This Christmas season Rhode Island joined a controversy that has brewed for years in local governments across the country: how appropriate is the installation of religious decorations on public property? Governor Chafee's solution to call the spruce in the State House a "Holiday Tree" has elicited howls of outrage from citizens complaining of the secularization of this Christian holiday. In light of this debate, let's explore the origins of Christmas. How Christian are the holiday traditions celebrated by millions across the world? What are their historical origins?
First, scholars have no idea when Jesus of Nazareth was born, except that it may have been around 4 BC, the last year of the rule of Herod the Great. The New Testament gives us neither a specific date, nor even a month. The tradition of celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 originated in the fourth century, around the time that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Church, however, didn't officially adopt this day for another 200 years.
Because early Christians didn't have a specific date in scripture, they chose one with metaphorical significance that also coincided with two preexisting Roman celebrations. December 25th was the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar -- the shortest day of the year. Sunlight grows stronger and longer each day following the solstice. Picking a day that represented the transition from dark to light would have been an appropriate symbol for those who saw in Jesus the birth of a man who would lead them to salvation. The Bible abounds in symbolic language of Jesus represented as light, a metaphor found for the divine in every other major religion as well.
The choice of December 25th also worked for the early Christians because it corresponded with two Roman celebrations centered on the winter solstice. Saturnalia, an ancient Roman celebration that originated two centuries before Christ, began on December 17th and ended on the 23rd. Saturnalia was a celebration of the god Saturn and was marked by feasts, merriment, the hanging of evergreen cuttings, the lighting of candles, and gift giving. How would the people of Rhode Island have reacted if the governor had called the tree a "Saturnalian Tree"?
Many Romans in the fourth century also celebrated the birth of the sun god, Sol Invictus, on December 25th, marking the occasion with a festival. As Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman Empire, the Christian tradition of Christmas naturally absorbed elements of these popular pagan celebrations.
During the Christmas season, churches across the world recite and reenact the birth story of Jesus in their services. Atheists like Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins delight in picking apart the story of the Virgin Birth as one of many examples of a pre-modern people believing in a religious mythology that most today would find absurd if someone made similar claims.
Academic Christian scholars over the past century, however, have also expressed a similar skepticism in the stories of the miraculous birth of Jesus. Scholars from last century's Albert Schweitzer and Rudolf Bultmann to today's Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out that the oldest writings in the New Testament, Paul's letters and Mark's Gospel, never mention the Virgin Birth.
The birth narrative only appears in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, written some 80 years after this miraculous birth supposedly took place. Contrary to popular conception, the authors of these gospels were not two of Jesus' 12 disciples, nor had they ever met him. They were later followers of followers of Jesus, who were writing to help establish a community of believers.
The details of the birth stories vary significantly in both gospels and often do not match non-Biblical historical information. For example, the Roman census mentioned in Luke that brings Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem did not occur at the time of Jesus' birth, and there would not have been the requirement Luke mentions that Joseph return to his ancestral home. The purpose of this part of the story is to locate the birth in Bethlehem, the city of King David where the Messiah was prophesied to arise. Jesus, however, was known as Jesus of Nazareth for the simple reason he was from that small village in Galilee.
After the specific details of this miraculous birth, the gospels tell us little more about Jesus' life (other than a brief temple appearance at age twelve as described in Luke) until his baptism by John and the beginning of his ministry around the age of thirty (this mystery of the early years of Jesus' life is explored in my novel The Breath of God).
During the time Matthew and Luke were writing their birth stories, Caesar was regularly referred to as a "Son of God" and as a divine ruler. Roman mythology, derived from the Greeks, also had many stories of the gods impregnating women. For example, Heracles was born from a mortal woman but fathered by Zeus.
We also can find similar stories of miraculous births in other religious traditions. In the legend of the Buddha's birth, which took place five hundred years before Jesus, a white elephant spirit appeared to the Buddha's mother in a dream and told her that she would give birth to a unique son. The spirit then entered her womb. A crowd gathered at the baby's birth, after which a wise old man told the people that the baby would grow into their spiritual leader.
These problems with the birth story of Jesus used to bother me, but today I can freely embrace the narrative as part of my religious and cultural heritage and learn from the powerful message it sends. I am no longer handcuffed by a need to require historical accuracy from scripture, nor must I close my eyes to the reality of our scientific world, in order to embrace my faith. When I read the account of Christ's birth, I see the metaphorical importance of the creative power of God in the life of Jesus, just as God is also the creative power behind the universe itself.
What is more important to me than the mechanics of Jesus' birth is that he was an historical figure who came to be viewed as "the Christ," the Messiah. By the force of his teachings and the life he lived, Jesus caused those around him to feel the presence of God -- a presence that stayed with them after his death. Jesus walked the walk that he preached; he lived a God-centered life characterized by compassion, acceptance, healing, and prayer. His followers looked at him and were better able to understand God.
In Jesus we see a man in whom the creative divine light shined so brightly that he became a beacon, illuminating a path not to himself as an end goal but to God. The Jesus event shows us the possibility of salvation for all. We each can find God. We can connect with our divine centers, with what the ancient Hebrews called nephesh, the breath of God, that is reason for our existence, because Jesus has preceded us and has shown us the path. Through Jesus we can glimpse ultimate reality as filtered through the everyday reality of a man born on a day 2000 years ago.