On occasion there’s some overlap between this blog and my other one, www.bookofdaystales.com, because in that one I sometimes deal with Biblical events and festivals, and, therefore, get a chance to expound my views on the Bible. Today’s on St John is here:
I have also had the opportunity to talk there about the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel where he talks about Mary’s pregnancy and the birth of Jesus:
These narratives form the spine of the Christmas story.
To begin I will say flat out that I do not believe a word of Luke’s story. On the bald face of it, it is clearly fiction. The idea of an empire-wide census decreed by Augustus whereby everyone had to travel to their patrilineal home town to be counted for tax purposes is an absurdity on all kinds of levels, not to mention that it is not recorded in any other classical sources. This just simply could not have happened without destroying or seriously disrupting the economy of the empire. Furthermore, troops garrisoned across the empire would have had to return home, leaving vast territories without patrols. Such a notion is ludicrous.
Luke’s narrative is clearly an attempt to square what was known about the life of Jesus with Hebrew prophesy about the messiah. Micah 5:2 says
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.
Yet is was clear from everything anyone knew about Jesus that he came from Galilee at the other end of the country. Micah was suggesting that the new ruler (the messiah) would be born in the Davidic line, as was politically expected, hence born in Bethlehem. When this did not mesh with surface fact, Luke gave an “explanation.”
Likewise Isaiah 7:14 says (in English):
The virgin shall be with child
and shall bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanu-El.
In the Greek Septuagint, which would have been used by Hellenized Jews and probably Luke, the word for “virgin” is “parthenos” which means “virgin” expressly. But in the Hebrew text the word used is “almah” which is quite uncommon, but clearly means “young woman” or “unmarried woman,” and only means “virgin” by extension – much as “maiden” in English can mean “young woman” or “virgin.” (It’s always bothered me that “maiden name” literally means “virgin name.”) The woman prophesied to be the mother of the messiah in Isaiah would be a young woman, not necessarily a virgin. But Luke, in his misreading of Isaiah, inserts a story about the virgin birth, also to mesh with what he sees as legitimate prophesy.
The gospels are riddled with tales designed to “fulfill prophesy,” and in many cases the prophesy Jesus was supposedly fulfilling was simply a false reading of the originals. Does this mean we should reject the tales? Historically, of course. But we need not reject them spiritually. We should, also, reject all efforts to date Jesus’ birth using Luke’s “evidence.” This is often attempted using the chronology Luke gives in chapter 1 where he gives the month of conception of John the Baptist and links the timing of this pregnancy to Mary’s via the story of the Visitation of Mary (go to my link above for a fuller analysis).
The origin of the precise dating of Christmas as 25th December is unclear. That it was an attempt by the early Catholic church to usurp pagan Roman midwinter festivals has been thoroughly debunked. By the 3rd century the 25th of December was preferred, but other dates were, and still are, used. In early Christianity Christmas was of small importance, especially in relation to the Epiphany, the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem. The Koine Greek “epiphaneia” derives from the verb “to appear” and means “manifestation”, “appearance.” So the day was more important than the day of Jesus’ birth because it was the day when his true nature was made manifest to the world (as symbolized by the Magi).
Following the Protestant Reformation, many of the new denominations, including the Anglican and Lutheran churches, continued to celebrate Christmas. However, in 17th century England, some groups, notably the Puritans, strongly condemned the celebration of Christmas, considering it a Catholic invention and the “trappings of popery” or the “rags of the Beast.” In contrast, the established Anglican Church urged increased observance of feasts, penitential seasons, and saints’ days. Calendar reform became a major point of tension between the Anglican party and the Puritan party. The Catholic Church also responded, promoting the festival in a more religiously oriented form. King Charles I directed his nobles and gentry to return to their landed estates in midwinter to keep up their old-style Christmas generosity. Following the Parliamentarian victory over Charles I during the English Civil War, England’s Puritan rulers banned Christmas in 1647.
Protests followed as pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities and for weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. The Vindication of Christmas (London, 1652), argued against the Puritans, and makes note of Old English Christmas traditions: dinner, roast apples on the fire, card playing, dances with “plow-boys” and “maidservants”, old Father Christmas and carol singing.
The Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 ended the ban, but many Calvinist clergy still disapproved of Christmas celebration. As such, in Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland discouraged the observance of Christmas, and though James VI commanded its celebration in 1618, attendance at church was scant. The Parliament of Scotland officially abolished the observance of Christmas in 1640, claiming that the church had been “purged of all superstitious observation of days”. It was not until 1958 that Christmas again became a Scottish public holiday.
In Colonial North America, the Puritans of New England shared radical Protestant disapproval of Christmas. Celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. The ban by the Pilgrims was revoked in 1681 by English governor Edmund Andros, however it was not until the mid-19th century that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in the Boston region.
At the same time, Christian residents of Virginia and New York observed the holiday freely. Pennsylvania German Settlers, pre-eminently the Moravian settlers of Bethlehem, Nazareth and Lititz in Pennsylvania and the Wachovia Settlements in North Carolina, were enthusiastic celebrators of Christmas. The Moravians in Bethlehem had the first Christmas trees in America as well as the first Nativity Scenes. Christmas fell out of favor in the United States after the American Revolution, when it was considered an English custom. George Washington attacked Hessian (German) mercenaries on the day after Christmas during the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776, Christmas being much more popular in Germany than in North America at this time.
In the early 19th century, writers imagined Tudor Christmas as a time of heartfelt celebration. In 1843, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol to help revive the “spirit of Christmas” and seasonal merriment. Its instant popularity played a major role in portraying Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion. Jesus is in there but in a very minor role.
Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late 18th century and early 19th century. Superimposing his humanitarian vision of the holiday, Dickens influenced many aspects of Christmas that are celebrated today in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit.
So . . .should we celebrate or not, and how? My previous post shows what I do. http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/unpacking-christmas/ I don’t give a hoot about historical fact, theological ideology, or liturgical habits. I do, however, care about tradition and meaning. Culture is all about habit and custom, from which we derive meaning. Christmas for me will always be about love, kindness, generosity and peace. Sure, those values should be present all year, but there’s no reason not to give them a boost once in a while.
To be continued . . .