Ian Boyne, Contributor
With the increasing commercialisation and secularisation of Christmas, we often hear the plea to 'put Christ back into Christmas', to remember 'the real meaning of the Christmas', and 'the reason for the season'. But I am saying we should take Christ totally out of Christmas and make it an entirely secular festival!
Why would I make such an outrageous claim, especially since I myself profess Christianity? Because Christmas has absolutely nothing to do with biblical Christianity and is a pagan-derived festival adopted for strategic and political reasons, when there is a legitimate biblical festival that could commemorate the birth of Jesus. Follow me carefully as I outline my case.
First, the raw, incontestable historical facts: Christians up to nearly 200 years after Jesus' birth exhibited absolutely no interest in celebrating His birth, and there is no record whatsoever of any Christians observing His birthday. It was only about AD 200 that a Christian teacher in Egypt made reference to a date when Christ was born. Clement of Alexandria mentions several dates proposed by various Christians - incidentally, not one being December 25.
Some suggested May 20; others, March 21; others, April 21; also, April 15; as well as April 20 or 21. Only in the fourth century do we see December 25 emerging as the date for celebrating Jesus' birth - and that date was not alone, as January 6 was observed in the East, particularly in Egypt and Asia Minor. The highly reputable Biblical Archaeology Review on December 7 published an article 'How December 25 Became Christmas'.
I quote: "On December 25, Christians around the world will gather to celebrate Jesus' birth. Joyful carols, special liturgies, brightly wrapped gifts, festive foods - these characterise the feast today ... . But just how did the Christmas festival originate? How did December 25 come to be associated with Jesus' birthday?"
Interesting question. Let's continue: "The Bible offers few clues: Celebrations of Jesus' Nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or Acts; the date is not given, not even the time of year. The biblical reference (is) to shepherds tending their flocks at night when they hear the news of Jesus' birth (Luke 2:8); in the cold month of December ... sheep might well have been corralled ... . The extrabiblical evidence from the first and second century is equally sparse: There is no mention of birth celebrations in the writings of early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (c 130-200) or Tertullian (c 160-225). Origen of Alexandria (c 165-264) goes so far as to mock celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as pagan practices - a strong indication that Jesus' birth was not marked with similar festivities at that time and place. As far as we can tell, Christmas was not celebrated at all at this point."
NO NEED FOR FESTIVAL
If Christians for the first 200 years saw no need to create a festival to celebrate Jesus' birth; if the people closest to Jesus and his earlier followers, including the Twelve, did not see it fit to institute a festival for His birth, I can't be dismissed as a Christian heretic for not observing Christmas personally and calling for Christ to be dissociated from this festival.
Roman Catholic deacon and apologist Peter Espeut will claim the Catholic Church's right to institute such a festival. After all, Peter and other orthodox Catholics believe that the Catholic Church is the original church, the church that stands in the tradition of Peter (of the Gospels) and the other apostles. They have church authority to establish days and festivals and even theological dogmas. They have demonstrated that authority by instituting Sunday worship, Christmas and Easter and promulgating the doctrine of the Trinity.
The Catholics have a stronger apologetic case for celebrating Christmas than Protestants who claim sola scriptura - scripture alone. The Protestants claim to stand on the Bible as the final guide to faith and practice. Now if they hold to the Bible alone, in contradistinction to Catholics who hold to Bible and sacred tradition, and they know Christmas did not come out of the Bible, how can they continue to howl at any suggestion to de-Christianise Christmas?
It was not a Christian celebration in the first place - Christ was never in Christmas. Indeed, the origins of Christmas have long been established to have roots in ancient paganism. Everybody knows this - but many Christians, particularly Protestants, don't understand its implications. Christmas came out of the Roman Saturnalia festival and was adopted by the Roman Church because of its popularity and invincibility in Rome, where Christianity was spreading. If the people did not want to give up their prized and highly anticipated pagan festival of Saturnalia, why not baptise it and call it Christian, drawing attention to the Son of Righteousness rather than the sun god, Saturn, from which Saturnalia was named.
In A Book for Christmas, William Sansom writes that in pagan mythology, Saturn was an "ancient agricultural god-king who ate his own children presumably to avoid regicide (being murdered while king). And Saturn was parallel with a Carthaginian Baal whose horned effigy contained a furnace into which children were sacrificially fed." This is grotesque - but it's part of the sordid history of what has become known as Christmas.
