It is the day that Christ was born. Christmas. Tuesday this year. Why are so many companies even open on Monday? Two more shopping days from today, although W algreens and CVS are open on Christmas Day itself, for you louts who haven’t bought anything for your wives or girlfriends. Can you say “Chia Pet?” Or maybe you’d like to get her that quart jar of cold cream. Remember that term, cold cream, the stuff you got for your mother?
Or so tradition says that Christ was born this day. But really, experts pretty much agree Dec. 25 wasn’t the day Christ was born, and that it didn’t happen 2,018 years ago, but four to six years before that, which would make it about 1,987 years before computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, which we all now recognize as the Second Coming.
Some say that the grand poohbahs in early Christianity commandeered the old Roman festival of Saturnalia, said to be held on Dec. 17 of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through Dec. 23, and simply declared it Christmas. It was a time of merry-making, banquets and gift-giving by the Romans, those light-hearted souls who gave us blood-soaked gladiatorial games and crucifixion. Hey, whatever. Everyone according to their tastes and values, as we say now, who are we to cast judgment on someone else’s culture, even if they did enjoy watching Nubians being eaten alive by starved lions? Everything is relative, you know.
Experts also say that celebrating the birthday of Christ wasn’t even really important to early Christians. The event became a raucous and sometimes bawdy holiday once the Germans and Irish got a hold of it centuries later, two once-pagan, low-brow, superstitious cultures that pioneered craft-beer brewing but strangely never developed the bottle cap; they had to drink it right away. The Germans and Irish did invent the belt, however, something which the Romans strangely never thought of, having to wear those loose robes all the time.
The early Puritans of New England wanted to ban Christmas altogether, and that’s a fact, thinking it just a drunken holiday for Catholics, who, by the way, they had reason to fear and dislike, since the Catholics’ favorite strategy for dealing with dissent was burning people at the stake. Besides, Puritans, whose descendants still dominate New England and have shape-shifted into some of the more zealous PC police and environmentalists in the nation, resented the notion that someone, somewhere, was having some fun. The Puritans, ironically, eagerly adopted the belts developed by the Irish and Germans and evolved them into huge things with big buckles. Where their funny hats came from is still a mystery, but it’s believed Cotton Mather started wearing one as a joke, thinking it would be funny if everyone started following suit. He was the only Puritan with a sense of humor, having later invented the hand buzzer.
A lot of people have said over the years that Christ’s birth didn’t happen at all. Not in Bethlehem or anywhere else. There was no manger, no shepherds keeping watch, no Wise Men on the horizon bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. There was no guiding star in the heavens, no angels.
There are only two accounts of the Nativity in the Bible, by the evangelists Luke and Matthew. The accounts agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the time of Herod the Great — incidentally, one big badass — that his mother Mary was married to Joseph, a descendant of the House of David, and not the biological father, and that his conception was the result of divine intervention.
After that, the two biblical narratives agree on little else; it’s as if the two never got their stories straight or even talked, and the Bible’s editors and proofreaders were gone that month. Matthew does not mention the Roman census, annunciation to the shepherds, or presentation in the temple, and does not give the name of the angel that appeared to Joseph to foretell the birth. Luke doesn’t mention the three wise men, no flight into Egypt, or Herod’s massacre of the innocents.
It’s the consensus of scholars that both gospels were written about AD 75-85, a generation or even two after Christ’s death and resurrection.
Neither evangelist claims to have been there to eyewitness it himself; and in fact, there is no attribution offered. Many experts think Matthew and Luke are made-up, composite characters themselves; they may have been a whole bunch of people who sat around a big table, drank wine, and came up with the story.
“Yeah, let’s put four wise men in the story,” one said. “Four? Three sounds better; people will believe three,” another says. “Let’s make them from the East; no one’s going to know exactly where that is. Nobody even knows what’s in the East.”
“Oh, yeah, let’s make it so they can’t get a room in Bethlehem; they have to go to a crummy manger. People will believe that; come on, it’s always hard to get a room in Bethlehem that time of year. After all, the Romans descend on the place to celebrate that awful Saturnalia. Those tribes from Germany are now starting to show up, too.”
Oh, one final word. I believe it all happened pretty much as it’s told to us. So, that settles that.
Prove me wrong.
John McGauley, an author and local radio talk show host, writes from Keene. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org