18 December 2008

Urban legends about Christmas

Recently someone posted a few items about Christmas on an interfaith discussion forum. The problem was that each item began with or contained statements about Christmas that were manifestly untrue.

Here's one:

Oh, no -- more hysteria over Christmas from Bill O'Reilly, joined now by Gretchen Carlson, the blinkered bigot host of some other Fox program. The dialog is hilariously stupid. Billo blows it early, claiming that Christmas marks "the birth of Jesus Christ, which is what the holiday is based on", which is simply not true (Source: Pharyngula).

Now I don't know who Bill O'Reilly or Gretchen Carlson are, but claiming that the statement that Christmas marks the birth of Jesus Christ is "untrue" (and implying that it is "hysteria") is, well, untrue.

That's like saying that it is untrue to say that your birthday party commemorates the anniversary of your birth (and hysterical to boot).

As we approach Christmas, urban legends about Christmas proliferate, but that has to be the most ridiculous one I've seen yet.

Here's another, from the same poster:

Early in its history, the Catholic Church proclaimed December 25th as Christmas. Several centuries later Pope Gregory corrected the calendar. 12 days were displaced from the Julian calendar. What had been December 25 was now January 6. The Eastern Church refused to go aloing with the calendar change and continued to observe Christmas on the OLD December 25 which was now January 6 in the West. The Western Church still wanted to give some sort of holiness to the original December 25 so they proclaimed it a new holiday, Epiphany. Thus were born the 12 days of Christmas.

He doesn't give a source for that one. Unlike the first one, it doesn't make glaring errors of logic. But it strings together a series of historical "facts", most of which are wrong, or have wrong inferences drawn from them, or both.

So what really happened?

Until about the 4th century, Christians celebrated the birth of Christ along with his baptism on 6 January (as the Armenians still do today).

Some time in early 4th century a separate commemoration of the birth of Christ began to be observed on 25 December, probably beginning in Rome. It spread throughout the Christian world (with the exception of Armenia, as noted above).

When the Gregorian calendar was first introduced in the 16th century it was 10 days ahead of the Julian Calendar. The gap grows by a day a century, except when the end of century year is divisible by 400 -- so it did not increase in 1600 and 2000. The gap is now 13 days, and in the 22nd century it will be 14 days.

This means that "Old Christmas" (which is still kept by some Orthodox Churches) is on Gregorian 7 January, not 6 January. In the Old (Julian) Calendar Theophany (Epiphany) is on 19 January Gregorian.

So the story, as posted, gets the whole thing backwards. But that is typical of the urban legends about Christmas.

And here's a third one, also from the same poster (no source quoted):

Christmas has a difficult history. Until recently, Christmas was not a major celebration. When the Protestants had their reformation, Christmas came under attack, specifically in England. It was called a Catholic holiday and many employers would fire their workers if they did not show up for work on December 25.

I suppose that one depends on what you think "recently" means. For Christians, Christmas has been a major celebration for at least 1000 years, and probably a lot longer than that.

In the Orthodox Church the Nativity of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Christmas for short) is preceded by a 40-day fast. The only other feast preceded by a fast of that length is Pascha. That makes it major.

Now I'm sure the poster (who isn't a Christian) was not being malicious when he posted these in the discussion forum. He maybe thought that with Christmas approaching they were timely and had interesting information. The problem is that most of the information was wrong. I suggested that he might do better to post information about festivals of his own religion, where he could be more discerning to check that the information was accurate before posting it.

But I give these three examples of a common phenomenon, especially at this time of year. The urban legends about Christmas are often spread by the media, and people pick them up by the way. The recipes columns of the newspaper will publish a page of traditional Christmas recipes, and the writer of the column, who may know something about cookery, but little or nothing about the history of religious festivals, might preface it with a couple of half-digested paragraphs compiled from an encyclopaedia article or two. And so these weird and wonderful urban legends about Christmas (and other things) spread.

So here's a tip for any journalist who has been told by their editor to produce a column on Christmas and its origin, and the folk customs associated with it, and their origin. The book to read is The stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain by Ronald Hutton. Even if you aren't in Britain, Hutton's book will do for the English-speaking world. Hutton is a careful and competent historian, and knows what he's talking about.

There also the stories one also sees around Christmas time to the effect that Christmas was "originally" Yuletide, which was celebrated at about the same time. This too is an urban legend, and a moment's thought will show how ridiculous it is.

It's a bit like saying that the Feast of the Annunciation on 25 March was "originally" Greek independence day, and that that was why the date was chosen.

The fact is that there are only 365 days in a year, and that if you look at a particular day when a religious or other group has a particular celebration, you will probably find another group that celebrates something else on the same day. It may be that two groups that have different celebrations on the same day may encounter each other, and each may borrow some aspects of the other group's celebration. This doesn't necessarily mean that the meaning changes.

