Dr Orville Taylor, Contributor
Assuming that the world did not end on December 21, 2012, you are reading this column and snickering at the pagan Maya who made the prediction. Laugh as much as you want, but they are also thinking that we are idiots celebrating a feast which is full of myths, ignorance and sheer lies. After all, Christmas is a period of shutting out reality and celebrating in euphoric numbness for a few days.
One of the first myths is that we are celebrating the birth of Christ. Well, that is so wrong because Christ was not born on earth, it is Jesus who was. Christ, which means 'the anointed one', is the name that he took on after his dunking by John the Baptist. The first reference to him being the Christ, which is a title and not a name, came in Matthew 16:16 when Peter declared, "You are the Christ." Nevertheless, that is the least of our concerns. The bigger problem is that we don't even know when he was born.
If you look on the almanac, and some calendars have it, the winter solstice begins this year on December 21, but it varies two days either way. This solstice is when the sun appears lowest in the sky relative to the horizon and has been such a significant event that many cultures have festivals or during this period.
Ironically, the pagan Romans, who killed Jesus, had a celebration along with the attendant tree worship. Christendom's appropriation of it is evidence of 'if you can't beat them, join them'. Thus, Christmas falls in the same category as Easter, when another non-Christian tradition was retrofitted.
The early Church also neatly tried to place conception somewhere in March because, according to Luke 1:26, the visitation of the angel took place when Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John the Baptist. Nevertheless, getting the month is hard enough; it is the year which befuddles us most.
This is year 2012. Thus, according to popular lore, it is 2012 years since he was born. Was he born 01 BC, 0000 AD or 0001 AD? But let's not fight over a year, because we have bigger battles of myth versus truth. Inconveniently for the theologians who clash with the historians, Herod the Great was born between 73 and 74 BC and died 4 BC. Unless he has been resurrected or had some serious 'sciance', it is impossible for him to have ordered the death of baby Jesus. Indeed, the census, referred to in Luke 2, occurred somewhere around 8 BC. Thus, Jesus might very well have been born before he was born. Well, he is God himself, so he can do the impossible.
We also think he was born in a stable, but there is no such biblical reference. He was placed in a manger, which is a feeding trough for herbivores. In fact, there are references in Matthew to him being in a house when the Magi went to visit him.
And how did the jackass get into the picture? Somebody placed Mary on a donkey and an old carol makes it true. However, we need to get the ass out of the story because the Bible didn't say so, and in any event, if you ever rode a donkey, you would know that Jesus would have been born in a saddle, which is fastened with the donkey 'kupa'.
Another non-scriptural belief is that there were three wise men. There were Magi, which means men of knowledge and secrets and includes magicians. Thus, the words 'magus' and 'magi' are singular and plural.
And by the way, they were not kings. We would like to say so because it would make Jesus King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but they were simply sages and prestidigitators who bowed down and worshipped him. Wise men seek him, but up to the present, many kings shun him.
Nonetheless, although three gifts were brought - gold, frankincense and myrrh - no reference is made to the number of Magi, but this little embellishment is rather harmless.
Easter more significant
In any event, there is no evidence that the Magi went to visit Jesus on the night of his birth after being led there. Sorry, friends, but the first set of people who saw him were common shepherds. The visit of the Magi came long afterwards, and it was subsequent to Herod telling them to go and find the infant, after he had learned of his birth.
Still, for those who believe, it is not important when he was born, and in fact, it is only significant that he was incarnated because he needed to be born in order to die. Easter is really the most important Jesus date.
Yet, Christmas is now a true 'babylan' feast, which is only vaguely Christian. The tree of pagan fame becomes a Christmas tree, and eclipsing Jesus as the main actor for this winter extravaganza is Santa Claus. This figure is scary because he is omniscient and omnipresent. We might think it insignificant, but imagine a big fat red man, who can be in every house in the four hours between bedtime and Christmas morning and deliver all kinds of presents to every child. With powers that Jesus Himself did not show on earth, he doesn't walk on water but he flies a sleigh with wingless animals and moves faster than the speed of light.
I am very uncomfortable with teaching my child or allowing her to believe that anyone apart from God and Satan can know the deepest of thoughts and monitors her behaviour 24/7. Worst of all, he is not a black hero, having been sanitised of his black helpers. Santa is derived from a Dutch saint, Sinterklaas, who, according to legend, used to ride rooftops from the second century to the Middle Ages and send out his black-faced helpers called Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes).
Interestingly, it is the Petes who got the information by eavesdropping on the children. Later on, their negative characteristics were racialised, perhaps explaining why the current Santa helpers are all white, like him. Up to the 1900s, his feast was celebrated in the first week of December.
A Coca-Cola Santa
After he crossed into the Americas, a series of events pushed by Washington Irving's 1809 History of New York, Clement Clark Moore's poem of 1822 gave us the famous lines:
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In the hope that St Nicholas soon would be there.
The marriage between the early December and late-month festivities was complete.
By the 1900s, artist Norman Rockwell and Coca-Cola had appropriated the image of the fat man drinking its product and the rest of it is - marketing. This very act of making him a commercial figure might have been the turning point of him replacing Jesus. Nevertheless, it is not true that Santa is a pagan figure. More of a fairy-tale type, he is no more dangerous than the countless nursery-rhyme characters we teach the children about.
Still, it is Christmas, and we need a bit of both. Because the myth of the country progressing is being debunked. The crime rate is still unacceptably high, and now the Survey of Living Conditions indicates that poverty rose in 2010 from 16 to 17.5 per cent and looks ready to grow. There is a fat man with a white beard, but his is as sparse as the net international reserves.
If under the tree there is no International Monetary Fund present, the resemblance to Santa stops there, and Jesus help us!
Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
A child sits on Santa's lap in New York in the lead-up to the Christmas celebrations. - AP