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Opinions of Friday, 26 December 2014

Columnist: Akwah, Nana

Christmas, Christians and December 25

How did we end up celebrating a wintry Christmas? The Bible does not directly explain why Christmas takes place in the winter. Was the Dec. 25 date really just a way to convert pagans? An examination of the longstanding dispute about when and how to celebrate Jesus’ birth need our attention.

There was a time when some scholars were of the opinion that the holiday should be observed in the spring. It seems to us as a matter of course that Christmas should come on Dec. 25. But over the past 2,000 years or so, the timing of Jesus’ birth—which, as the bumper stickers or commercials like to remind us, is the original reason for the season and this has generated considerable controversy. It is not surprising that, there has been enough uncertainty about when to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, in view of this some Christians have chosen not to celebrate it at all.

The article purpose is not intended to persuade or dissuade interest in the activities that enjoin people to celebrate Christmas. Though I do not subscribe to December 25 as the 'Nativity of Jesus, the concerns should drive us to seek answers to know and understand all about this celebration called 'Christmas'. Is it worth our time and money? Let's move on!

The Christmas period is one of the most important holidays of Christianity, and is celebrated by a great number of people throughout the world. On this day many a Christian commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, which the Western calendar year is based upon. About Christmas, it can be easily conjectured as the most commercialized religious holiday in the western world.

December 25, Christians around the world will assemble to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Joyful carols, special liturgies, beautifully wrapped gifts, festive foods—these are all noteworthy characteristics of the Christmas feast, especially in the northern hemisphere.

The question we should be asking, just how did the Christmas festival originate? How and why did December 25 come to be associated with the birth of Jesus’? Scripture offers few clues: Celebrations of Jesus’ Nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or Acts; no date is given, not even the time of year.

The scriptural reference to shepherds tending their flocks at night when they heard the news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8) might suggest the spring lambing season; contrary in the cold month of December, when sheep might well have been gathered together and confined.

Most scholars would try earnestly or persistently to caution about expressing such a precise but incidental detail from a narrative whose focal point is theological rather than calendrical.

The extra-biblical evidence from the first and second century is equally scanty: There is no mention of birth celebrations in the writings of early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (c. 130–200) or Tertullian (c. 160–225).

Interestingly Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) goes so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as “pagan” practices—a strong indication that Jesus’ birth was not marked with similar festivities at that place and time. As far as we can tell, Christmas was not celebrated at all at this point.

With regard to 'Easter' this stands in sharp contrast to the Christmas, as very early traditions surrounding Jesus’ last days could traced to arrest, crucifixion and resurrection.

Each of the Four Gospels provides detailed information about the time of Jesus’ death. A study of John Gospel reveals Jesus is crucified just as the Passover lambs are being sacrificed.

This would have occurred on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, just before the Jewish holiday began at sundown; considered the beginning of the 15th day because in the Hebrew calendar, days begin at sundown.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke, however, the Last Supper is held after sundown, on the beginning of the 15th. Jesus is crucified the next morning—still, the 15th.

Easter, definitely is a much earlier development than Christmas, since ample evidence abounds and could simply be classified as the gradual Christian reinterpretation of Passover in terms of Jesus’ Passion.

Its observance could even be implied in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 5:7–8: “Our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the festival…”); it was certainly a distinctively Christian feast by the mid-second century, when the apocryphal text known as the Epistle to the Apostles states Jesus instruct his disciples to “make commemoration of [his] death, that is, the Passover.”

Jesus’ ministry, miracles, Passion and Resurrection were definitely of great interest to first- and early-second-century C.E. Christian writers. It could be adduced however that, over time, Jesus’ origins would become or take on an increasing concern.

We can begin to see this drift already in the New Testament. A close study or observing the earliest writings—Paul and Mark—make no mention of Jesus’ birth. On the other hand, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide well-known nonetheless quite different accounts of the event—but neither specifies a date.

In the second century C.E., further details of Jesus’ birth and childhood are related in apocryphal writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Gospel of James. These texts provide everything from the names of Jesus’ grandparents to the details of his education—but not the date of his birth.

Finally, around 200 C.E., a Christian teacher in Egypt makes reference to the date Jesus was born. According to Clement of Alexandria, several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Surprising as it may seem, Clement does not mention December 25 at all.

Clement writes: “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”

Clearly there was great uncertainty, but also a considerable amount of interest, in dating Jesus’ birth in the late second century. By the fourth century, however, we find references to two dates that were widely recognized—and now also celebrated—as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor).

The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6; for most Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas.

The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”

During the 400 C.E., Augustine of Hippo mentions a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists, who apparently kept Christmas festivals on December 25, but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, regarding it as an innovation. Since the Donatist group only emerged during the persecution under Diocletian in 312 C.E. and then remained stubbornly attached to the practices of that moment in time, they seem to represent an older North African Christian tradition.

In the East (Egypt and Asia Minor), January 6 was at first not associated with the magi alone, but with the Christmas story as a whole. So, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, we finally find people observing his birth in mid-winter. But how come they settled on the dates December 25 and January 6?

There are two school of thought today: one exceptionally popular, the other less often heard outside scholarly circles (though far more ancient).

The most loudly touted school of thought about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and Western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To give it recognition, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25.

In concluding, Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. As a claim to this school of thought, early Christians in their bid to lure deliberately chose the dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world.

The import and significance was, if Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.

Notwithstanding the enticement, the truth is that, Jesus Christ is not Christmas neither can Christmas be associated with the Lord's birthday.

As Christians what should engage us - a point in time a person appeared whether in March, September or December must not take our attention from the truth. Our concerns must dwell on what we will gain when we find this "author of life", Jesus Christ and not date(s). Just as his first advent appeared a point in time after a long prophesies such also will the Second Advent.