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Pope Francis, framed by decorations of the Vatican Christmas tree, delivers a speech from the window of his studio overlooking St.Peter's Square.
meaning of Christmas

Christmas explained: How and why did the festival begin and when did it become so secular?

It’s an important Christian holiday, but why do we celebrate it tomorrow.

CHRISTIANS AROUND THE world are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus and exchanging gifts to mark the occasion.

But why do we celebrate Jesus’ birth on 25 December, and why do we exchange gifts, and when did it become the behemoth it now is.

The Journal spoke to Dr Andrew Pierce, Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin’s School of Religion to find out.

So what is Christmas actually about?

We started with the basics and asked Pierce to summarise what Christians celebrate at Christmas.

In Luke’s Gospel, pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem to take part in a census.

Upon arrival, Mary and Joseph can find no place to stay, but eventually find refuge in a stable, where she gives birth to Jesus.  

“From a Christian perspective, it is a very concrete way of expressing the doctrine of the incarnation,” said Pierce.

“That’s the idea the Son of God has entered into human history as a human being, with all its extraordinary vulnerabilities and in very fragile and dangerous circumstances.”

Was Christmas important to early Christians?

Pierce said that in the early centuries of Christianity, the birth of Jesus “wasn’t really a big issue”.

“The early Christians seem to have had more emphasis on Easter and the celebration of the Resurrection, that God had raised Jesus from the dead.

“The stories about him being raised from death are the beginnings of a claim that he’s divine.

“So initially Christmas, a celebration of the birth of Jesus, isn’t really a thing and it’s much more focused on his death and resurrection.”

When did it become a thing and why is it celebrated on 25 December?

“Christmas begins to be celebrated around the time that Christianity achieves a degree of respectability in the Roman Empire,” said Pierce.

He explains: “In the early fourth century, the Emperor Constantine becomes much more positive about Christianity.

“Various Emperors had tried to rule it out and had engaged in some pretty shocking acts of persecution against Christians.

“But in the early fourth century, Constantine the Great decides he’s going to adopt Christianity and it becomes the only religion by the end of fourth century.

“Once Christianity begins to take its place in the Roman Empire, then there’s a whole series of public festivities that can now be Christianised.”

One of these public festivities was Saturnalia, an ancient festival in honour of the Roman god Saturn.

“It was in the week leading up to the Winter Solstice,” says Pierce, “and winter is reaching its peak and things are going to get better.

“So Saturnalia tended to be a time of excess; lots of food and drink, lots of giving of gifts.” Pierce adds that the gift-giving element of Christmas “comes with the package of Saturnalia”.

He also noted that there was a festival on 25 December for the birthday of the god Mithra, who is the god of the unconquerable son.

“Mithra was born apparently, as an infant, on 25 December and that was a really sacred holiday for many Romans.

“So when Christianity moved on to that, Pope Julius the First chose 25 December to sort of take over that particular festival.”

Pierce adds that this date also worked in a theological way: “It has its associations with winter reaching its high point and this is the point at which God now chooses to enter history.”

So was Jesus born on 25 December?

“Every so often you hear different dates bandied around,” said Pierce.

“The usual date given is somewhere between five and six BCE (Before the Common Era).”

Pierce notes that “a lot of the stories about the birth of Jesus come from much later” and that a biography of Jesus didn’t concern the Gospel writers.

“Part of the story of the gospel is to try and situate Jesus’ life against the big, cosmic, historical background.

“We’re used to knowing so much about people, we’ve grown up with tabloid journalism. But the sort of stuff that excites us in trying to trying to work out who he was and where he was, this is stuff that didn’t concern them.”

When did Christmas become such a big deal for Christians?

Pierce says there was a “big change” around the end of the fifth century.

“By this time, Christianity has become the established religion of the Roman Empire.

“Those who aren’t Christians are going to find life awkward from now on and Christians are going to take over the running of the calendars.

“The early calendar of the Empire was the Julian calendar, established by Julius Caesar, but with the passing of time the Julian calendar gives way to Gregorian calendar under Pope Gregory XIII.”

The Gregorian calendar is used in most parts of the world today and was introduced at the end of the 16th century.

“So Christians are sort of taking over time and space and taking over the calendar is part of that.”

However, Pierce says some Puritan Protestant reformers of the 16th and 17th century didn’t think “Christmas had a leg to stand on”.

He adds that Puritanical Protestants were “a bit iffy” about Christmas and “started pushing back against it”.

“They were saying, ‘there is no date mentioned, therefore we can’t observe it,’ whereas Easter has some sort of date.”

The Gospels give details that allows us to ascertain the date of Jesus’ death.

He was said to be crucified on the Day of Preparation for the Passover, which allows Biblical scholars to give a precise date for this event, often cited as 3 April, AD 33.

So when did Christmas start to mirror the holiday we have now?

“The kind of Christmas we have now is very much a Victorian thing,” says Pierce.

Though queen Victoria’s reign was between 1837 and 1901, historians say the Victorian era can be stretched from 1820 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

“The Victorians were great at inventing tradition and passing off new things as though this is how everything had always been,” noted Pierce.

He added that “one of the attractions of Christmas for the popular imagination” was that it was one of the days on which workers received a holiday.

“This was an important thing because the workers’ conditions were abysmal. So to actually be sure of getting a day off, it gave people a centre to be enthusiastic about it.

“It takes off in a similar timeframe in the United States as well. So you have the Victorian era and the States really seeing a surge of interest in Christmas.”

Pierce added that many of the things we see as “traditional” to Christmas took off with the Victorians.

“The notion of the Christmas tree is supposed to have come into Britain via Albert, who was married to Queen Victoria.

“He brought this German custom of bringing an evergreen tree in to the house in the middle of winter.”

As well as creating Christmas traditions, Pierce says the Victorians also created “mass producible traditions”.

“Things like Christmas cards, Christmas wrapping, and as the season develops momentum, the manufacturing and the sales industries take note of this.

“So I think from the time you end up in a mass production society, you end up with a mass produced Christianity.”

Would Jesus and his disciples be surprised at how Christmas is now celebrated?

When Mary revealed to her sister Elizabeth that she was pregnant, Mary said: “My soul glorifies God… He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.

“He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.”

Pierce also notes that Jesus’s father, described as a carpenter, was “probably a menial worker” and that the “Holy Family are presented to us as being at the bottom of the pile”.

“Take a look into any stables at the time, this was a pretty shitty place and it’s not exactly the place where you’d be choosing to enter the world.”

When asked if Jesus or early Christians would be surprised at the hyper-consumerism of modern Christmas, Pierce said it is hard to know what they would make of our world.

“The very first disciples probably thought the world was coming to an end very soon, so the thought that we’re still even here might come as a surprise, regardless of what we’re like.

“When one culture speaks to another or meets another across the distances of time, it’s really hard to know how we would make much sense of ourselves.”

He also notes that “society is in two minds” about how to celebrate Christmas.

“It’s a time when we lose the run of ourselves entirely in terms of buying rubbish, but it’s also the time when NGOs and charities make their biggest and most important financial takings.

“We will be sticking a few notes into the carol singers, we will be buying our Christmas cards from Concern or Trócaire.

“We do seem to be able to get it in a way, and there is a lovely ambiguity, or maybe it’s even ambivalence, that we seem to be able to do both of these things at once when it comes to Christmas.”    

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