church leaders, which explains why there is very little observance of the actual day as the birth of Christ. Instead, many very important milestones in the church's development occurred on April 6, such as the organization of the church (April 6, 1830) and the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple (April 6, 1893). The Annual General Conference is always held the first weekend of April (the October conference is called "Semiannual"). Other possibilities for the birth of Christ include the spring and October.
In looking at what's been written about Christmas and when Christ was actually born, there is still much debate and is likely one of those things that will never be settled. The first recorded instance of celebrating Christmas in December is in the 4th century AD. From what I've been finding, early Christian leaders were opposed to celebrating birthdays since birthdays were associated with Pagan rulers and observances (this is why Jehovah's Witnesses do not celebrate holidays and birthdays since the only Biblical mention of birthdays is for Herod and Pharaoh). Also, early Christmas celebrations seemed to not exclusively celebrate Christ's birth, but focused on his life as well as other Christian martyrs. Of course the term "Christmas" didn't originate until the Middle Ages since it's an English term and comes from Old English (which didn't exist in the 3rd century). The oldest mention of the Old English Crīstesmæsse dates to the year 1038. The arguments for the various dates of Christ birth are based on a variety of ideas and extrapolations. The prevailing idea is that Christmas was set in December to displace the Pagan holiday of the winter solstice. While many of the traditions and symbolism associated with Christmas today are definitely from Pagan traditions, there is no direct evidence that early Christian leaders promoted the idea of Christmas in December as a way to eradicate Pagan celebrations. My understanding from some of the writers I have read is that early Christian leaders instead interpreted many of the cosmic events during the year (solstices, equinoxes) as having religious significance. So in a way, they were similar to the Pagan ideas that the changes in the season were significant, but instead of them being something to celebrate as part of worshiping the Earth, they were related to divine worship. My personal view is that the two aren't really related. There are many ways to interpret the changing of the seasons and this is just one. One interesting note I saw about the date of Christmas was that Pope Benedict XIV (he was Pope in the 1700s) argued that the early church leaders would've known the date of Christ's birth because of the Roman census records. Sounds plausible until you think about logistics. Seeing that what became Christmas doesn't show up for a few centuries later is one problem, on top of the whole idea of Roman census records. I have never seen Roman census records to know how detailed they were, but it would seem to me that a baby born in a manger likely didn't make it onto the rolls of the ancient Roman Empire's records if they kept track of that at all. And why would the early church leaders have access to the Roman census records anyway?
I tend to proscribe to the birth in the spring (before researching this I would've said April 6th, but now I think that date has come from tradition more than an actual pronouncement of doctrine...it may very well be "the date" but so far there is no direct statement) given the mention of shepherds in the fields watching their flocks by night. Contrary to popular belief, it does actually get cold in the wintertime in the areas around Jerusalem (OK, maybe not like here in Northeast Ohio, but still!) and shepherds would not be out at night during that time of year. The whole connection with the solstice seems like an interesting thought, but more trying to create a connection and symbolism that really isn't there; more as a later way to explain what at that point could no longer be explained. In Wikipedia we would call that "synthesis" which is basically where an editor takes two or more reliable sources and comes up with a conclusion that is not directly stated in any of the sources (If A is true and B is true then C must be true). In the end, though, does it really matter? Not really. From a religious standpoint the purpose of Christmas is the most important aspect, not the complete historical accuracy. From a purely historical standpoint, it matters, but like I said, it's one of those things that's unlikely to be truly settled without a time machine or talking to the Virgin Mary herself. I'm going to go out on a limb and say neither of those are going to be available anytime soon, so we'll always have "camps" as to when Jesus was actually born. As a historian, though, it's still interesting to examine all the possibilities!
I could go on all day about Christmas itself and all the symbolism and historical accuracy. I see people get all upset about "Xmas" or too much commercialism, or Santa Claus, and I wonder how much they really know about where everything came from and why we celebrate it. It's important to analyze and examine our traditions to find out why we do them and how they developed. In doing so we have a better understanding and appreciation for them, but also we can evaluate whether or not they are worthwhile to continue keeping or if they are simply fun and enjoyable aspects of our culture.
Here's a great read that goes into more details: Dating Christmas by Andrew McGowan