Skylar T. of Silver Lake asks: “Merry Christmas! And please don’t start any of your ‘happy-holidays-because-you-might-offend-a-Jew-or-an-uppity-atheist’ crap…but really, what’s Christmas all about?”
The first mention of Jesus’ birth being celebrated occurs around the year 354 CE, over three centuries after his death, in a codex called Chronography that was made for a wealthy Roman. In the original Latin it reads: “VIII kal. Ian. natus Christus in Betleem Iudeae,” or “8 calends of January, Christ born in Bethlehem, Judea.” In the old Latin calendar, the Calends was the first of the month, when accounts were due, so this number indicates eight days before the Calends of January, or today, 24 December. Christmas was not celebrated as a feast day until another four centuries later, after Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in 800 CE. Through the Middle Ages, Christmas in Europe incorporated the older traditions of the Winter Solstice on 21 December, including the pagan midwinter celebration of Yule, the Roman cult of Sol Invictus, and the week-long Roman festival of the Saturnalia that began on 17 December.
It was not a tradition to celebrate anyone’s birthday until recent times, when it was no longer tempting evil spirits; anyone who studies genealogy will notice that the dates of death were recorded for centuries before the dates of birth, perhaps because so many people died before they reached adulthood. Most Judeo-Christian and Islamic sects treated birthday celebrations as a sin until recently. Like so many other modern traditions, birthdays in general and Christmas in particular became major gift-giving occasions with the rise of capitalism and the bourgeoisie in the Renaissance…along with the arrival of gunpowder, the nation-state and intercontinental trade after the European discovery of the Americas.
During the Enlightenment, Protestant reformers and scientists like Sir Isaac Newton began to challenge the authenticity of Christmas. Of course, the easiest way to dismiss Christmas is to remind you that Jesus, outside of the Bible, barely existed; the only mention of him historically is as the brother of James by Josephus, and in the Pauline Epistles, both about thirty years after the death of Jesus.
Even if you accept that the Gospels might be true, they clearly state that Jesus was born during a Roman census, when the shepherds were still in the fields. The Romans would have conducted a census around the time of the harvest in late September, and there would be no shepherds out in December, even in Judea. The Gospel of Luke also suggests that Mary brought the infant Jesus to the Temple to be purified around the date of Yom Kippur, which is in late September. The Gospels also note that Mary became pregnant when Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John the Baptist; Elizabeth became pregnant in late May or early June, after her husband returned from his biannual service in the Temple; so 25 December is actually closer to the time Jesus was traditionally conceived than his birth.
It’s also easier for me to accept Jesus as a Libra than as a Capricorn. I hope that answers your question.