23 June 2011

The origins of Christmas

I once had to mark a university assignment, set by someone else, on the origins of the celebration of Christ’s nativity. So I read all the literature that had been recommended to the students, and tried to follow it up. All I found was speculations and urban legends (which the students swallowed, hook line and sinker).

So I devised my own scenario.

Bishop: These Arians denying the incarnation of Christ are becoming tiresome. The Council of Nicaea didn’t shut them up, and now they’re propagating their nonsense with advertising jingles. Even the emperoro, who subsidised the council, is beginning to waver.

Priest: What say we have a special day to commemorate the Incarnation? I know we do it on 6 January, but the adoptionists have been misinterpreting that. Let’s have one on a different day.

Bishop: Good idea. How about the day that Jesus was born.

All priests: Amen to that.

Bishop: Um, which day WAS Jesus born on?


Bishop: Deacon Dionysius, go and research it, and report back at the next clergy meeting.


Bishop: Well, Deacon, did you find out when Jesus was born?

Deacon: Not exactly, but I did search the scriptures and St Luke say’s he was conceived in the sixth month, six months after his cousin John the Baptist, and it does imply that it could have been the sixth month of the year.

Bishop: Well, that settles it. The first of April, then. Six months from New Year takes us to 1 July, and nine months after that takes us to the first of April.

Priest: Um, Your Eminence, that’s April Fool’s Day.

Another priest: It’s also the middle of Lent.

Deacon: But it was probably the Jewish New Year, not the imperial one.

Bishop: Right let’s hear it then. When is the Jewish New Year?

Deacon: Well, that’s the problem. It’s usually sometime in September but it changes from year to year.

Bishop: When was it last year?

Deacon: On 25 September.

Bishop: Right, that settles it. Six months from then is 25th March, where we can have the Annunciation. Yes, I know it’s Lent, but let people eat fish for a break. Add nine months to that and we’ll have a bash for our Lord’s birthday on 25 December. Oh, and to balance things up we’ll commemorate St John the Baptist’s birthday on 25 June. No, make that 24th, or people will start thinking 25 is a lucky number or something. Any other business? I declare this meeting cl… Oh, by the way: Deacon Dionysius, go and do some proper research and draw up a decent calendar showing when Jesus was born. No hurry, take your time over it and do a good job. We’ve got the thing we need to counter the Arians’ nonsense for now.

Roses are reddish
Violets are blueish
If it weren’t for Christmas
We’d all be Jewish.

Ungrounded speculation?

Of course.

But so is all the other stuff I’ve read about the origins of Christmas.


Note, this was prompted by a discussion on another blog, Winter Soulstice Matariki | Liturgy:

Winter (Summer) Solstice this year is June 22. The Northern Hemisphere Winter Solstice is linked to Christmas and winter has a number of liturgical and folk celebrations. If we want to embody liturgy better into the Southern Hemisphere – how might we celebrate it? Would we link it to the birth of John the Baptist (June 24)? [I'm not sure how we in the Southern Hemisphere can make anything special of a John the Baptist focus]

... and the comments that followed.

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