ponzo reads the bible - war on christmas special

It may piss off the Christians to hear this, but Christmas doesn’t have much to do with anything in the Bible. In fact, take away the nativity scene and the rest of the holiday comes from pretty much every European tradition except the Christian one. The Romans were exchanging gifts during Saturnalia long before the three wise men showed up at Jesus’ house (yes, house – we’ll get to that in a bit), and the only thing that the Bible has to say about Christmas trees is to condemn them.

As far as the birth of Christ thing, of the four books of the Bible that discuss the life of Jesus – the Gospels – only two of them talk about his birth. And, given the Bible’s track record so far, it should not surprise you to learn that even those two books disagree with each other.

This starts making sense when you accept the most important fact about Jesus: he did not exist. Jesus was merely the cooption of pagan resurrection god myths by a particular Jewish sect in search of their long-awaited messiah. This is fairly obvious when you compare the four Gospels. They mostly agree on the gist of things, but they disagree on the details, which is precisely what you would expect from oral traditions. Furthermore, when you compare that gist to other Mediterranean and Near Eastern religious traditions, you find that they track fairly well: Greek sects had their resurrection gods; Egyptian sects had their resurrection gods; and so forth. Everything Jesus did, some other god had done before him.

As for the date of Christmas – December 25th – well, that’s not Christian in origin either. In fact, the modern holiday season, whether represented by Christmas, Hanukah, Eid, Kwanzaa, or some other holiday, is merely the modern version of the ancient celebration of the winter solstice – that time of year when the days stop getting shorter and start getting longer again. The Romans even celebrated the winter solstice on the same day that Christians would later celebrate Christmas, December 25th. A popular myth is that early Christians intentionally set the date of their holiday around the time of the Roman Saturnalia festival, so as to partake in the festivities without drawing attention to themselves. However, Christianity was little more than a local cult at that time, and it is unlikely that anything like Christmas had begun to develop so early in the religion’s existence.

The first hard evidence we have of the celebration of Christmas on December 25th does not occur until the year 354CE. It just so happens that that date was already in use by pagan Romans as the birth of Sol Invictus, the “Unconquered Sun”. Jesus has always had a sun god aspect, which is also in keeping with the other religions from which he is liberally borrowed, and which was especially obvious in early portrayals of him. As the Roman Empire transitioned from the Greco-Roman to the Christian religion, dies natalis Solis Invicti simply became Christmas, because the god celebrated was one and the same. And both gods, in this context, were simply symbolic representations of the solstice.

It has become something of a tradition that, around this time every year, we have to listen to the right-wing bitch and moan about the supposed “war on Christmas”. To any observer, however, Christmas is in no danger of disappearing. The truth is that Christmas has always been a secular holiday with religious overtones that change depending on the particular religious tradition of its observers. It is also true that the most rabidly religious groups are not the most fervent in their celebrations of Christmas, but in their attempts to suppress and ban them.

There is no “war on Christmas”. However, there is a right-wing fundamentalist Christian “war” on every other holiday that might be celebrated this time of year. What concerns the right-wing is not that their holiday might be taken away somehow, but that someone somewhere might not believe and practice in the same fashion that they do. The right-wing is threatened by any reminder that they do not possess undisputed cultural hegemony. Fundamentalist Christianity, with its inherent paranoia and delusions of persecution, makes the perfect foundation for a homegrown American proto-fascist movement, and that is precisely what it has become over the last few decades. Christmas, being an emotionally-charged topic among its followers, has been co-opted into a symbol of their supposed persecution at the hands of domestic enemies.

Also present is the right-wing embrace of anti-intellectualism, which has reached such an extent that the right-wing now seems proud of its ignorance. Its members are loathe to learn about the world, because, in learning, they might discover something that would make them question their beliefs; since they already know that they are right – because they believe they are right – then that new learning must be wrong, and, in trying to divert them off the “straight and narrow path” of their own egoism, intrinsically evil. Thus, they divide the world into neat boxes, but only two: fundamentalist Christian, and everything else. It is this anti-intellectualism, this fear of being wrong, that causes them to miss and dismiss the long history of the winter solstice as the ultimate multi-cultural celebration.

