Friday, December 16, 2011

Understanding Christmas

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 first is the term "Xmas", which is often spelled with a hyphen "X-mas".  Every year without fail I see Facebook posts or other public comments that bemoan this term as "crossing out Christ's name".  While I prefer not to use "Xmas", it has nothing to do with "crossing Christ's name out", and as I've been able to read a little more about the term itself, I've learned a lot about the early Christian church.  Of course the word "Christmas" itself comes from "Christ's Mass".  Using "X", though, as a symbol for Christ is at least 1,000 years old. It has nothing to do with "crossing his name out", but is rather more of an abbreviation of the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, which translates to Christ.  The "Chi-Rho" (Greek letters X and P) is a symbol that draws on the first two letters of that word and is commonly used to symbolize Christ himself.  I have seen it frequently used in Protestant churches.  Basically, what we call "X" is the Greek letter "Chi" and is pronounced "Eks te" rather than how we say "eks" (so Xmas was pronounced "eks te mas" not "eks mas").  Using "X" is actually a long-established symbol for Christ and to me is similar to the Jewish practice of using "Adonai" (translates to "Lord") in the scriptures rather than use the name of God.  It's not a matter of "crossing out" God's name, but rather a matter of high reverence and respect for His name.  That's how I see "X".  It wasn't created for convenience, but rather as a sign of respect for the title (and yes "Christ" is a title, not his actual name).  While using "X" for Christ is at least 1,000 years old, using "Xmas" is hundreds of years old itself; it's not a modern invention of people trying to remove Christ's name or make it more "politically correct".  It's simply an alternate and long-established way to write "Christ". 

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 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


  1. Jon,

    The Roman census was not a listing like the US census. It was a counting of the people in their homes often in the week or month of a religious festival. (see the the Domesday Book of the eleventh century)During that period itinerant workers were requires to return to their family home, making counting easier. The documents count by property, a farm or town house and would list the number of men, women and children in each, further dividing men into those of military age and those beyond it or unfit. These would be totaled by colonia then passed up to provincial and higher rulers. So it very unlikely we would see "Yosef ben Heli" or "Yeshua ben Yosef" in a written document unless Joseph was the family patriarch at that time (therefore responsible for providing the labor or wealth for colonial projects.

    If a record of the census existed in Rome in the reign of Augustus (Octavian) and was fortunate to be preserved it is unlikely to have been carried to Milan in the third century when the administrative and military capital was moved from Rome to that city (Rome was kept as the ceremonial capital). However, if at Milan in the early fifth century when the capital was moved to Ravenna for defensive reasons (Ravenna was in the middle of a large area of marshes and swamps, reachable only on a few viaducts) why would the records of a part of another nation (the Eastern later Byzantine Empire) be important to retain?. But if the document survived then after a century of rule by the Ostrogoths, it would have come into the possession of first Byzantines and later the Papal States. From there it would have become part of the Vatican library. It has not been mentioned as part of the census of Quininus which contain the results of that census, so it is unlikely to exist in a recognized form.

    The climate of Bethlehem in the first century was a little cooler than today (annual low of 33F) but by April the weather has changed to the warmer side, like around 50F. Sheep are seasonal breeders and the time of the birth of their lambs is designed to coincide with the first growth of their food source, mostly grasses. Sheep have a gestation of 21 weeks. Since cold weather precluded breeding much beyond the beginning of November, lambing is pretty much done by week 13 of the next year (week 13 is the end of March). Sheep do not naturally give birth in a crowd, leaving the flock as labor commences, so the ewes need to be outside and watched for their protection. By the time a lamb is three weeks old it needs grass and plenty of it. So if we assume gestation starts in October, then March is the lambing month and the lambs are weaning in April. April is the month the need for food balloons and the flocks must be outside. Flocks are either penned (when inactive) or or in pasture. When in pasture the herders are there to keep the herd where it is supposed to be and to discourage predation.

    Rams and ewes are brought together in enclosures for rutting, so the sheep at this season are penned. Luke says the sheep were in the fields, unlikely in October. It is also not likely at night, contrary to tradition, unless they are far from home or being driven to slaughter. So the shepherds were likely visited by the herald angel during daylight and traveled to Bethlehem during daylight as well owing to the dangers of night travel.

  2. Thanks for the additional information! That's what my understanding of the Roman census was, certainly nothing like we think of a census today that gives very specific details about households and names of people who live there. That's why I would be doubtful that even if early church leaders DID somehow have access to the census records that they would provide any actual evidence of Jesus' actual birthday. I doubt the records survived anyway, though it would be neat if they did. I will eventually have some posts about ancient Rome. I don't consider myself an expert by any means, but I do love the history of the Roman Empire.

    That was always my understanding of the whole process with sheep too. I think a lot of people assume that since modern Israel is a desert that it's always warm and while warmer in the winter than say, Ohio, it's not warm all year. April has always made sense to me, even if it wasn't specifically April 6 (it could be!), I would consider April the strongest candidate.