Personality theorist, George Kelly is best remembered for his theories regarding Personal Construct psychology. Everyone has their own opinions and perspectives of the world that they personally construct. Some are learned and some are natural – but different through the eyes and ears of each beholder.
In western civilization, Christmas has become more than Jesus’ birthday. It’s a massive commercial empire more than a religious holiday. Christmas is often preceded by the Winter Solstice. This is a natural event of the longest night and shortest day. Stemming back thousand of years before Jesus, what are referred as pagans believed this to be a very special day.
Christmas and the Winter Solstice is very integrated into our collective unconscious, enforced with many stimuli. These deep memories are stirred with more connections than everyday occurrences. These are special events but, like all memories, are personally constructed with different meanings and associations. As with all memories, there may be distortions and wavering thoughts that are clouded by myths, legends, folklore, and forgotten history. Christmas and the Winter Solstice are very real constructs and, in many ways, shared. Are they faithful and true?
Do you know what you did yesterday? How about last week or last month or last year? Most of us only remember small percentages. So, based on the New Testament, how accurate is our belief that Jesus was born December 25, Christmas? We are born with acceptable suppositions that may or may not be true or false? Yet, with the aid and sharing of the Internet, we can collect fragments of history and render opinions. Is it likely that Jesus was born December 25 or is the Son’s birth confused with pagan perceptions of the Sun’s birth? When is Christmas?
Are we celebrating the birth of the Son or the Sun? December may be marked by Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but for pagans it’s the time to celebrate Yule. The holiday marks the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere (Sunday, Dec. 21, this year) and celebrates the rebirth of the sun and beginning of winter. It is one of the oldest winter celebrations known.
The pagans were pantheists, believing in the observed environment. Goddesses were esteemed because they could bring new life to their world. Yule is deeply rooted in the cycle of the year, it is the seed time of year, the longest night and the shortest day. The Goddess once again becomes the Great Mother and gives birth to the new Sun. The Yule festival was already closely associated with the birth of older Pagan gods like Oedipus, Theseus, Hercules, Perseus, Jason, Dionysus, Apollo, Mithra, Horus, and other pantheistic religions worshipped by the plain folk. The birth of the Sun might easily be confused with the birth of the Son. In a way Christmas and Winter’s Night may be brethren of uniquenesses and contrasts that were mutually supportive in historic contexts.
During the times of the Roman Empire, Roman pagans celebrated Saturnalia around December 25. The celebration holiday endured for over a 1,000 years. The story of the Saturnalia focuses first and foremost on the god Saturn himself. This deity is often linked to a Greek model like Chronos, but when examining the origins of the ancient Roman version we see there is a loose affiliation. For the Romans, the god Saturn ruled over the area of Latium in a kind of golden age, before mankind had to toil for their livelihood. As with most pagan roots, Saturnalia has a Garden of Eden basis. Saturnalia was an agricultural deity, the god of fruitfulness and fertility.
Saturnalia was a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17-25. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration.
The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community selected a victim whom they 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. Those Romans!
The New Testament gives no date or year for Jesus’ birth. The earliest gospel – St. Mark’s, written about 65 CE – begins with the baptism of an adult Jesus. This suggests that the earliest Christians lacked interest in or knowledge of Jesus’ birthdate.
Luke 3:1,23 indicates that when Jesus turned 30 years old, it was the 15th year of Tiberius reign. Historians believe that the reign of Tiberius was from September 14-AD to 37-AD.
The New Testament also implies that Joseph and Mary were travelling to register for the Roman census and tax collection. This would likely be at harvest time. That would claim Jesus might have been born near Autumn – September or October.
In the third century, a document known as the Pascha-Computus cites opinions that were going on at the time. According to their calculations March may have been Jesus birth.
There were no standard calendars available to pinpoint whether it was December 25 or another time. At the time of Jesus, there was the Hebrew biblical calendar, the Egyptian calendar, and the Roman calendar. All were different.
In that region, paganism reigned supreme. The Jews and a few other monotheists (Baal was popular as a god) were minorities. In English or American, it seems easy to confuse Sun with Son. English, as we know it, wasn’t yet born. It’s only in the movies that the Romans spoke with perfect English accents! The sun goddesses had different names, as did sun gods and they were many.
We know that the early preachers of the Jesus’ story had some rough times. Many were former Roman slaves. Slaves with religions might be rebellious. Perhaps many of those slaves were Carthaginians. The Carthaginians fought Rome with the support of the Greeks and lost.
