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The Unholy Christmas

Posted by RB Kollannur on April 16, 2011


In a week or so, Catholics around the world will celebrate the festival of Easter in memory of the Resurrection of Jesus. Easter used to be the primary event in the Christian calendar in its formative centuries. But it is no longer so. The fall of Easter and its subsequent replacement by Christmas tells the story of the early evolution of Christianity.

The tradition of Easter is almost as old as Christianity. Late in second century AD, Christianity was almost drawn into a split over the date of its celebration. Eusebius, author of “The History of the Church” (V.24), describes the Roman bishop Victor excommunicating Christians who celebrated Easter in-line the Jewish festival of Passover. Many Christians from Anatolia followed this tradition while many others preferred to practise it on a Sunday since Jesus was said to have been resurrected on a Sunday. Eventually the opposing views reached a compromise and apparently the order was rescinded. Perhaps as a lasting legacy of this early controversy, even now Christians around the world are undecided on when to celebrate Easter, with the Orthodox churches following the archaic Julian calendar to choose the date.

Nevertheless, the controversy signifies the role Easter played in early Christianity. Christmas, on the other hand, was a virtual unknown. The third century theologian, Origen (revered by Eusebius in his book), is said to have dismissed celebration of birthdays as a symptom of sinners (or self centred monarchs like Pharaohs). It is only in the fourth century that we see the first indication of Christmas with the “Chronography of 354” making a mention of December 25 as the date of birth of Christ. But celebration of Christmas was still far from being mainstream. Easter was still very much at the centre of things, being one of the main discussions in the Council of Nicaea in 325. In fact it was another festival that gained popularity in the fourth century – Epiphany, though given its similarity with Christmas both can be merged together.

Christmas now has become the most widely celebrated festival in the world after the football world cup and dethroned Easter as the premier event in the Christian calendar. This happened because Christmas adopted many characteristics that preachers like Origen or Eusebius would have deemed heretic.

Christmas initially found favour among the Germanic successors of Rome. Charlemagne chose to be crowned as Emperor on the Christmas Day of 800. William the Conqueror would follow suit later in England in 1066. Origen’s words do indeed seem prophetic seeing the kingly association of Christmas. Practices like Christmas carol and even lesser known ones like Yule log and Christmas ham (Popular in the western world) were borrowed from the Norse winter festival of Yule. The Christmas tree is said to signify a Christian saint cutting down a tree sacred to the Norse to demean its importance among the Norse. But the fact that the tree retained a religious significance indicates that it remains as an allusion to the Donar Oak (The sacred tree of Thor that was cut down) or even Yggdrasil, the world tree of Norse mythology. The most popular of the Christmas symbols, Santa Claus, is a reference to the Norse god, Odin, represented in the form of Sinterklaas, one of the base characters of Santa Claus. All these adoptive characteristics made Christmas more popular among the Germanic and the Norse tribes since it made Christianity a continuation of their earlier traditions, instead of adoption of a new one. It may be worth noting though that among the Orthodox churches, where the Germans and the Norse had little influence, Easter still retains its primary position.

What also needs to be noted is that many of these customs where first adopted by the people themselves and not by the Church. The merger of Yule with Christmas was brought upon by the Norwegian king, Haakon I, who converted Norway to Christianity but realized Yule’s importance among his people. Later these customs spread across the Christian world. Now, the word “Yuletide” has become synonymous with the time of Christmas. The practice of Christmas tree was popularized by traders in the Baltic nations. Santa Claus, in its current form, was created by cartoonist Thomas Nast (also responsible for Uncle Sam) and got later popularized around the world by Coca Cola. Now, Santa is one of the most recognized characters in the world.

None of these movements were initiated by the Church and so were beyond their control. As a result, Christmas flourished as the festival of Christians while Easter dwindled as the festival of the Church.

Though the causes for the rise in popularity of Christmas is fairy evident, the reason for Christmas becoming a Christian festival remains unclear, especially since it is likely to have been condoned by the theologians of early Christianity. This shift of opinion on Christmas can be explained by a singular event in fourth century, an event which changed the character of Christianity as well.

In 313, Roman Emperors Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan allowing Christians to practice their religion. After around three centuries of condemnation by Rome, Christianity was finally allowed a reprieve. The pro Christian stance of Constantine made Christianity the preferred religion among Romans, though it was only in 380 that it became the official Roman religion. But by then, the Empire had become mostly Christian.

Christianity had drawn its earliest followers from the failed states of Syria, Judea and Egypt, which provided the main power centres of early Christianity – Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. All these were conquered by Rome around the life of Jesus (Syria – 63 BC, Judea – 6 BC, Egypt – 30 BC). The Roman defeat brought a religious vacuum to these regions. The development of various Gnostic and Christian sects occurred during this period because of this vacuum. Rome for its part incorporated the customs and traditions of these regions to ease conversion to the Roman cause. It had become a common practice for Rome to incorporate the gods of their conquered regions to their pantheon. The success of this policy can be seen by the popularity of Syrian god Elagabalus and Egyptian goddess Isis within the Roman religion in 3rd century AD.

Having faced a considerable reversal to their nationalistic future, it is likely that Christianity, with its emphasis of salvation and after life, came as an attractive alternative to these people. In addition, Christianity came with the absolution of sins with baptism and the promise of a heavenly after life. Martyrdom was glorified and resurrection after a sacrificial death was celebrated with Easter. For people who had lost everything to the Roman might, Christianity seemed the perfect answer and Easter its cornerstone.

This all changed with the switch by Constantine. It was no longer the religion of the downtrodden, but the religion of the victorious. Christians were now the most powerful people in the world and the Roman Christians had a lot to look forward in life. A religion emphasizing on death and after life would prove to be a dampener. To remain relevant to its new followers, Christianity needed to evolve.

This began with the displacement of Easter and the focus shifting from Christ’s death to his birth. It is likely that the negative sentiment about celebrating birthdays shared by Origen still remained, so it was Epiphany that gained initial popularity. But with memory of pre Constantinian Christianity fading, Christmas became numero uno.

Additionally, the Constantinian shift had another lasting impact on Christianity. As seen earlier, Christmas adopted the customs of its new converts to help conversion. This is an inference to its Roman predecessor. When Constantine made Roman religion Christianity, what he actually did was make Christianity a Roman religion.

PS: I have tried to expand on the impact of Constantine’s decisions and their reasons in my fictional story of the death of Crispus, son of Constantine – The Last Caesar.

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2 Responses to “The Unholy Christmas”

  1. Rickson said

    Well written Ranjith, I liked your reference style as well.

  2. The December 25 feast seems to have existed before 312—before Constantine and his conversion, at least. As we have seen, the Donatist Christians in North Africa seem to have know it from before that time. Furthermore, in the mid- to late fourth century, church leaders in the eastern Empire concerned themselves not with introducing a celebration of Jesus’ birthday, but with the addition of the December date to their traditional celebration on January 6.

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