Although not particularly religious — unless, of course, by “religious” you mean one who religiously likes fast cars and fast women — I nonetheless enjoy Christmastime, and the reason for this is that Christmastime represents something much more fundamental than the Pagan celebration of Saturnalia and the solstice, or the Christian celebration of Christ’s birth, or the Jewish re-dedication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, or any of the others.
Christmastime represents peace on earth and goodwill toward women and men. That’s an idea I can get behind.
Here, in no particular order, are seven facts about Christmastime that you perhaps did not know:
7.) It wasn’t until approximately five centuries after the death of Jesus Christ that the Roman Catholic Church officially mandated Christmas be observed by Christians throughout the world “as a festival honoring the birth of Jesus Christ.”
6.) Christmas used to be illegal in Boston — and it was until 1856 that the Boston people stopped working on Christmas. “Not all Christians have agreed with this official Christmas mandate: in 1659, for instance, the Puritans of New England banned Christmas by law throughout the Massachusetts Bay Colony, calling it ‘heathen, papist idolatry,’ and even went so far as to deem its observance a crime punishable by imprisonment” (source).
5.) Yeshua-bar-Joseph, also known as Jesus Christ, was not born in winter but most likely early autumn, when it was Jewish custom to bring their sheep home from the deserts (where they took them in early spring for Passover) at “first rain.” First rain usually began in the month of Marchesvan, which is Hebrew for October-November.
4.) The first Christmas trees (so-called) appeared in Strasbourg, Germany, in the 17th century, long before any real arrival of Christianity. The Germans used to decorate and light their trees with candles, to help brighten the long dark days of December. This excellent tradition moved to Pennsylvania in the 1820s, with the arrival of German immigrants.
3.) The Roman festival of Saturnalia, December 17-24, also moved people to decorate their homes with lights and the color green, and to give gifts to children and the poor. “The December 25th festival of natalis solis invicti, ‘the birth of the unconquered sun,’ was decreed by the emperor Aurelian in A.D. 274 as a Winter Solstice celebration, and sometime [later] was Christianized as a date to celebrate the birth of the Son of Light” (source).
2.) The pagan Saturnalia and Brumalia were too deeply entrenched in popular custom to be set aside by Christian influence…The pagan festival with its riot and merry-making was so popular that Christians were glad of an excuse to continue its celebration with little change in spirit and in manner. Christian preachers of the West and the Near East protested against the unseemly frivolity with which Christ’s birthday was celebrated, while Christians of Mesopotamia accused their Western brethren of idolatry and sun worship for adopting as Christian this pagan festival.
1.) The excellent (if slightly antiquated) author Washington Irving, of Rip Van Winkle and The Headless Horseman fame, is really who’s responsible for the unforgettable figure of old Saint Nick soaring breakneck across the sky in a weightless sleigh. His short stories — The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon — became so popular that none other than Charles Dickens is reputed to have credited Irving’s work for inspiring the even more famous A Christmas Carol.