Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Myths

Let's look back at this history of the upcoming holiday and dive into the myths some people hold.

1. Jesus was born on December 25th. Now, most people who take five seconds to think about the problem of dating and correlating the Jewish calendar with the Julian and Gregorian calendar will realize that the date "December 25th" is rather arbitrary. Historians figure that December 25th was chosen to correlate with celebrations already in place among cultures in the Roman Empire which fell around the Winter Solstice, including celebrating Mithra's birth by Romans. The origin of celebrating Jesus' birth on the 25th of December is somewhat of a mystery. Origen denounced celebrating the birth of Jesus as if he were a "king pharaoh." Tertullian makes no mention of a feast around this time. In 221 CE, Sextus Julius Africanus completed his Chronographiai, a reference book for Christians covering the complete history of the world in five books, from Creation to 221. He placed the Incarnation at March 25, 1 BCE. Tick the clock forward nine months, and you get December 25. Seemed to make sense, it was a popular idea, appeased traditions, and continues to this day. He also dates the birth of Jesus to 5500 years after Creation.

2. Angels sang at Christmas. Go ahead, read the nativity stories in the Bible. Show me when angels sang.

3. Three wise men visited Jesus shortly after his birth. I remember this one from a trivia question which was during a Christmas event at school. The Bible never mentions the number of wise men. Also, Matthew 2:11 tells of the wise men visiting Mary with her young child, not a baby or infant, to present the three gifts. That may be nit picking, but that telling makes more sense when Herod's orders to kill every first born male 2 years and younger.

4. Mary and Joseph fled into Egypt after an angel tips them off about Herod. Matthew 2:14 tells this story, but Luke 2:39 has the trio going off to Nazareth after the post birthing rituals are finished.

5. The Immaculate Conception refers to the birth of Jesus by Mary. This dogma has more to do with the purity of Mary, that she was free from Original Sin. The dogma was not official until 1854, decreed by Pope Pius IX.

6. King Herod ordered the Slaughter of the Innocents. This myth is supported by the Biblical record alone. Maybe it was an event which was not significant to record. Maybe all records of the event did not survive history. Maybe commentary on writings on the event did not survive.

7. Candy canes were created by a candy maker in Indiana as lower case "J's" and were colored with red stripes to represent Jesus' suffering, blood, and whipping. Candy canes are as old as the 1400's, created as a straight stick by French priests. The bent shape was popularized in 1670 by a German choirmaster, who viewed the bent sticks as shepherd's hooks. The red coloring wasn't added until the 1900's.

8. Mary was a virgin before she gave birth to Jesus. The concept of a virginal birth is so strikingly important to Christians that many could not fathom it. Paul makes no mention of a virginal birth in his epistles. John and Mark don't see anything worth writing home about Jesus' birth of a virgin. Of course, this is an Argument from Silence, so you are left to judge it as you may. Some have argued that fleshing out the story of Jesus' birth, adding the Nativity story complete with virgin birth, was done to convince skeptics who doubted the divinity of Jesus. Another element used to convince doubters, was to trace Jesus' lineage through Joseph to David. Check the accounts in Matthew and Luke. They don't seem to add up. Jesus' family is described a humble, not of royal lineage.

9. Jesus was born in a stable. Isiah, who is the basis for the prophesy of Emmanuel, and can be used well to elaborate on details when needed. For example, Isiah 1:3 "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider." See? While Luke includes the manger bit, the stable is left out, you can use Isiah to fill it in. Take Isiah 60:6 "The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD." Now you know why the magi ride on camels, despite that detail missing from Luke or Matthew.

10. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was created for Montgomery Wards. This is true. The story was created in 1939 by Robert L. May, and was loosely based on the ugly ducking story. The character has not passed in to the public domain.


Gayle said...

Luke 2:13 αἰνούντων whose root word is:
αἰνέω,v {ahee-neh'-o}
1) to praise, extol, to sing praises in honour to God 2) to allow, recommend 3) to promise or vow

Bjorn said...

So, it depends on a definition, which has multiple meanings with most common interpretation "praising God" used. While the interpretation of the definition of αἰνούντων is open, the application in translation has been to the first part of the first definition. The reason for the myth, is that in current translation, the image of angels singing is not described as directly as some would assume considering the ubiquity of singing angels in nativity plays. Definition played a part in the tradition of the story, and I would imagine that the use of singing angels is powerful when you have the right choir backing up the play. Also, further in the piece, the angel says, not sings the bit about glory and peace.

Gayle said...

Yes, interpretation plays a big part in the search for God and it allows for dialogue among people as to why they see or interpret things the way they do. Megan was bothered a bit by the sermon on christmas eve because the pastor was describing a meteor show and how it made her wonder at God's gift of nature's spectacles. When she told someone about the meteor show the person began to explain it in scientific terms and how there was very little to wonder about. Are things that can be explained less holy than unexplainable phenomenon? I didn't think that that was what the pastor was trying to get at but it was Megan's interpretation of it. 2 people sitting in the same pew, in the same church, on the same night, listening to the same sermon coming away with very different ideas which we shared.

Bjorn said...

Oh, I firmly believe no one marches in line with anyone else when it comes to interpretation. Dogmatic affirmations provide unity in a religious community, but in the minds of those people, views can be strikingly unique. I think there is much awe in the explainable, fascination in the mundane and ordinary. I'm sure people who are not religious have an emotional response to watching something like a meteor shower, even if they were an astronomer who predicted that it would happen, and knew exactly what it would look like. Figuring out the how makes the mysterious that much more exciting.