John Steele Gordon: The Elizabethans partied hard. The Puritans banned it. Now comes the ACLU.

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Gordon is the author of "An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power" (HarperCollins, 2004).]

Christmas famously "comes but once a year." In fact, however, it comes twice. The Christmas of the Nativity, the manger and Christ child, the wise men and the star of Bethlehem, "Silent Night" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" is one holiday. The Christmas of parties, Santa Claus, evergreens, presents, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Jingle Bells" is quite another.

But because both celebrations fall on Dec. 25, the two are constantly confused. Religious Christians condemn taking "the Christ out of Christmas," while First Amendment absolutists see a threat to the separation of church and state in every poinsettia on public property and school dramatization of "A Christmas Carol."

A little history can clear things up.

The Christmas of parties and presents is far older than the Nativity. Most ancient cultures celebrated the winter solstice, when the sun reaches its lowest point and begins to climb once more in the sky. In ancient Rome, this festival was called the Saturnalia and ran from Dec. 17 to Dec. 24. During that week, no work was done, and the time was spent in parties, games, gift giving and decorating the houses with evergreens. (Sound familiar?) It was, needless to say, a very popular holiday.

In its earliest days, Christianity did not celebrate the Nativity at all. Only two of the four Gospels even mention it. Instead, the Church calendar was centered on Easter, still by far the most important day in the Christian year. The Last Supper was a Seder, celebrating Passover, which falls on the day of the full moon in the first month of spring in the Hebrew calendar. So in A.D. 325, the Council of Nicea decided that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first full moon of spring. That's why Easter and its associated days, such as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, are "moveable feasts," moving about the calendar at the whim of the moon.

It is a mark of how late Christmas came to the Christian calendar that it is not a moveable feast, but a fixed one, determined by the solar calendar established by Julius Caesar and still in use today (although slightly tweaked in the 16th century).

By the time of the Council of Nicea, the Christian Church was making converts by the thousands and, in hopes of still more converts, in 354 Pope Liberius decided to add the Nativity to the church calendar. He also decided to celebrate it on Dec. 25. It was, frankly, a marketing ploy with a little political savvy thrown in.

History does not tell us exactly when in the year Christ was born, but according to the Gospel of St. Luke, "shepherds were abiding in the field and keeping watch over their flocks by night." This would imply a date in the spring or summer when the flocks were up in the hills and needed to be guarded. In winter they were kept safely in corrals.

So Dec. 25 must have been chosen for other reasons. It is hard to escape the idea that by making Christmas fall immediately after the Saturnalia, the Pope invited converts to still enjoy the fun and games of the ancient holiday and just call it Christmas. Also, Dec. 25 was the day of the sun god, Sol Invictus, associated with the emperor. By using that date, the church tied itself to the imperial system....
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Alan L. Hayes - 12/21/2007

There are several problems in Mr. Gordon's article. The identification of the Last Supper as a seder meal fits with the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but not with the chronology of the gospel of John, where the crucifixion takes place at the moment that the passover lambs are being slain, i.e., before the passover meal. The implication that the Council of Nicea initiated the date of Easter is perhaps unintended, but in any event wrong. The idea that a date for Christmas was created by the pope in 354 is wrong; the celebration of Christmas certainly pre-dates 354, and in any event the pope has never had the kind of authority that would permit him to make decisions for eastern Christians. Julius Caesar, of course, pre-dates Christ. A more serious discussion of the dating of Christmas can be found in Thomas Talley, Origins of the Liturgical Year. The connection of Christmas with the Saturnalia is purely speculative and intrinsically unlikely. As for the date of the nativity, the first chapter of the gospel of Luke clearly points to December. At 1:8 Zechariah enters the sanctuary of the temple; this happened only at Yom Kippur, which in the Roman calendar falls in the period from mid-September to mid-October. In 1:26 the annunciation to Mary happens six months after that, which points to a range centering on March 25. Pregnancy lasts nine months, which brings us to late December. The idea that sheep aren't ever let outside in the winter in Israel is fanciful.