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Is Christmas a celebration based on the Bible?
12-16-2009, 10:44 AM
Post: #1
Is Christmas a celebration based on the Bible?
Luke 2:8-11 shows that shepherds were in the fields at night at the time of Jesus’ birth. The book ‘Daily Life in the time of Jesus states: “The flocks passed the winter under cover; and from this alone it may be seen that the traditional date for Christmas, in the winter, is unlikely to be right, since the Gospel says that the shepherds were in the fields.”

The Encyclopedia Americana says: “The reason for establishing December 25 as Christmas is somewhat obscure, but it is usually held that the day was chosen to correspond to pagan festivals that took place around the time of the winter solstice, when the days begin to lengthen, to celebrate the rebirth of the sun. The Roman Saturnalia festival dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture, and to the renewed power of the sun, also took place at this time, and some Christmas customs are thought to be rooted in this ancient pagan celebration.”
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12-16-2009, 01:00 PM (This post was last modified: 12-16-2009 01:06 PM by Parousia.)
Post: #2
RE: Is Christmas a celebration based on the Bible?
(12-16-2009 10:44 AM)jwitness Wrote:  Luke 2:8-11 shows that shepherds were in the fields at night at the time of Jesus’ birth. The book ‘Daily Life in the time of Jesus states: “The flocks passed the winter under cover; and from this alone it may be seen that the traditional date for Christmas, in the winter, is unlikely to be right, since the Gospel says that the shepherds were in the fields.”

The Encyclopedia Americana says: “The reason for establishing December 25 as Christmas is somewhat obscure, but it is usually held that the day was chosen to correspond to pagan festivals that took place around the time of the winter solstice, when the days begin to lengthen, to celebrate the rebirth of the sun. The Roman Saturnalia festival dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture, and to the renewed power of the sun, also took place at this time, and some Christmas customs are thought to be rooted in this ancient pagan celebration.”

No, there is no Biblical justification for December 25 as the date of Christmas. It derives from Roman customs, official and unofficial.

The shepherds being in the fields at night suggests that perhaps they were there to guard the new born lambs from predators. This would indicate early springtime. Or if these particular animals were intended for sacrifice at the Temple, they would have been guarded constantly for both practical and ritualistic reasons.

The significance of December 25 for any purpose needs a little explaining.

Legend has it that back around 700 BCE, King Numa Pompilius established the original Roman calendar. This was not all that different from today’s calendar: 12 months, 365 days plus an extra day every four years. The winter solstice was on December 31. This made January 1 the first day to grow longer and a reason to have a holiday. Solstice related celebrations were common in many cultures. (BTW Numa himself may be only a myth, but the calendar was real.)

However Numa’s calendar did not have anything like the century rule – don’t have a leap day in century years unless the century number is divisible by 4. So 1600 and 2000 were Leap Years; 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not. Without this rule, the calendar slowly gets out of synch with the seasons. The real length of a year is not exactly 365.25 days.

In 46 BCE, Julius Caesar commissioned Greek astronomer Sisogenes to revise the calendar. The primary reason for this was that the civil calendar was in total disarray. The length of months and years were constantly being fiddled with by the priests, who owned the calendar, according to whether political incumbents or their challengers gave the biggest bribes. As a result of Sisogenes’ efforts the common calendar and the civil calendar were standardized and synchronized.

However Sisogenes discovered that ‘Sun Return’ was no longer on January 1 but on December 25. Popular celebrations moved to December 25 to be more in accord with what the Sun was really doing. These popular celebrations included the Saturnalia, based in Rome, and the more rural and very old cult of Sol Indiges. The saturnalias was actually a week long celebration that ended on the Solstice - December 24. (Note that the new calendar still did not have anything like the century rule. By the council of Nicaea in 325 CE, the Winter Solstice had crept to December 21.)

This is how the December 25 date came to mean anything at all. It would be much later before Christmas became associated with that date.

Around 220 CE, the emperor Elagabalus tried to officially establish the worship of El Gabal, a sun god of his native Syria. He chose the already popular date of December 25 as the official holiday. Some coins got minted and some lip service got paid but when he died in 222, nobody officially carried on the tradition. Elagabalus was never a popular guy. However December 25 turned out to be popular with soldiers and they carried it on, on an unofficial basis. Recall that the sun worshipping cult of Mithras was already popular with soldiers, although contrary to popular belief this was the first association of Mithras with that date.

In 274 CE, the emperor Aurelian established the cult of Sol Invictus (“the unconquered sun”). He built a temple, minted some coins and other fun stuff. There is a reference to his designating December 25 as the Sun’s birthday, but that reference dates to 354, well after the reign of Aurelian. But the Sol Invictus reference continued to appear on Roman coins until 325, even though the intervening emperors worshipped the traditional Roman deities. Sol Invictus may or may not have been admitted to the official pantheon, depending on the source.

So how did Christmas get to be December 25?

Originally there was no separate Christmas celebration. The Feast of the Epiphany was generally celebrated on January 6 but there was considerable disagreement on what was being celebrated, the birth of Christ being only one possibility. In the 2nd century, Origen argued against the idea of celebrating the birthday of Jesus as if he were an ordinary king like Herod or a pagan god. However others thought it was a good idea and proposed various dates: January 2, March 25, April 18, April 19, May 20, May 28, November 17 and November 20.

There is no record of Christmas being officially celebrated on December 25 until 336 CE. There is a tradition that this date was chosen because Christians were celebrating December 25 anyway like all their neighbors. But there is no record of that idea until centuries after the fact. But whatever the cause, Christmas on December 25 was here to stay.


So whether you want to call it the Sun’s birthday or the Son’s birthday, a very happy birthday celebration to all who wish it this December 25.
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12-16-2009, 02:10 PM
Post: #3
RE: Is Christmas a celebration based on the Bible?
Great historical perspective.

So, Parousia, do have all this knowledge in your head ready to go at a moment's notice? I ask because I usually have a hard time remembering what day it is, or if I have brushed my teeth.

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12-16-2009, 02:18 PM
Post: #4
RE: Is Christmas a celebration based on the Bible?
(12-16-2009 02:10 PM)MerryAtheist Wrote:  So, Parousia, do have all this knowledge in your head ready to go at a moment's notice? I ask because I usually have a hard time remembering what day it is, or if I have brushed my teeth.

It's mostly just what's in my head because I usually cannot remember which book I got it out of. Tongue
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