And it is this anti-intellectualism which leads them never to know that what they purport to celebrate as the birth of Jesus is not even true Biblically, for that fear of learning extends even to their own holy book, which they dare not actually read because they might be wrong.

As I mentioned above, only two of the four Gospels even mention the birth of Jesus. Those are Matthew and Luke, and they disagree with each other. The nativity scene, and the well-known story of Jesus’ birth, is a mishmash of both, taking the gaudiest bits of one and mixing it with the gaudiest bits of the other.

For example, the three wise men only appear in Matthew. Here they visit Jesus at his parents’ house in Bethlehem. The manger only appears in Luke, where Joseph and Mary must travel to Bethlehem for the purposes of census (itself a dubious idea) and find all the inns to be full. Unfortunately, the three wise men are absent from Luke’s version. Thus, the three wise men come from Matthew, and the manger comes from Luke, with the discrepancies conveniently forgotten.

The shepherds only appear in Luke, where they are visited by the angel while guarding their flocks. This bit is also incorporated into the standard nativity story. However, shepherds don’t guard their flocks in the field in the middle of winter, not even in the Near East (where it is not perpetually hot). In other words, according to the Bible itself, Jesus could not have been born on December 25th. Given his role as a resurrection god, it is probable that he was initially identified with the vernal equinox, which marks the approach of spring; only when the myth incorporated the solar aspect was his birthday changed to the winter solstice.

Herod and his slaughter of the first-borns only appears in Matthew, and is a wild fiction. The contemporaneous Roman historian Josephus produced a detailed biography of Herod that makes no mention of such an event, nor does any other history produced at the time (and such an event would have drawn notice). Meanwhile, in Luke only, Joseph and Mary travel to the temple in Jerusalem after Jesus’ birth to offer thanks to Yahweh for his birth, but this is missing from the standard tale, which ends in a strange anticlimax (Jesus is born, and that’s that until Easter).

As I mentioned above, these disparate tales make sense if they are considered to be different versions of the same oral tradition. The other two Gospels, Mark and John, begin with Jesus already having started his ministry. In all versions of the myth, the death and resurrection is the important part (though, again, they differ on the details), but Matthew and Luke seek to emphasize the deific nature of Jesus, as well as his Hebrew lineage (this places him within the context of messianic Judaism).

The obvious question here is why a story sprang up that incorporated bits and pieces from each of two different versions of the same tale, without anyone noticing the discrepancies. I mean, couldn’t they read? Well, as it turns out, no, they couldn’t. Not only was most of the population of Europe illiterate until well into the modern age, but the Catholic Church also did its utmost to maintain strict control over how the religion was presented to its followers. Only members of the church were permitted to “interpret scripture”, and, even then, they had to interpret it within an established framework; to do otherwise was to risk being branded a heretic. With the traditional Christian penchant for the gaudy and saccharine, it is likely that the standard tale was the result of a new and underground kind of oral tradition, one for the common people in which Jesus may be born in the most lowly of states (a manger), but in which even the wise and the powerful recognize his superiority and eventual triumph. In that sense, the Christmas story becomes a pseudo-proletarian version of the resurrection god myth.

Meanwhile, as Christianity spread throughout pagan Europe, it incorporated the traditions of the locals so as to win their support. Thus, the Catholic Church incorporated its pantheon of saints, which appealed to the locals’ traditions of multiple gods with specific domains of power. Christmas, likewise, expanded from its origins in the Roman Saturnalia and Sol Invictus festivals and adopted local customs such as mistletoe, stockings on the fireplace, and the Christmas tree decorated in lights.

Ah, the Christmas tree! Here we find the ultimate irony of the “war on Christmas” kerfuffle, because this is, in fact, the only Christmas tradition that the Bible does mention:

Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. (Jeremiah 10:2-4, emphasis mine)

Odd, isn’t it, how the Bible itself may be the biggest culprit in the “war on Christmas” of them all!

Cross-posted at Ponzo Reads the Bible.