Saturday, December 23, 2006

Whence Christmas?

Mark Shea's got an excerpt from his upcoming book about where we got Christmas, or more to the point, why we have it when we do. I won't repost it here, being a bit long, but it's worth a read, and there's some good stuff in the combox that fills in a few other details. Just permit me to highlight a few details and then ramble on, on my own, for a little while.

Christmas was not merely a reappropriation of pagan winter holidays. Early Christians were very interested in how their Jewish forebears scheduled things, and not so much what pagans did.

While the Church did sometimes "baptize" pagan practices once it had the momentum and resources to evangelize whole nations, it wasn't simply a matter of putting a Christian skin on a pagan animal. Easter--still called Pascha in the Eastern traditions and in many other languages, and described with the adjective "Paschal"--near the vernal equinox, but more importantly it followed (and in the East, still does) closely the Passover, which is in the spring for its own reasons. Christmas, December twenty-fifth, is no more (even less so) pagan than exchanging rings at weddings. First of all, Christmas comes nine months after the independently scheduled (for the most part--when you've got imperfect record keeping, there will always be conflicts between placing an event when it's thought to have taken place and placing it in relation to another event a specific length of time away) Feast of the Anunciation, which gives any relation to Saturnalia a circumstancial flavor, and had been so set since before Aurelian's promotion in 274 of the celebration of Sol Invictus, which had been a minor holiday until the Emperor decided an alternative to the Christians' nativity feast was necessary. The Christians, turning the astronomical imagery into a metaphor for the Son Himself, were not having any of it.

There's no closer relation between Christmas and pagan holidays than there is between Santa Claus and Old Man Winter. The gift exchange doesn't even stem from Hannukah, which is a relatively minor Jewish holiday (you'll find the original events in Maccabees 1 and 2), but rather from the Feast of the Epiphany, which takes place a little after Christmas, but the adoration of the magi as well as of the shepherds got rolled together with the Nativity, at least in the U.S.

But anyway, merry Christmas. I'll probably have a little more for you around the Feast of the Mother of God. I always get good material when I'm hangin' with the fam. Pax.

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