Among Orthodox Christians who follow the Gregorian calendar, for example, the following are commemorated on the same day:

  • St Andrew, Archbishop of Crete (712)
  • St Martha, mother of St Simeon Stylites the Younger (554)
  • St Andrew Rublev, Iconographer (c 1447)
  • Burial of St Andrew, Prince of Bogoliubsk (1174)
  • St Finbar, Abbot of Innis Doimlile (6th)
  • St Andrew the Russian of Cairo (1174)
  • St Donatus of Libya, Bishop
  • Martyrs Theodotus and Theodota at Caesarea in Cappadocia (108)
The day is 4 July.

This does not mean that all those commemorations are derived from US independence day.

19 comments:

Fr. Andrew said...

I find this a useful article to spread about at this time of year.

Yewtree said...

I have linked to your blogpost and the above-mentioned article from my page of Seasonal Customs (corrections and suggestions welcome via email of course).

Yewtree said...

Hmm, just another thought though, with reference to the Calculating Christmas article.

Since Christianity was trying to supplant ancient paganism, it's hardly surprising if the pagans tried to do something about it. If the early Church had been happy to leave people to their paganism, most pagans would have been happy to leave the Christians to do their thing. (Though obviously the Roman state wanted them to sacrifice to the numen of the Emperor.)

Steve Hayes said...

Fr Andrew and Yewtree,

Thanks for the links.

James Higham said...

In Russia, we celebrated it on January 7th and old New Year was on the 13th.

Yewtree said...

Hi again Steve,

There's rather a good article about this in the New York Times, with Inklingiana thrown in for good measure. Yay!

Steve Hayes said...

Yewtree,

Yes, a good article -- thanks for that link too.

Donna Farley said...

Thank you for this excellent post and the tip about the Hutton book-- sounds like something I should have read before I wrote about the seasons of the church year myself!

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bigblue said...

Hi Steve,

This is interesting, and very factual, but there must be some co-incidence between the Solstice festival (going back thousands of years before Christ) and the position of Christmas in our modern Calendar?

We all know that shepherds weren't watching their flocks in the middle of winter...

Fr. Andrew said...

Winter at 31 degrees north latitude is decidedly milder than it is further north. The average high in December in Jerusalem is 57F/14C (the average low is 42F/6C), which is just the sort of weather I like to be out in. It doesn't really snow much in the Middle East, either.

As for the solstice festivals, there's actually quite little evidence for their pre-Christian existence. Even then, is it so strange that pagans would connect to something God created and then later revealed with its full meaning?

bigbluemeanie said...

Hi Fr. Andrew,

I also understood that winter was not the time of the year that the census was conducted?

In any case I have no problems with everyone sharing the festival, and with it having many layers of meaning (perhaps the full meaning not yet fully revealed).

"Shall we liken Christmas to the web in a loom? There are many weavers, who work into the pattern the experience of their lives. When one generation goes, another comes to take up the weft where it has been dropped. The pattern changes as the mind changes, yet never begins quite anew. At first, we are not sure that we discern the pattern, but at last we see that, unknown to the weavers themselves, something has taken shape before our eyes, and that they have made something very beautiful, something which compels our understanding.

(Earl W Count 4000 Years of Christmas)

Steve Hayes said...

bigbluemeanie,

I'm not sure that we all "know" that shepherds weren't watching their flocks in the middle of winter. While I've seen assertions to that effect, I've not seen any proof, and of course proving it would be quite difficult given the lapse of time -- even if there were published studies of sheep-rearing practices in the region in the period in question, they would be unlikely to have survived this long.

Not that it makes much difference. My grandmother celebrated her birthday three days off the actual date, and according to my mother when she discovered the discrepancy she was quite worried about it, but the fact is that the celebration of her birthday was the celebration of her birth, regardless of which day she happened to be born on, and saying it is not true that birthday celebrations are the celebration of someone's birth is quite ridiculous.

Cory said...

Hi, saw thin link to your blog post in a Usenet post.

You talk about people not putting forth their sources and making unsupported assertions. Well, your blog post does exactly the same thing - you "it was really thus and so", but then you don't provide any supporting evidence either.

Got any compelling reason why one should believe your unsupported assertions as opposed somebody else's?

bigbluemeanie said...

Hi Steve,

I personally don't mind celebrating my birthday in June or December but I do think it's a happy coincidence that Christmas, celebrating the entry of light into darkness*, occurs at the same time as this universal** celebration of the begining of the return of the sun.

Or perhaps it's not a coincidence, but these different celebrations are drawing water from the same deep well.

* this is how it will be stated at midnight mass in my local church tonight
** in the Northern hemisphere anyway

Steve Hayes said...

Cory,

Do you dispute any of the assertions I made? Which ones? I gave a general source - Ronald Hutton's book. You'll find most of them there.

But let's start with the first one, that one's birthday is the celebration of the anniversary of one's birth.

Collins dictionary: birthday. n. 1a an anniversary of the day of one's birth. 1b (as a modifier): a birthday present 2. the day on which a person was born. 3. any anniversary.

Matt Stone said...

You remind me I must read the Hutton book

Yewtree said...

Talking of disinformation, I'll leave you to comment on this confusing tangle...

Hope you are having a splendid Christmas. We're going mumming later.

Steve Hayes said...

Yewtree,

It's to early in the morning to even attempt to follow such incoherent ramblings -- I think I'll give it a miss.

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