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Christmas: facts, fantasies & fabrications (1)

By Douglass Anele
Christmas is here again, an indication of the cyclic nature of time.
The fever has gripped all the nooks and crannies of the globe. In the major cities of Nigeria, Santa Claus’s cheery face is emblazoned at shop entrances and windows.

A trip to the major markets in Lagos is a tedious undertaking at this time, because everybody is hustling about, pulling and pushing all in a bid to buy one thing or another. Of course, petty thieves and pickpockets are on the prowl, cleverly stealing from people’s handbags and pockets.

Business people and transporters have already mapped out strategies aimed at profit maximisation. Unfortunately, many of the roads in the country, especially federal roads in the South-East, are in terrible condition, which means that road accidents will increase there, from now till after the New Year celebrations.

According to “The Truth about Christmas,” an incisive essay on Christmas published in the December 2010 edition of Awake, Christmas celebration has spread to non-Christian countries such as China, Indonesia, Japan, Lebanon and Turkey.

The article reports that in the West “Christmas is now largely secular and commercial, with many ads blatantly pitched at children.” Millions of Christians still go to church on Christmas day. However, it is the well-decorated shopping malls playing Christmas carols that have become the new temples. As a result of relentless commercialisation, people are agitated and worried over how to buy Christmas gifts for their loved ones. Some of them will borrow money to meet the expectations of family members and friends.

So, there is no scintilla of doubt that Christmas, which is supposed to mark the birthday of Jesus Christ, the most iconic spiritual teacher in human history (according to Christians), has evolved into a celebration of rabid materialism, debauchery and razzmatazz.

But, how did this come about? Is it connected to the largely non-Christian origin of Christmas itself? Was Jesus actually born on Christmas day, that is, 25th of December? What are the historical origins of Christmas? Using the aforementioned article in Awake as our guide, we can begin to give concise answers to these and other related questions.

Most Christians, particularly in Nigeria, do not know that Christmas celebrations developed from non-Christian sources. Tradition has it that Jesus was actually born on December 25, and his birthday is celebrated on that date. As a matter of fact, ‘Christmas’ means ‘Christ’s Mass,’ that is, the mass commemorating the feast of Christ’s nativity, or birth.

The Christmas Encyclopedia states that canonisation of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday did not evolve from biblical precedent, but from Roman festivals held at the end of every year, about the time of winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.

Those festivals included the Saturnalia, in honour of Saturn, god of agriculture, and the combined festivals of two sun gods, Sol and Mithra from Rome and Persia respectively. Both birthdays were celebrated on December 25, the winter solstice, according to the Julian calendar.

The metamorphosis or adaptation of these celebrations into Christian practice began in 350 A.D, when Pope Julius 1 proclaimed December 25 a Christ’s birthday. The nativity gradually absorbed and supplanted all other solstice rites, while solar imagery became increasingly prominent in depicting the notion of “the risen Christ” or sol invictus, and the old solar disk was transformed into haloes around the heads of Christian saints.

Now, granted that The Bible contains narratives of questionable historicity, and although, contrary to what most Christians think, the question of whether indeed, the individual named Jesus in the Gospels actually existed is far from settled, Christmas celebration was never recommended in the Christian scripture. In fact,

The Bible did not state the actual date Jesus was born – it merely gave geographical and seasonal indications of the birth and early circumstances of Jesus.

In Luke 2:8, for instance, The Bible suggests that when Jesus was born, shepherds were living out of doors herding their sheep at night near Bethlehem. According to Awake, October usually marks the commencement of the cold rainy season in the area of Christ’s nativity, and, at such period shepherds, especially in the colder highlands such as those around Bethlehem, brought their flock into protected shelters at night.

The coldest weather, occasionally accompanied by snow, was usually experienced in December, making that period inappropriate for shepherds to tend their animals at night.

Thus, it appears that, judging from biblical account concerning the birth of Jesus and the weather condition of Bethlehem and its environs, it is unlikely that he was born in December. Another work published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses entitled ”Insight on the Scriptures” suggested that Jesus was born during the ancient Jewish month of ethanim, that is, in September or October. It should be pointed out at this juncture that there is nowhere in The Bible where Jesus celebrated his birthday, or enjoined his followers to do so.

The pioneer Christians, some of whom accompanied Jesus in his missionary work, never celebrated it on any date. But interestingly, during the Last Supper with his 12 disciples, Jesus asked them to commemorate his death (Luke 22: 17-20).

Two of the most popular manifestations of mythology in modern Christmas are the phenomenon of Santa Claus and the Christmas tree, the latter arising from ancient superstition connected to the god of agriculture. In many countries today, including Nigeria, it is generally believed by children that Santa Claus actually brings presents to them.

To be continued.


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