Even as an atheist, I love the holiday season. It may not seem like it to most Christians, but there are plenty of secular reasons to get caught up in the holiday spirit: the weather, the presents, the giving, the happiness, the family. The list goes on.
But, in keeping with the tradition of demonizing non-believers in any way they can, some Christian fundamentalists have declared that there’s apparently a “War on Christmas” that’s been waging for the past several decades. And they must be right, cause we know how good fundies are at fact-checking, don’t we? Please. Leave it to the religious right to trivialize war.
The irony here is, if there is a war on Christmas, it’s Christians who fired the first bullet. Yep, your old friend Black Jeezus is about to lay waste to yet another cherished irrational belief: The Christmas Myth. So if you’re one of those people with delicate sensibilities, I suggest you navigate away, posthaste.
The History of Christmas
The birth of Jesus, as a holiday, was not celebrated by early Christians in the slightest. In fact, in keeping with Jewish law, it is unlikely that any birthdays were celebrated at all. The truth is, we have no record of a December 25th nativity until 354 CE, after Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman empire; and that day was chosen for a reason. Before then, many European and Middle Eastern cultures celebrated winter festivals to commemorate the birth of their gods, including one particularly popular Roman holiday known as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, which translates to “birthday of the unconquered sun.” On this day, several different sun gods were worshiped collectively, including Sol (the god of emperor Aurelian), Elah-Gabal (the Syrian solar deity), and Mithra (the Persian soldier sun god). They chose December 25th to correspond with the Winter Solstice.
Other winter holidays in history also played a huge part in the shaping of our current holiday traditions. The gift-giving, caroling, and merrymaking came from the Roman festival Saturnalia. The tree, yule log, and feasts come from both the Roman New Year and a Scandinavian festival known as Yule. Except for maybe the nativity scene, there are almost no Christmas traditions that have any biblical basis. Most historical sources regard the institution of Christmas on December 25th as an attempt by 3rd and 4th century Christians to take the focus away from the other pagan gods that had holidays on that day or during that season.
When Was Jesus Born, Anyway?
Let’s ignore the fact that the first book of the New Testament written, The Gospel of Mark (written 70 CE), doesn’t even mention Jesus’ birth (which is kind of an important detail in the story, you’d think), and that Paul doesn’t mention it either (though he does mention that Jesus was born “of the Seed of David” in Romans 1:3, and to “a woman,” not a virgin, in Galatians 4:4). I’m tempted to delve a bit more into these issues, because Paul was an apologist and Jesus’ virgin birth would have been an important detail to include in the story if your aim is to convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. But for now, let’s just focus on the stories that we do have.
The Nativity is mentioned in only half of the Gospels, namely Matthew and Luke. A lot of what made Jeshua ben Yosef a Messianic figure depends on the circumstances surrounding his birth; so if you’re writing to convince Jews, you have to talk about the birth, or the jig is up. But when comparing the stories, we run into a heap of problems.
What year was Jesus born? Matthew says that he was born during the reign of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1). Luke says he was born during the first Israeli census when Cyrenius (also known as Quirinius) was governor of Syria (Luke 2:2). The problem here is that Herod died in 4 BCE, while Cyrenius’ census could not have taken place until at least 6 CE, when he became governor. That’s ten years apart, people (see how good I am at math?). There’s no way both passages can be true. Which means that one or both of them are wrong.
[A Brief Bit of Irony: The main (but not the only) source of the dates of Herod’s death and the reign of Cyrenius is Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. Ironically, Antiquities of the Jews is one of only two credible sources that Christian apologists cite when asked for any evidence outside of the bible that Jesus existed. That’s right… the very same book that contradicts the circumstances of Jesus’ birth is also used to argue that he existed. Give. Me. A fucking. Break.]
Location, Location, Location…
The prophecies had stated that the Messiah would have to be born in Bethlehem in Jerusalem. Both Nativity stories do indeed indicate that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but both give conflicting reasons as to why they were there. Matthew asserts in Chapters 1 and 2 that they were already in Bethlehem and then fled to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth to escape the Slaughter of Innocents (more on that later). But Luke, in Chapter 2, claims that they started off in Nazareth and went to Bethlehem because the census required that each person be counted in his or her place of birth.
Not to sound like a broken record here, but there’s no record of any census in history where people were required to go back to their place of birth to register. And we can easily imagine why: the purpose of every census back then was purely for taxation. So the government was much more interested in where their people lived and worked, not where they were born. And even if you were basing it on the place of birth, would it not have been loads easier to simply ask, rather than the logistical nightmare of having everyone physically go to their respective birthplaces? Nearly every census in history, including those near the time in question, had the people register in the city in which they lived and worked. It’s therefore absolutely absurd to believe that any sane governor would require all of his subjects to relocate for the purpose of a census, especially when there is not a shred of historical evidence to support such an event.
The Slaughter of the Innocents
Speaking of the absence of historical evidence, we now come to the Matthew account that speaks of the mass murder of thousands of newborn babies purportedly ordered by Herod the Great. There’s not a shred of historical or archaeological evidence that this happened. None. Zero. And such a brutal event would have been a big deal, in any historical context. Not even Josephus, who relished in pointing out the horrible things that Herod did, mentioned anything like the slaughter that Matthew recounts… which would have been Herod’s greatest crime by far, if it were true. Unfortunately (I should say “fortunately” for those babies), the story is pure historical fiction, and nothing more.
At this point doesn’t it seem obvious that the writers of Matthew and Luke, in their respective Nativity stories, are merely making attempts to explain how the man known as Jesus of Nazareth was born in the city of Bethlehem?
Think about it. We have two separate authors (or groups of authors) in separate regions, who are, independently of each other, attempting to convince Jews that Jesus fulfills the messianic prophecies present in their scriptures. One very important prophecy states that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. But you have a problem, because everyone knows that Jesus is a Nazarene, and there’s a separate prophecy that says he’ll be called a Nazarene, which means they have to make the story start off in Bethlehem and somehow end up in Nazareth. So they each tried as best they could to come up with a story that tied the man to the prophecies. And if you compare the two accounts, this makes perfect sense. The events and details from one story are completely absent or altered in the other, including the stable, the manger, the shepherds, the Magi & gifts, the star. This also explains a boatload of other contradictions also present in the gospels. Go ahead. Read it for yourself, people. I’m not making this up.
Wrapping it Up… (oh, I love holiday-themed puns)
Some of you know that, as much as I love the holidays, I’ve been critical of America’s obsession with Christmas for a long time. Even when I was Christian myself. Christmas has really become a commercial and social beast with an insatiable hunger, and it seems that anyone who dares to publicly attack or even question the history or validity of the Christmas holiday is usually met with hostility. But as I’ve just shown, the touchiness surrounding December 25th is completely unfounded.
The holiday season belongs to everyone. Not just Christians. So let’s unite, give gifts, sing some songs, enjoy each other’s company, and most importantly, let’s not forget the real reason for the season… heliocentrism and axial tilt.
Happy holidays, a-holes!