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How a mixture of Roman traditions and Christianity gave us Christmas

By Japheth Ogila | December 25th 2019
Commemoration of Christmas at the Vatican, Rome. [Courtesy]

Hooting cars, blaring music from the restaurants and clubs assault the ears. People dressed to kill colour the streets as travelers come in droves filling the busy bus stages to take their rides to the village.

The month is December and the 25th date is nearing. Nairobi City certainly not the most ideal place to be.

The Christmas Day, marked on December 25 by most Christian churches is a mysterious day of many shades.

It is the time that most religious Christians seize to engage in praise and worship and touch the lives of the less fortunate like orphans by giving them clothes and food.

Revelers also flock clubs marking the December 25 in style.

What is Christmas Day?

Christmas Day is also known as the Noel, Nativity or X-mas.

 It is a celebration that was instituted by a Roman Catholic cleric Pope Julius I in 340 AD as the day for commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. This is over 2,000 years ago.

In his article titled "The dark history of Christmas traditions,” published by The Independent in 2017, David Barnett paints a picture of uncertainty on the origin of the celebration which has so far commanded cultic following.

He writes that the date may have been changed from the earlier ones which historians believe that Jesus of Nazareth may have been born.

“Prior to that it was marked on at least three different other dates: 29 March, 6 January, and sometime in June – which historians today think is most likely, given that the nativity is meant to have occurred during a census-taking,” he wrote.

Scholars like Barnett argue that in the ancient days when the Christians were the minority, going against the grain by establishing new customs was difficult.

Thus, the Roman Empire working with the Roman Catholic Church had to devise ways of accommodating new converts who were mainly pagans.

For instance, the church did this by choosing December 25 as the celebration of the birthday of Jesus Christ, a day in which pagans celebrated Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture.

Barnett wrote: “There were two major pre-Christian festivals of note which roughly coincided with Christmas: the Roman Bacchanalia, or Saturnalia, and the Yule Feast of the Norse countries.

The Saturnalia began on December 19 and lasted for the better part of a week, which sounds about right for those currently enmeshed in the Christmas party rush.”

“The Roman god Saturn, in whose honour the festival was staged, was no benign Christ-figure or benevolent Santa, even though his party was eventually absorbed into Christmas.”

On the genesis of Christmas celebration in the ancient Roman Empire, History.com also reveals that the day has links with ancient traditions where Romans honoured pagan deities.

It states: “In Rome, where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north, Saturnalia... In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25.”

Some Roman Catholic clerics concede that there are no scriptural accounts documenting a date, month and year in which Jesus Christ was born. But they argue that December 25 celebration can be arrived at by approximating the time of his conception after Angel Gabriel informed his mother about it, as documented in the New Testament.

After being asked whether Jesus Christ was really born on December 25 by a Catholic faithful, Fr. William Saunders replied as follows in the Catholic Herald on December 19, 2013:

“The Gospels do not provide such information. Nevertheless, some scriptural detective work can help determine the date of Christ's birth.”

He further added: “St. Luke [also] recorded how the Archangel Gabriel told Mary that Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John (Lk 1:36), which means the Annunciation occurred March 25, as we celebrate. Nine months from March 25, or six months from June 24, renders the birth of Christ at Dec. 25, our Christmas.”

What the Bible says

In the Christian perspective, Jesus Christ is God who was born in the likeness of man. This implies that his mother would be pregnant and deliver him after nine months.

In Luke 1: 26-28, angel Gabriel informed Mary for the first time about her pregnancy in the sixth month of the year, which is June in the current Gregorian calendar.

When this is calculated, Jesus could not have been born in December 25 which would just be after 6 months of Mary’s pregnancy.

 Luke 1:26 states: “And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth…[verse 28] And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.”

Another school of thought traces the origin of the December 25 Christmas celebration from the Bible but does not link it to the birth of Jesus Christ. This argument goes that the day was initially used to mark the release of jailbirds.

This is linked to the book of Jeremiah 52:31 [NIV]: “In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the year Awel-Marduk became king of Babylon, on the twenty-fifth day of the twelfth month, he released Jehoiachin king of Judah and freed him from prison.”

Besides this, the theories surrounding the use of the Christmas tree which is synonymous with the event even delinks it further from Christianity.

According to History.com, the Egyptians adored trees in honour of an ancient god called Ra. And as for the Romans, trees marked a significant aspect of Saturnalia, a pagan fete which later slipped its way into Christmas event.

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