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Michael Abrahams | Why is Christ in Christmas?

Published:Monday | December 24, 2018 | 12:05 AM
Michael Abrahams

Every year since 1997, Starbucks, the popular American coffee company and coffeehouse chain, has been producing cups during the holiday season featuring designs commemorating Christmas, including reindeer and brightly coloured ornaments. The designs were without incident until 2015 when the company produced a simple red cup, featuring the company's logo, a twin-tailed mermaid, or siren as she's known in Greek mythology, in green. Some Christians went crazy and attacked the company, accusing them of "taking Christ out of Christmas".

We see it every year, religious folks complaining about not enough Christ being in Christmas. However, we should probably be asking if Jesus Christ belongs in midwinter holiday season celebrations in the first place. I mean, why is he there? Seriously.

Firstly, biblical scholars agree that Jesus was born nowhere near December 25. According to the Bible, Joseph and Mary were travelling to Bethlehem to register during a Roman census when Jesus was born, and shepherds had their flocks out in the open fields at that time. But, during the month of December, that geographic region is rainy, cold and sometimes affected by snowfall. It is very unlikely that shepherds would leave their flocks out in the fields at this time, or that a ruler would require people to travel many miles to register for a census under such inclement weather conditions.

Secondly, the practice of jollification during this time of year existed at least hundreds of years before Christ's birth, and is pagan in origin. In pre-Christian pagan belief, December 25 was known as the winter solstice. "Sol" is the ancient Latin word for "Sun", and "stice" means "standing still". It was celebrated by Sun-worshippers as the day signalling the middle of winter, the shortest day of the solar calendar, and also the nativity (birthday) of the Sun, because the day begins to lengthen and the power of the Sun to increase from that date. The day was celebrated in different ways by different people all over the world.

For example, the Aztecs would sacrifice children in worship of their sun-god, Huitzilopochli on this day. Ancient Egyptians also celebrated the day in worship of Ra, or Horus, the sun-god child of Isis and Orisis. Similarly, in Mesopotamia, the mythical god Marduk, who was believed to fight against the cold and darkness, was also worshipped on this day. The ancient Greeks dedicated the day for Adonis and Dionysos. In ancient Nordic culture, Balder, son of Odin, the god of love and light, and his wife Frigga, considered to be the "mother of all" and "protector of children", is sacrificed at midsummer by the dart of the mistletoe, and is reborn at Jul (Yule), which corresponds with the winter solstice. The Yule-log, evergreen decorations, and the Christmas feast are taken from this Nordic celebration. For the pre-Christian Romans, December 25 marked their most important holiday, Saturnalia, later renamed 'Sol Invicti', meaning 'the unconquerable sun', in honour of the Syrian sun-god Apollo. During Saturnalia, gifts were made by the wealthy to the poor in honour of the golden age of liberty when Saturn ruled the known world, and the celebrations included much debauchery. The ancient Persians celebrated the birth of Mithra, their sun-god on this day as well, and the worship of this god, along with the religion of Mithraism, spread throughout Europe. All this took place long before Christ.

This type of merriment and idolatry came under heavy censure from the early Church as it was completely out of character with the Christian ideal. But the festivities, especially those associated with Mithraism, were too strongly entrenched in the culture of the day to be abolished, and the [Catholic] Church, realizing that it could not be suppressed, decided to preserve it and repackage it as a celebration of the Christian God, transferring the devotion of the heathen to the Sun, to the "Sun of Righteousness".

But does Christ belong in Christmas? Is it appropriate to insert him into the midwinter holiday celebration narrative?

During his lifetime, there is no record of him ever instructing or encouraging others to celebrate the day of his birth. Even after his death, it was hundreds of years later, in the 4th century, that December 25 was decreed to be his birthday, and another 500 years, the ninth century, before the term "Midwinter Feast" was replaced with the word "Christmas". Many of the Christmas customs that we accept and embrace are in fact not genuine Christian customs, but heathen ones. Christmas trees, holly, ivy and mistletoe, carolling, gift-giving and Santa Claus all have origins that have nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

The celebration of Christmas really has no scriptural basis, and in fact may run counter to the tenets of the Christian faith. Indeed, in Deuteronomy 12:29-32, God warns against adopting pagan worship customs to honour Him, and in Jeremiah 10:2 instructs to "learn not the way of the heathen."

We should call Christmas what it really is, an amalgam of pagan and religious celebrations rolled into one gigantic feel-good party. It means different things to different people. The holiday season is not owned by any particular religion. So, don't be a "grinch" and insist that others celebrate it the way you do. Chill out like Frosty the Snowman dude.

- Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.