Emperor Constantine I ruled Rome from 306 to 327 AD and certainly was no Christian. The Phoenician and Greek language influences might have confused Constantine as he favored the Sun god – likely Helios. Could the Phoenician Jesus have sounded like Helios? Constantine went on to adopt Christianity.
At this time, the Christians were still a fledgling quasi-monotheistic group and, like other monotheistic groups, had to contend with older, strong pagan influences in the region. In the 4th century CE (around 370 AD), Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival hoping to take the pagan masses in with it. Christian leaders succeeded in converting to Christianity large numbers of pagans by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians.
The first 1000 years of the church dealt less with Jesus’ birth than how to unite Christians. There were struggles of different factions with differing attitudes. Islam originated and its expansion was seen as threatening. Aristocrats played more significant roles in construction and rule, as a way to manage rebellion of the masses. Celibacy and Confession hardly existed and were debated. As varied factions faded and as Rome separated from the East Orthodox, the Western church in Rome is where Catholicism was probably born.
Early Popes, like Gregory, began to micromanage the flock in the 11th century. It would be around the early 1200s that Pope Innocent III began targeting the pagans and other faiths as heretics. Under his papacy, the ground work of inquisition developed. Any non-Catholic was open to being arrested, tortured, and killed.
The 15th-century medieval church took a holocaust stance as the inquisition grew grand. attempting to eliminate all disbelievers, pagans and monotheists. This would be a dark era of the Catholic church history. Pagans were burned and slaughtered. To quench and satisfy Christian disciples, the Saturnalia carnival were intentionally revived by the Catholic Church in 1466 when Pope Paul II, for the amusement of his Roman citizens, forced Jews to race naked through the streets of the city.
Pagans, Jews, Islam and other non-Christians still feel the scars of this era. The modern Popes and Catholic churches have tried to make amends but we still see wrinkles of distrust. Islam is starting to win the wars it lost.
David Petts (2011) writes extensively about this conflict of Pagans and Christians in medieval era.
Many of the Christmas traditions we hold dear are derived from pagan rituals. Romans kept trees indoors during the winter – Christmas Tree.
Modern traditions span over the pat 150 years. The custom of sending Christmas cards was started in the UK in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole. Christmas Cards appeared in the United States of America in the late 1840s but were hand designed and very expensive. John C. Hall made his mark in 1915 when he mass produced cards on his Hallmark brand.
The shift from Jesus birth and his messages of peace, compassion, and humility factored only a little in the shaping of Christianity and Catholicism as a power base.. Peace on Earth may have originated as a miracle during World War I in 1914. On Christmas day, the allies and the Germans put down their swords and brought out a soccer ball. For one day there was Peace on Earth. The next day, regular fighting resumed.
As a commercial wildcard, Christmas lent itself well to the new large department stores that began in the 1850’s. They had large windows displaying their wares. In the late 1800s, the widespread availability of plate glass allowed store owners to build large windows spanning the lengths of their shops where merchandise from the store could be appealingly displayed to draw in customers. Thus the notion of “window-shopping” was born. Department stores cropped up in all major cities, including London, Paris, and New York. They employed many for seasonal help.
Jerry Seinfeld dubbed this winter holiday season as Festivus. Chanukah is not associated with it and Kwanzaa is relatively recent. Traditions, nonetheless, intertwine through exposure.
Be it gory history mired in conflicts, myths, legends, and miracles, many people are still in awe of Christmas and the Winter Solstice (or Winter’s Night). From eras that predated electricity and the night sky was aglow with wonders, these events have been constructed to make the cold of winter feel warmer.
Academic debate will continue as to when Jesus was born. The pagan winter solstice is probably the most valid source. Anyway, the 12 days of Christmas from 12/25 to 1/6 remain a period of togetherness, sharing, and kindness. At a point where the lack of light may cause feelings of depression, it is nice that Christmas is around.
Christmas may not be the grand birthday party and Winter’s Night may not be the immediate usher of spring. They are times to bring people of the Northern Hemisphere together sharing happiness, joy, and peace.
These are languages of our winter. They are promises that warmth is coming. In a world where war and conflict seem to be perpetually driven, Christmas and Winter’s Night are brief periods of calm and introspection. Peace on Earth, if only for a day, is essentially what Jesus might have wanted.