Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christ and Christmas

This is that time of the year when millions of chicken, goats, cows, turkeys and all other legally edible beasts lose their lives to the celebration crazed human society and, as if to mock this faunal “genocide”, their devourers moan the massacre in of gallons of alcohol and soft drinks in a world wide merry making frenzy.

The tendency of Christmas holidays to afflict the minds of men with desires, cravings and obsessions that are largely born of flesh rather than the strict scriptural teachings of the Christian faith has led to the rise of voices in Christendom questioning its spiritual authenticity.

For the hundreds of years that the controversial debate on whether Jesus was born on Christmas day has raged on two schools of thought has emerged: Those supporting Dec. 25 as the correct birth date of Christ and those calling it a hoax that conned its way into Christianity via wayward and lax church leaders. The latter base their arguments on the fact that the holyday predates the birth of Christ, with elements of its celebration being traced to ancient Egypt, Babylon and Rome.

Long before Jesus Dec. 25 was celebrated to mark three occasions; the birthday of the Unconquered Sun god or Sol Invictus, the winter solstice and Juvenalia, a feast honouring children of Rome, all of which made the season a carnival of excesses.

“Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun,” explains one ancient writer.

The Roman Church, failing to get inroads in the conversion of the masses that were deeply entrenched in paganism, began compromising by dressing the heathen customs in Christian-looking garb. In religious study this is known as transmutation where conquering religions adopt native worship tools to make the conversion less culturally shocking. This includes worshipping in the same shrines, using the same symbols and observing the same holydays.

And since no one knew the messiah’s exact date of birth, in the fourth century the Church under Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25 as Christ’s birth date principally to entice and accommodate the conversion of the hedonistic heathens.

“The festival was far too strongly entrenched in popular favour to be abolished, and the Church finally granted the necessary recognition, believing that if the day could not be suppressed, it should be preserved in honour of the Christian God. Once given a Christian basis the festival became fully established in Europe with many of its pagan elements undisturbed” explains Encyclopedia of Mythology, Religion and the Unknown.

Some of the “pagan elements” alluded here are the untamed sensual excesses, debauchery and gluttony that underlined these festivities among ancient Romans and which still resonates in many secular modern day Christmas celebrations. Other elements of paganism absorbed by the Church to please the new pagan converts were canonization, borrowed from the ancient “god-making” ritual of Euhemerus and adopting Sunday worship.

In a bid to tame the ravenous spree that this festive season triggers among their congregations church leaders introduced a theme of sharing the surplus with the needy in society, but Christmas still remains the most popular license for gluttony and unchecked indulgence.

Opponents of the December 25 thesis further argue that the events recorded in the bible during the birth of Christ are strong indicators that such a date was impossible. The scriptures say that when baby Jesus was born “there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” In the Holy Land December is a bitterly cold winter in which no sane shepherd would venture out by night.

Adam Clarke, a renown bible scholar, explains that “as these shepherds had not yet brought home their flocks, it is a presumptive argument that October had not yet commenced, and that our Lord was not born on the 25th of December, when no flocks were out in the fields; nor could He have been born later than September as the flocks were still in the fields by night. On this very ground the nativity in December should be given up.”

Clarke further argue that the fact that Mary found a room in the manger for the baby means animals were outdoors as opposed to the case in the winter where the feeding troughs were stockpiled by feeds and the barns packed with livestock. Other scholars say that with temperatures in Palestine during winter dropping as low as 4 degrees Celsius at night, putting a baby in the manger in winter with only swaddling clothes would be unthinkable and suicidal.

However some pro-Christmas historians counter this by saying the said shepherds were no ordinary sheep keepers but Levitical ones from whom the people bought the blemish-less sacrificial lambs, hence they were duty bound to remain outdoors all year round.

Emotional medieval artists, movie directors and story tellers have hugely contributed to this controversy by depicting skewed, distorted and subjective versions of the nativity scene.

Another issue pointed as a source of discrepancy by opponents of Christmas as a birth of Christ is the census that was taking place around the time the baby was born. In Luke 2:3 it is written: “Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.” The census, believed to be one of the very first ones in the Roman Empire in order to establish the number of people to be taxed, must have been one of the reasons why the inns were full.

Experts on Roman civilization have reasoned that the Emperor would not have ordered the census in winter when massive movement of people back to their birth towns would have been difficult and troublesome. Evidence backing this opinion was found in a Roman document discovered in Egypt dating back to A.D 104.

Besides, Romans were famous for their meticulous and efficient sense of social order and administrative skills from which modern day governments and military organizations derive most of their blue prints. Hence it’s argued that Quirinius, the Roman governor of Syria at that time, could never have organized a census in the dead of winter.

One author claims that this census “could hardly have been at that season (winter) for such a time would surely not have been chosen by the authorities for a public enrollment because it necessitated traveling in storms, heavy rains and mud which made journeys both unsafe and unpleasant in winter, except in especially favourable years.”

Another incidence presented as evidence against the December date is the conception and birth of John the Baptist, who happened to be a cousin of Jesus. In Luke 1:36 (NIV) an angel informs Mary that “Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in old age, and she who was to be barren is in her sixth month.” This means that John was conceived and born six months ahead of Christ and by following the temple duty roaster of the priests of the order of Abia, in which John’s father Zechariahs belonged to, it emerges that the Baptist was born around March or April according to the Roman calendar. Adding six months to this brings the birth of Christ to September or October in autumn, way ahead of Dec. 25.

Santa Claus, the mythical white haired gift giving old man riding on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeers, is yet another prominent Christmas feature that strongly points to ancient paganism. Though some people have linked this fictitious character with a St Nicholas from Myra in the Mediterranean, his fur-trimmed wardrobe, sleigh and reindeers betrays his true origins of the cold climates of the far North. While some sources trace Santa to the Northern European gods Woden and Thor, from which the days of the week Wednesday and Thursday get their names from, William Walsh in The Story of Santa Klaus claims that the figure has its roots in the Roman god Saturn and its Greek counterpart Silenus.

However the supporters of Dec. 25, who are the majority, remain resolute in their belief that Christ was born in this day. Alfred Edersheim, a Messianic Jew, summarizes radical standpoint by claiming that “there is no adequate reason for questioning the historical accuracy of this date. The objections generally made rest on grounds which seem to me historically untenable.” Peculiarly, among the gospel writers only two, Mathew and Luke, delve in the details of the birth of Christ where they notably omit the actual date and time.

Therefore the biggest question among believers across the world for ages have been whether it’s by coincidence or providence that the bible, the book on which the Christian faith is based on, never mentions “Christmas”, Christ’s birth date or anything about commemorating that birth?

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