Let's read more about this Saturnalia festival: "All businesses were closed except those that provided food or revelry. Slaves were made equal to masters or even set over them. Gambling, drinking and feasting were encouraged. People exchanged gifts from the vegetation goddess Strenia, whom it was important to honour at midwinter. Men dressed as women or in hides of animals and caroused in the streets. Candles and lamps were used to frighten the spirits of darkness which were considered powerful at this time of the year," says Patricia Del Re in The Christmas Almanac.
The Roman Emperor Aurelian established December 25 as the feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) from as early as 274 AD (or CE). Andrew McGowan, who is president of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne and a scholar of early Christianity, writes in the previously quoted Biblical Archaeology Review article:
"From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianising pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great who, in a letter written in 601 CE to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed, but be converted to churches and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs."
While McGowan raises questions about what some see as the settled position of Christmas evolving from pagan roots, he makes it clear that "more recent studies have shown that many of the holiday's trappings do reflect pagan customs borrowed much later, as Christianity expanded into Northern and Western Europe."
FEAST OF TABERNACLES
But why would Christians, especially Protestant Christians with an avowed reliance on scripture alone as a basis for their teachings and traditions, have to celebrate a festival whose date, trappings and historical associations are pagan? Is there nothing in scripture which could legitimately be used to celebrate Christ's birth? I believe there is, but that there is a reason why the Roman church would not have sought to use that festival. The Old Testament - or Jewish - Feast of Tabernacles could appropriately be used to celebrate Christ's birth, among its several meanings and its primary eschatological focus.
But the early Gentile Christians were fiercely anti-Semitic, and especially among Roman Christians, there was a deep antipathy towards the Jews and a concerted attempt - which was successful - to eradicate every strain of Jewish influence on Christianity. The Roman church has done a thorough job of de-Judaising the Church and pulling it from its Hebraic roots. That's why you have Christmas and Easter - the latter of which was a substitute for the Passover, which continued to be kept by Eastern Christians at the same date as the Jews (Nisan 14) for 400 years after Christ. That was so until the Roman church stamped it out and imposed its ecclesiastical authority to enforce that ban. I could quote you chilling passages from church fathers which demonstrated such raw hate and antagonism towards the Jewish people and their religious practices.
The Feast of Tabernacles, recorded in Leviticus 23, is the appropriate festival to celebrate the Incarnation - which is an important event, indeed.
John 1:14 says, "And the Word became flesh and Tabernacles (or dwelt) among us". The word for 'dwelt' or 'tabernacle' is 'skenoo'. In fact, some scholars believe that Christ was born in the September/October period when the Feast of Tabernacles is generally celebrated. Among them is the distinguished Adventist scholar, the late Samuelle Bacchiocchi. (Incidentally, people continue to say erroneously that Adventists don't celebrate Christmas. They do. They even have Christmas trees in their churchyards. Watch their networks 3ABN and Hope and you will see the Christmas trees, other Christmas trappings, and hear Christmas carols. They have bowed to the Christmas influence, despite their attacks on Catholicism.
Bacchiocchi says in his book God's Festivals in Scripture and History: "It is generally agreed that Christ's ministry began when He was about 30 years of age (Luke 3:23) and lasted three and a half years until his death at Passover (March/April). Then backtracking, we arrive much closer to the Feast of Tabernacles (September/October) dating of Christ's birth than to December 25. Indirect support for a September/October dating of Christ's birth is provided by the fact that from November to February, shepherds did not watch their flock by night in the fields."
In fact, even some early church fathers recognised that the Feast of Tabernacles related to Christ's birth. Gregory of Nazianzus (AD 329-389), in his Sermon on the Nativity, says, "The subject of today's feast (December 25) is the true Feast of Tabernacles."
Anti-Semitism, the intense desire to ingratiate with the pagan Romans to spread Christianity, foisted Christmas on us and led to the rejection of the biblical feasts. Bacchiocchi asks a poignant question: "Why celebrate the birth of Christ at the wrong time of December 25 - a date derived from pagan sun worship - when the Feast of Tabernacles provides us with biblical timing and typology for commemorating such an important event?"
It's time to take Christ out of Christmas!
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email
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