The Christmas lie

It’s a poignant and familiar image: a weary mother kneeling by a manger in the town of Bethlehem, wise men to the side, and an innocent, tiny child that would one day become an icon for so many people all over the world.

It’s a poignant and familiar image: a weary mother kneeling by a manger in the town of Bethlehem, wise men to the side, and an innocent, tiny child that would one day become an icon for so many people all over the world. Here in America, nearly everyone has heard some variation of the story, and it is difficult to go through December without seeing some representation of it. Churches across the nation recount the tale of the origin of Christmas to the congregations they serve. And all of them, from Catholic to Protestant, have got the real story all wrong.

The fact is that the real origin of Christmas—at least the modern traditional version we have all come to know—isn’t so tidy and easily explained. It’s the amalgamation of beliefs from all over the world, coalesced into a singular event celebrated everywhere. And it didn’t happen by accident.

Let’s start with something familiar: the date of Christmas. Christian churches and tradition tells us that we celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 in order to mark Jesus Christ’s birthday. In fact, historians extrapolating from biblical events and historical records estimate Christ’s birthday to be in either March or September—a three-month difference either way from the accepted date of today. So why celebrate it in December?

The best explanation for this lies in the early methods used in Christianity to convert new followers to the fledgling religion. See, early Christians weren’t as rigid and immoveable as today’s Christian leaders are. In fact, they were quite the opposite: shrewd, adaptive and pragmatic. They realized that the easiest way to convert people who already had a belief system of their own was to make the new religion that they were advertising a close analog to the preexisting belief. In an effort to convert Roman pagans, early Christians claimed that one of their holidays, Saturnalia, coincided with the birth of their savior, and convinced them to combine their two celebrations.

As a result, the yet-unnamed Christian holiday was born. For years, Christmas was celebrated the same way Saturnalia was: with indecent exposure, rape, public intoxication, murder, human sacrifice and delicious human-shaped cookies. These things were lost over time, gradually morphing into singing naked in the streets and drinking excessively. And thus the beginning of the holiday we now know came to be.

Along with the singing (now fully dressed and called caroling), the drinking and the human-shaped cookies which have persisted even today, the coagulation of Christian and Pagan beliefs also resulted in a tradition every child awaits with inescapable eagerness. The practice of giving gifts originated as a holdover from the pagan Saturnalia: Before Christianity had come along, gift-giving was a standard practice in Saturnalia. It wasn’t a good enough idea for Christians, though. As they found more beliefs to mesh with, they associated the practice with a bishop responsible for the New Testament’s survival of the ecumenical gathering of the Council of Nicaea: Bishop Nicholas of Myra, who in the 19th century was finally sainted. In other words, jolly old Saint Nicholas.

But not all Christmas traditions started with Saturnalia. One of them is as inseparable from Christmas as it gets: the Christmas tree. It all started, appropriately enough, with an attack on another belief system. A German man chopped down a tree known as the Tree of Thor to legitimize the Norse beliefs altogether. He told his town, Geismar, that the tree that grew in its place, a fir, was the symbol of Christianity, and the custom of decorating one for Christmas came about 1,000 years later with the symbolism firmly in place.

Really, Christmas doesn’t have much at all that it can call strictly original. Mistletoe comes from pagan and Norse beliefs. Candles come from Roman history, and the Yule Log comes from German tradition. The only thing it really came up with on its own was the Christian Mass from which Christmas’s name was derived: Christ’s Mass.

So the nativity scene, as beloved and representative as it may be, is only the first of the many things modern people picture incorrectly about Christmas. Few realize its origins in pagan festivities or the audacity with which early Christians claimed and remodeled the practices of other faiths. And despite the monopoly modern consumerism has on the future of the holiday, those origins aren’t going to change. ?