Have you ever wondered why Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus in December, especially since scientists determined long ago (based on celestial charts) that he was actually born in the Spring?
It probably comes as no surprise that I view nearly everything through the eyes of a historian, and that includes the various religious celebrations on the calendar. The Jewish religious calendar more or less revolves around the seasonal agricultural cycles based on appropriate activities: harvest, planting, etc. I’m not an expert in either religion or agriculture, but my guess is that many religions have this as a common denominator. In December, of course, most of the world’s agricultural lands are lying fallow. So what’s with Christmas?
Simply put, after four centuries, the Catholic Church (the only Christians at the time) was not having much luck getting the peasantry to observe their savior’s birth at all, never mind the date. So they did something very savvy. They picked a date that the unwashed masses were already celebrating (the pagan Roman winter solstice festival of Saturnalia), hoping that by piggybacking on its popularity the focus could be turned to their own purposes.
Well, it worked! Not right away, of course, but their reasoning was sound, and eventually the traditionally wild gatherings involving excessive drinking and promiscuity morphed into more sedate merriment, focused on children.
Here in America, of course, we have largely adopted the Christmas traditions introduced by our immigrant forefathers. The earliest Euro-Americans (Puritans and Pilgrims) got a head-start on other nationalities, frowning on any frivolities whatsoever, which kind of put a damper on Christmas. Throughout New England it was common to have this ban codified into local and state laws.
It took the German immigrants in the middle of the nineteenth century – with a helping hand from Queen Victoria (who was married to a prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and whose own ancestry was very Teutonic) – to introduce the German-inspired Christmas tree to America, and we were off and running toward creating our own version of the various traditions from around the world. Very fitting, I think, for an immigrant nation. (In case you’re wondering, no, the Native Americans don’t have anything comparable in their traditions, though all tribes treasure their own purely American origin stories).
As an American who is especially fond of our diverse heritage, I rather like the concept of observing this season which – more than any other – promotes the concept of Peace, with our own versions of traditional customs from around the world.
So I’m going to close out the year with my own version of politically-correct holiday wishes:
Merry Saturnalia to all, and to all a good night!