Christmas Back When

In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.  This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  And everyone went to their own town to register.

So, Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, the town of David, because he belonged to the line of David.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her first born, a son.  She wrapped him in cloth and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.  Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger.”

–Luke 2:1-12

Our understanding of tradition in Judea in the year 3 B.C., the time of the reign of Caesar Augustus, is that shepherds put their flocks of sheep out to pasture in the early spring (March-April) and returned them to their pens in the late fall (November-December).  If the shepherds were in the fields when an angel of the Lord visited them, it would have been between March and December.  It would not be a precise date if one were looking for the actual date of Christ’s birth.  But there was a star — a very bright star, and more than a few people living back then took note of it.

Modern scientists tell us it’s probably true.  Having studied this phenomenon, some modern scientists believe that the story of the Christmas Star actually happened and is explained by the phenomenon called planetary conjunction.  Such events occur when two planets seem to pass close to each other in the night sky.  Relying on modern technology, interested scientists were able to “rewind” the movement of the planets to where they were (or should have been) in the year 3 B.C.  Scientists believe there were several conjunctions and that, back then, astrologers would have noticed them, recorded them, and tried to make some sense of them.

In the year 7 B.C., Jupiter, and Saturn had three conjunctions.  The planets, of course, occupy different orbits in the solar system and proceed around the sun at different speeds.  With rudimentary telescopes, they occasionally appear to pass one another in the night sky.  Their perceived nearness also gives the impression that they’ve stopped moving.

Four years passed.  In the summer of 3 B.C. Jupiter and Venus met in a conjunctive event that would have looked much like the Christmas Star.  On the morning of 12 August, 3 B.C. Jupiter and Venus would have occupied a position in space merely 1/10th of a degree apart in the dawn sky.  Visually, scientists tell us that it would have appeared to be one-fifth the diameter of the full moon in Bethlehem.  We don’t know how long (days or months) such a vision would have lasted.

In any case, in the absence of written records, we can deduce that the event likely took place between June and September.  But why do we celebrate Christ’s birth in December?  The key here is how we choose to describe the occasion.  We do not think that 25 December is the birthdate of Jesus of Nazareth; it is, instead, the date we celebrate His birth according to the Gregorian Calendar.  To understand why Church officials decided on December, we have to look to the ancient Greco-Roman period because the celebration didn’t begin until the second century A.D.

The Roman Christian historian/scholar Sextus Julius Africanus decided that Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary on 25 March.  If Jesus were born precisely nine months later, then His birthdate would have been 25 December.  No one today thinks that Sextus put much effort into his estimate, but it does provide one possible explanation.  I do admit that I’m puzzled about how Sextus knew the date of Jesus’ conception.

In the third century Roman Empire, which had yet to adopt Christianity, Romans still celebrated their “re-birth” of the Unconquered Sun on 25 December.  This celebration marked the winter solstice and a popular Roman festival called Saturnalia (during which time Romans feasted and exchanged gifts).  It was also the birthday of the Indo-European deity Mithra, the god of light and loyalty.  This was a widespread belief among Roman soldiers.

The Roman Catholic Church formally began celebrating Christmas on 25 December 336 A.D. during the reign of Emperor Constantine.  By then, Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  In those days, Church leaders frequently selected celebratory dates to coincide with traditional (pagan) festivities — because people were used to those observances.  Church leaders in Rome and Constantinople disagreed over the date, but they hardly agreed on anything.  Still, the Christmas celebration did not become a significant Church event until the 9th century.

Not every Christian group celebrated Christmas.  In the mid-1600s, English Puritans tried to suppress both religious and secular observances of Christmas.  John Knox condemned all Church festivals, most likely because he stood in opposition to the Roman Church and also because in some celebrations, people engaged in what the Puritans called “pagan dancing.”

It wasn’t until the 1800s that Christmas celebrations began to look similar to our modern versions of them.  There were feasts, of course.  Mince pies took some time to mature, so homemakers began their preparations earlier.  People decorated their homes in red and green, symbolic of the life of Jesus and red for the bloodshed at his crucifixion.  People began exchanging Christmas greetings (cards) in the 1840s, and we Americans copied the Christmas Tree idea from Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who installed a tree at Windsor Castle in 1841.  This was a long-held German tradition.

