by Z.S. Roe
I remember my first Christmas after learning that Santa Claus was make-believe – I think I might have been eight or nine years old. When I came down that morning, the Christmas tree was decorated with balls and tinsel and an almost obscene amount of lights. The presents were stacked high, the stockings stuffed. My two younger (and still believing) sisters stared, mystified and delighted, at the empty glass of milk and half eaten cookie left out for Santa the night before.
On the one hand, there was something particularly adult about finally knowing “the truth.” On the other hand, the sense of wonder that had always accompanied the holiday had unmistakably diminished – it was now like a shiny red balloon that had lost over half its air, laying on its side, limp and wrinkled.
But that’s a part of growing up – letting go of the fancies of childhood.
Besides, as I was told, Santa’s gift-laden trips down chimneys was not the real reason for celebrating Christmas. The real reason, of course, was the birth of Jesus Christ.
As the saying goes, Jesus is the reason for the season. And in my evangelical Christian family, this was more than just a cute bumper sticker; it was a fundamental truth. At our church, the Bible wasn’t merely a guidebook to life, but the inerrant word of God.
As a child, I believed this, too. But I left the faith in my early teens, and now (in my early thirties) identify as an agnostic atheist (as in, I don’t know if there is a god, but I believe that there probably isn’t). Even so, religion fascinates me. I studied it in university, and continue to do so to this day (particularly early, pre-Nicene Christianity).
It should come as no surprise, then, that Christmas is a fascinating time for me. I greatly enjoy the more secular aspects of the festivities, but am also fascinated by the religious history rooted in the season’s revelry.
It can’t be that complicated, though, can it? Doesn’t it all goes back to the Bible?
Well … not exactly.
THE BIBLE’S MANY TALES
Of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, only the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) give us much in the way of what Jesus said and did during his life and ministry. Of those four, only Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Curiously, these two stories are wildly at odds with each other. The discrepancies are too vast to list in full here, so I’ll touch briefly only on the problem of Bethlehem.
The writers of Matthew and Luke had to solve a sticky problem: everyone knew that the historical Jesus came from Nazareth, but he needed to be born in Bethlehem in order to be the prophesized messiah. Both writers solved this problem in their own unique way.
In Matthew, Jesus’s parents (Mary and Joseph) already lived in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, and were there for possibly as long as two years (living in a house, where the wise men find them) before fleeing to Egypt from the murderous King Herod. It is after King Herod’s death that the family relocates in Nazareth.
In the Gospel of Luke, however, Mary and Joseph start off in Nazareth and venture to Bethlehem to register for a supposed world-wide census. It’s from Luke that we get the shepherds, the inn, and the manger. Mary and Joseph return to Nazareth shortly after Mary’s given birth, rather than wait the year or so for the wise men (and never mind the flight into Egypt).
In both cases, then, the authors find a way to reconcile their Nazareth/Bethlehem problem. Trouble is, their respective solutions cannot be reconciled with each other.
Almost always, this discrepancy and all the others between the two birth narratives are simply ignored. Instead, most Christians believe that Matthew tells one part of the story and Luke tells the other. What inevitably happens is an amalgamation of the two accounts (hence why you almost always see the shepherds and the wise men arriving on the same night, that of Jesus’s birth). This leaves us with an entirely new version of the story, one not told in any of the gospels.
JESUS, THE WINTER BABY?
And then you come to the issue of the date itself, December 25th. The date is not mentioned in the Bible, and no Biblical scholar anywhere believes that the historical Jesus was born anytime near the beginning of winter. Opinions about where we got the date vary.
Some people have rightly pointed out that many of our Christmas traditions come from pagan holidays, particularly the popular Roman celebration of Saturnalia and the Norse celebration of Yule (i.e. that’s where gift giving and Christmas trees come from, respectively). But others go on to suggest that the Roman celebration of Sol Invictus on December 25th (which celebrates the birth of the sun god), was appropriated by the Christian Church in order to convert the pagan population. This is a popular theory, but it’s not without its flaws.
The more likely explanation involves an old belief that Jesus was executed on the same calendrical day that he was conceived, which places his conception on March 25th or April 6th (depending on how you translate the Jewish calendar in the Gospel of John). As this theory suggests, this is why Christians celebrate Christmas either on December 25th or January 6th (nine months after Jesus’s conception). There were many proponents of this belief in the early Church, St. Augustine chief among them (check out this YouTube video for a fuller explanation).
NO CHRISTMAS AT CHURCH
But even after the Church had settled on a date(s), there was a real struggle throughout all of Christian history to reconcile the celebration of Christ’s birth with the otherwise pagan festivities enjoyed during the same time of year. For instance, it became such a contentious issue that Christmas celebrations were outright banned both in England (1649-1660) and in Colonial America (1659). Consider also that during the late nineteenth century, Protestant churches in America wanted nothing to do with Christmas celebrations; it was the Catholic minority that led the march on that front.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until the stark commercialization of Christmas in the past fifty or so years that the Christian Church started trying to place Christ at the centre of the holiday. Historically speaking, however, that’s never been the case. Jesus’s birth has long been a part of the holiday, but has never been quite at its centre, largely because of the Church itself (watch the full History Channel documentary on Christmas by clicking here).
IN THE END …
With all this said – from the Biblical discrepancies to the misunderstood historical origins – Christmas remains my favourite holiday. It’s a goddamn mess of a holiday, and it’s meaning is always changing, but I love it all the same. And while some atheists might prefer to say “Happy Holidays” or some other such nonsense, I’ll forever say “Merry Christmas.” And it’s not because I know that Jesus has never actually been the sole “Reason for the Season.” No – even if Jesus was at the very center of this holiday, I’d still say “Merry Christmas.” I’m not afraid of Jesus – he can even sit at my dinner table on Christmas night if he wants to (so long as he doesn’t talk in parables or start comparing things to mustard seeds).
I do wonder, though, about the wisdom of Christian parents telling their children to believe in Santa Claus, a man whose existence the children have to take on faith. When they learn that Santa is make-believe, and their sense of wonder bursts like a popped balloon, you’d hate to think that they might then go on to wonder about the existence of another faith-based fella.
I mean, god forbid, they might end up writing a 1,300-word diatribe about Christmas on their blog, making sure to mention more than once that they’re an atheist and don’t believe in any of this claptrap, thank you very much. Can you even imagine? God, that sounds awful.
Opinion is a sometimes column of just that, my opinion. While opinions are like noses and everyone has one, mine are especially snotty. Please leave a comment or question—all opinions are welcome, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. If you like what you read here, please subscribe.