Year’s ago, I went to a planetarium program called The Christmas Star. It was based on the examination of the constellations in the time cited for the birth of Christ, according to the New Testament. The theory was that the Christmas star was not one, but three stars moved or clustered together, making for its brightness. The time of year that this could have happened was in March.
The Roman Christian historian, Sextus Julius Africanus dated Jesus’ conception to March 25, which after nine months would result in a December 25 birth. The anonymous document, DePascha Computus written in North Africa around 243 CE, placed Jesus birth on March 28. A 3rd century bishop of Alexandria, Clement, thought Jesus was born on November 18. A modern Catholic theologian, Joseph Fitzmyer thinks that Christ’s birth occurred on September 11, 3 BCE.
If Jesus was born at another time of year, then why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th? The Christmas Star program proposed that the Christians shadowed their celebration of the birth of Christ amidst the pagan holiday, Saturnalia, in order to protect themselves from their nonobservance of the pagan festivities.
Saturnalia, a weeklong holiday, was celebrated between December 17-25. In its earlier years, it generally was a time of accepted lawlessness and indulgences. Some practices included choosing a victim to represent the ‘Lord of Misrule.’ This person was ‘forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.’ Roman law also mandated that no one could be prosecuted or punished for injuring another person or destruction to property. The Greek poet and historian, Lucian described the practices in his time, including rape, drunkenness, going from house to house singing naked and eating human-shaped biscuits.
In the 3rd century, the Romans had not yet adopted Christianity as the official religion. They celebrated Sol Invictus (the rebirth of the Unconquered Son, which celebrated the winter solstice and longer days) on December 25th, which followed Saturnalia that now included gift giving. It also was the birthday of Mithras an eastern deity that was popular among the Roman soldiers.
In the 4th century under Constantine, Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival in attempt to sway the pagan masses with it and to displace the prominent worship of Mithras. ‘Christian leaders succeeded in converting to Christianity large numbers of pagans by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians.’ Some believe that the selection of December 25th as Christ’s birthday was intended as a political attempt to weaken the established pagan practices and celebrations. This date was not totally accepted in the Eastern Empire where January 6, the feast of the Epiphany or Three Kings, was favored for another half-century. Christmas did not become a major Christian festival until the 9th century.
Many of the modern, popular traditions and customs associated with Christmas and practiced in different countries are a mixture of pre-Christian, secular, and Christian sources and themes. Some holiday practices include Christmas trees, gift giving, caroling, food, nativity scenes, garland, wreaths and mistletoe. Also, the interchangeable figures known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas and Kris Kringle are associated with bringing gifts to children.
I think the spirit of Christmas is more important than the holiday’s origin or the exact day that Christ was born. Today, Christmas is a symbol that goodness and light came into and filled the world, despite the dark times and souls that share our earthly stage. A child born in a humble place grew to become ‘the Son of Man’ whose teaching changed hearts, minds, and lives.
Buon Compleanno, Gesù.
‘O morning stars together Proclaim the holy birth . And praises sing to God the King And Peace to men on earth.’
O Little Town of Bethlehem