Of course, this is not really news to most readers. We don’t really know when Jesus was born, although some who have made a point of deducing a date from the clues (the census, the ruler at the time, the star, etc) think that October 4th is as good a date as any. So why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th?
As with Easter, the Church adopted the date of a pagan celebration to celebrate the birth of Jesus, judging that it was smarter to redefine an existing celebration than to start one from scratch. Many old civilisations kept track of the cyclical nature of life by watching the sky. Astronomers and astrologers of old noted that the length of days ebbed and flowed with the seasons. Since heavenly bodies, particularly the sun and moon, were often depicted as deities, the varying length of day and night was considered the result of an ongoing war between the sun and moon, with one gaining advantage over the other, only to lose it in six months.
At this time of year in the northern hemisphere, the forces of darkness have been gaining ground on the forces of light for several months. One can imagine the concern among primitive and superstitious people that one day the sun might not recover from this onslaught and perhaps, this year, the forces of darkness would take over the world. What a relief when the tide of battle would turn on December 22nd (the solstice)! It would be a cause for celebration, would it not? And indeed, in many cultures, including some in which the Church developed, a feast was held once it was realised that the sun had turned the tide of battle in its favour. It so happened that such a feast was held in Europe on December 25th, three days after the solstice.
The church had little trouble giving new meaning to this festival; they simply identified the Son with the sun. Today the message is, when the world is at its darkest, the tide of battle is turned and a new hope is born into the world, and this is, in some way, related to the life, teachings and death of Jesus of Nazareth. However, if Christmas is only a celebration of an event that occurred roughly two millennia ago, it may be interesting, but has little relevance to our lives today.
History has much to teach us and helps us identify who we are, but history is about things already past. To many people, Christmas is history; a story about something that happened long ago, and therefore it has no power to affect their lives. As explained in “Who Took the Christ Out of Christmas,” these are the very culprits who are the answer to that question. Fortunately, Christmas has gone beyond history into the realm of myth. When Christmas escaped history into myth, it became a story, not merely about an event 2000 years ago, but about an ongoing story that lives in the soul of every human being in every age. Furthermore, it is not restricted to Christians, but resides in the souls of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, et al.
Christmas speaks of something new being born into the hearts of human beings, even in the darkest times and the darkest places; a new birth which, though tiny and fragile, can bring new light and new hope into every corner of the world. All that is required is that this we protect this new life from the Herods of this world, and nurture it into adulthood. Unfortunately, often the tiny spark of new life is not even noticed, and quickly dies under the crush of the other priorities in our lives. One of the greatest challenges of the faith is help people recognise this new potential in their lives and encourage its development.
The forces of this world, particularly political and economic forces, want to keep us afraid so that we will rely on them; so that we will buy their products and support their ideologies. Most people, both out of the church and in it, succumb to the fear that is propagated by, what St. Paul called, the principalities and powers of this world, so that what is born at Christmas never has the chance to develop. The alternative to fear is faith. Fear is the greatest threat to the nativity in our hearts; faith is its – and our – salvation.