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The meaning of Christmas

Last updated on 22 Jun 2018

Screen Shot 2011 12 22 at 8 33 56 AM

Tony Piro creatively borrows from Peanuts. Click on the picture to see the full comic.

Tony has Linus give a fairly standard view, that Christmas is based on prior religious traditions. He carefully avoids making Linus repeat the “Christmas is the birthdate of [insert deity or religious figure]” view, which so far as I can tell entered popular discussion with the 1911 entry of the Encyclopedia Brittanica on “Christmas”. There is no credible evidence that this is true, although given we only have 365 choices, and the original date of Christmas was indeed the winter solstice (before the calendrical reforms of the Gregorian Calendar), it is likely to be true in some case. What is missing is evidence of influence. It is, at best, conjecture.

But there is another story, which unfortunately I cannot remember the source of. I think it was in an essay either by Joachim Jeremias, a German scholar of the early Christian church who lived in Jerusalem, or Martin Hengel, another NT scholar, who I read back in the 70s. The story as I recall it is this:

Early in the Christian period, before Christmas became standardised in the 4th century (despite evidence of Christians in Thrace and Gaul celebrating it on the solstice, there is little evidence Christ’s birth was even important) there were what we now call the Christological Debates. Two especially significant views of Christ’s divinity were at issue: one was the view that became the “orthodox” view, that Christ was born divine and human (the trinitarian view affirmed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451CE) and the view that Jesus’ became divine upon his baptism (adoptionism, a view that persisted until the modern day; also called “monarchialism”). Those in the east of the range of Christianity tended towards adoptionism, and so the baptism of Jesus took on a special significance.

Since religious cults as they move into a region tend to adopt a similar sort of calendar to the surrounding culture, so that adherents can celebrate at the same times as their neighbours, more or less, the Adoptionists cast about for a festival that matched the idea. They chose to celebrate Christ’s divinifaction at the time of the festival of the rising of the Nile, which occurred around the (then) 6th of January (now the 10th in the reformed calendar). This celebrated the beginnings of the annual inundation of the Nile.

Those who became orthodoxy itself needed to select a festival on which to celebrate Jesus’ birth, since it was the Incarnation that was central to their theology. The winter solstice was the obvious one. It already had connotations of divine rebirth through Roman and other festivals (not coincidentally also held on the solstice). So this is why the western church celebrates Christmas around 25 December, and the Eastern church (the so-called “orthodox” church, which is itself an offshoot of the trinitarians, not the adoptionists) took over the established celebration in early January.

Now, I don’t know the current scholarly consensus on this – I haven’t read this stuff in over 30 years – but it seems more likely than the simple claim that Tony doesn’t make, that Christmas is “just” the agricultural celebration of the winter solstice. But of course I am an Antipodean, a member of the class of peoples that Augustine and others said were impossible because the southern hemisphere was isolated from the north by a band of fire at the equator. Hence I would not be likely to adopt the sensible view that God was, indeed, born mid-winter. It’s bloody summer!

Anyway, if shepherds really were watching their flocks by night, as Luke tells us, then it was probably around May. Too damned cold for flocks to be out on the hills in December!

Happy solticial festivals of your own significance and traditions to you all. I think it is actually Pastamas myself.


  1. S S

    My cats say it is Fishy Day. But they think every day is Fishy Day.

  2. Marilyn Marilyn

    “Those in the east of the range of Christianity tended towards adoptionism, and so the baptism of Jesus took on a special significance”.

    Jesus was the “only begotten son of God” it is a monogenus description. “Monogenes describes the absolutely unique relation of the Son to the Father in His divine nature; prototokos describes the relation of the Risen Christ in His glorified humanity to man” Hebrews ch 1 vs 5, 6 so we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Happily, Joyfully.

  3. Hi John,
    Anyway, if shepherds really were watching their flocks by night, as Luke tells us, then it was probably around May. Too damned cold for flocks to be out on the hills in December!

    This has always puzzled me. Friends who travel to Israel this time of year tell me the weather is usually beautiful. Or do we have some data on the global climate 2,000 years ago that to the effect temps were colder then?


    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      From the sources I have read, that’s when lambing occurs in Palestine.

      • Can’t be sure about the weather 2011 years ago. This December in Israel, is wasn’t very cold, and almost no rain at all. I remember it used to rain more in the winter when I was a kid, but still, I could imagine a reasonable December night in which you could send the gees grazing.

  4. Mijnheer Mijnheer

    Happy Holy Days to all!

    • What about atheists, who only have unholy days? Or agnostics, who only have aholy days?

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Nice bit of detective work. I think you’re right.

  5. Happy Aholidays John ๐Ÿ™‚

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Thanks a lot. I just walked for 40 minutes in the hot sun singing to myself “I’m an asshole!” because I read this comment.

      Same to you buddy.

      • John, I do not know what went wrong here. You made me laugh when I read your sentence, “Or agnostics, who only have aholy days?” I honestly meant nothing but good cheer to you. I understand that I have on occasion unintentionally insulted people. If you do not believe me, then ask my wife. ๐Ÿ™‚ I also admit that I sometimes challenge various view presented in the blogosphere, but I never intend to insult, especially without provocation. Please consider my last comment nothing but an attempt at good-natured humor and cheer that perhaps was mistaken.

        By the way, our talks at Talk Origins and here have greatly helped me to grasp a better understanding of many philosophical topics, while you even helped to change my mind about points of scientific theory, ID, and cladistics. I feel that you have inadvertently greatly my skills in writing and informal logic. I hope to continue our dialogue as friends whether we agree of whether we disagree. ๐Ÿ™‚

        • John S Wilkins John S Wilkins

          Was joke. In good humor. Is all okay. Happy —days.

  6. Somebody has to say it and being a mean spirited son of a bitch I shall do the honours, “Christmas, Bah Humbug!”

  7. Raving Raving

    we only have 365 choices

    Annus bisextus

    • I gave an engineer’s definition; good enough within tolerances.

  8. Louis Louis


    I feel at this time of year, whilst those gullible fools and blinkered bliss ninnies are blithely wishing only good things upon each other, it behoves us reality based folk to remind people of the real dangers. Krampus stalks* the streets and will put naughty children in a sack and beat them with a birch stick.

    Don’t forget the reason for the season.


    *Okay, “stalked” is more accurate. About 19 days ago, but why let facts get in the way of comedy?

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