Friday, December 13, 2013
It's Christmas, can't you lighten up?
Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
Why must you always write such depressing articles? Lighten up. It’s the Christmas season.
Joy S. Tydings
Depressing? Me? Depressing? I’ve always thought of myself as a lighthearted commentator on the foibles of the modern world, at least as lighthearted as lower-upper-Hessians can possibly be. In the town of Allendorf, Hessen whence comes the family of my father, it is the custom to send the young men of the village out into the forest armed only with bottles of schnapps and axes. There, they cut down a pine tree, drag it back into the village and set it up again. This is not associated with Christmas but with the patronal feast of St. Catherine. No one can explain why this is done or for how long it has been done. Allendorf means the “Old village” a name it has born since around 700 AD. I suspect we have been doing it ever since the Neanderthals found out that rotten fruit was still edible, or at least drinkable. Sending young men into the woods with booze and potential weapons has always been our idea of fun.
A few miles east of Allendorf is the town Neustadt, Hessen whence comes my mother’s family. The forest east of town is thought to be the place of origin for the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, told by the well-named Brothers Grimm. It is the tender children’s story of a little girl who is attacked by a wolf that has just eaten her grandmother. These stories were told to generations of lower upper Hessian children to help them fall asleep. Grimm fairy tales indeed!
In the hills of Westphalen, north of us, there is a charming Easter custom. Giant wooden wheels, 7 feet in diameter and 800 pounds in weight are packed with straw, set on fire and rolled down the hills. Most people just watch and cheer as the flaming wheels roll down the hill. They wait anxiously to see which wheels make it all the way down still on fire. I have also heard that the young men run down the hill in front of the blazing wheels, a sort of Germanic “running of the idiots” not unlike the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. I have also heard that if one of the runners is hit by one of the wheels it is considered a mark of great good fortune for the coming year. I suppose it’s a matter of, “If I survive being run over by an immense flaming wheel, nothing worse is going to happen to me this year....probably.”
I am not sprung from people who could be called cheerful in the conventional sense. All this considered, I suppose I am doing my best to be cheerful in the face of a culture that is even screwier than a bunch of drunken German adolescents chopping down trees or trying to get run over by flaming wagon wheels.
So, here goes: A cheerful article about the date of Christmas!
No matter what you have heard, Christmas may actually have occurred on December 25th! The first indisputable mention of December 25 as the date of Christ’s birth is found in a Roman calendar written about 350 AD that lists the deaths of various Christian martyrs. In it we find, “December 25, Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.” By 400AD, St. Augustine says that the heretical Donatists observed Christmas on December 25, but didn’t celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, the Donatists claiming it was an innovation. The Donatists traced their origin to 312 AD and were notorious for their rigid conservatism. This would mean that some Christians in the Latin speaking world regarded the 25th of December as the anniversary of the birth of the Lord from before the date when Christianity was still persecuted and certainly not the religion of the Roman Empire.
At around 200AD, St. Hippolytus of Rome seems to favor the December 25th date, or possibly late March. He is ambiguous and people argue about the manuscripts anyway. At around the same time Bishop Clement of Alexandria mentions a few dates as possible candidates for the anniversary of Christ’s birth. His favorite was the 25th day of Pachon. Pachon is an Egyptian month and 25 Pachon is sometime calculated as the 20th of May. Clement also mentions the possibility that Jesus was born in late November.
The problem is that it is very difficult if not impossible to co-ordinate ancient Egyptian calendars with modern western calendars. The calendar was moveable. Before the beginning of the 3rd century, no one was very interested in the date of Christ’s birth. They were much more interested in the date of Christ’s death and of his conception. After all the Word became Flesh not on Christmas but on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25th. The reason that March 25th was celebrated as the feast of the Annunciation, (the conception of Christ in the womb of the Virgin), is that the date of Christ’s death was fairly well known and there seems to have been a belief that a true prophet should die on the anniversary of his conception.
Tertullian, who like Clement wrote around the year 200 AD, dated the death of Jesus to March 25. That means if Jesus died on March 25th, he would have been conceived on March 25 and nine months after March 25 is December 25. Bingo! (Don’t beat this theory to death. Remember the western calendars were quite inaccurate, and the Jewish calendar like the Egyptian had very flexible dates, so the equating of March 25th as the same thing in all calendars, modern and ancient, is not possible.) St. Augustine, too, was familiar with this association. In “On the Trinity” (© 399–419) he writes: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before Him nor since. But He was born according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”
The Eastern Church with whom we in the West have never been able to coordinate our calendars marked it as January 6th, so it seems that the 12 days of Christmas were all-inclusive from Dec. 25 to Jan 6th. Until my childhood that was Christmas, Dec. 25 until Jan.6. The tree went up on Christmas Eve and stayed up until the feast of the Three Kings. That way, all the possible dates venerated by Latin and Greek Christians from around the year 200 were covered. Now of course, Christmas begins just before Halloween and we are sick of it by the afternoon of Dec 25th When we start shopping for the after-Christmas sales and try to figure out how drunk to get on New Year’s Eve. The whole schmear ends with enduring a headache on Jan. 1st as we watch football and take down the tree.
We don’t know the exact date of Christ’s birth in terms of a perfect atomic clock, but I suspect that we have got it essentially right in the 12 days of Christmas, by which I don’t mean the song about waterfowl and dancing aristocrats. The important thing to remember here is that Christmas did NOT originate as a distraction to the Roman Saturnalia or the feast of the unconquered sun. Saturnalia was celebrated originally for only one day on December 17th and when it expanded in later times, it was definitely over by the 23rd which was the feast of the Sigilaria which at some point did involve gift giving. Christmas gift giving is a very modern custom. Gifts were traditionally given on St. Nicholas Day and on the feast of the Three Kings (Epiphany). The feast of the unconquered sun did not enter Roman calendars until after many Christians were already celebrating Dec. 25 as the feast of Christ’s birth. It is more likely that the feast of the unconquered sun was emphasized to distract pagans from the Christian celebration of December 25th.
So, be of good cheer. We really are celebrating the wonder of Christ’s birth and not simply some really good bargains at the big box stores. And this is my attempt at cheerfulness. Merry Christmas!