Christmas Eve was a Church night.  Afterward, children would return home and hang stockings so that Father Christmas would leave them treats — if they’d been good.  The celebration occurred more often among people in the rural south than in the industrial north, probably due to the Yankee’s Puritan roots; the northerners preferred Thanksgiving to Christmas.  The first three US states to declare Christmas an official holiday were Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

Following the Civil War, Christmas became more popular because of children’s books about Christmas trees and gifts from St. Nicholas (who became Santa Claus).  Women’s magazines and Sunday School classes encouraged the celebration, as well.  Arguably, no one did more to perpetuate Christmas than authors Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, and cartoonist Thomas Nast.

We inherited Santa from the Dutch, whose word for St. Nicholas was Sinterklaas.  In 1809, Washington Irving published in A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (attributing it to Diedrich Knickerbocker).  Diedrich was one of Washington’s early hoaxes, a man he claimed was a “missing” Dutch historian.  In his book, he introduced his readers to Sinterklaas, who owned a wagon that could fly over the tops of trees as he brought yearly presents to good children.

Sinterklaas transitioned to Santa Claus in William Gilley’s 1821 poem, changing Santa’s wagon to a sled, pulled by a single reindeer.  In 1823, Clement Clarke Moore gave us A Visit from St. Nicholas.  We know the poem today as “The Night Before Christmas.”  Moore added seven additional reindeer to Santa’s retinue and gave them each a unique name.  One of those was Rudolph.  Of the gift-giving, Moore moved it from 5 December (St. Nicholas Day) to 25 December.

Charles Dickens, of course, told us the story of Ebenezer Scrooge in 1843; it transitioned to America in the following year.  But if we wanted to know what Santa Claus looked like, we would have had to wait until 1863, when Thomas Nast drew Santa’s image for a Christmas season edition of Harper’s Weekly.  Santa was pictured in his sleigh arriving at a Union Army camp distributing gifts to soldiers.  Nast’s work was so popular that he continued his drawings for several decades.  From Nast, we learned that Santa Claus lived at the North Pole where he kept his workshop, manned by elves.

So, then, who was St. Nicholas?  He was Nicholas of Bari (also St. Nicholas of Myra), who we believe lived from 270-343 A.D., an early Christian bishop of Greek descent from the port city of Myra (Asia Minor) (modern-day Turkey).  The Church attributes many miracles to St. Nicholas, and for that reason, he is sometimes known as the “Wonderworker.”  He is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, and unmarried people.  He is said to have started “secret gift-giving.”  We’ve adopted him as the model for our Santa Claus.  [Below image attributed to Mark Spears].

In the mid-1800s, Santa Claus was a kindly man who gifted valuable things to children, veterans, first responders — such as a new pair of socks.  Modern Santa brings out the worst of us, beginning with the spoiled-rotten child who sulks because they didn’t get the $1,200 iPhone or a pair of Michael Jordon shoes by Gucci that cost well over $3,000.00.

Well — maybe what we’ve turned into, as a people, has less to do with Santa Clause and more to do with social evolution.  We’ve made the transition from people who were grateful for a pair of socks to extraordinarily self-centered, materialistic, shallow creatures.  We care far less about others than we do ourselves.  Our appreciation of gifts received seems to depend more on their retail price than the heartfelt love of the gift giver.  Since around 1945, the end of World War II, this shallowness has only worsened in America.  Today, the Christmas season begins in July and August, when merchants start putting up their displays of Chinese-made goods.  We’ve spiraled into what we are.  Where will we be when, in the future, no “gift” is good enough for the spoiled child?

There may be some hope for us, though … but, if there is, it will probably come from a bright star in the sky that may lead us to the humble beginnings of the Son of God, whom we know as Jesus of Nazareth, who gave us the greatest gift of all: we get to choose for ourselves the kind of people we become.

Merry Christmas, Everyone

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
This entry was posted in Christmas, History, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Christmas Back When

  1. Andy says:

    Merry Christmas, Mustang!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Merry Christmas (who says it’s on the 25th?) !

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.