Bible scholars inform us of contradictions and impossibilities in the biblical accounts contributing to the myth, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (the authors actually are unknown, but that’s another story). Rev. E. J. Niles, a scholar quoted in Unity magazine, says,
I love how Joseph was said to take his pregnant wife Mary 94 miles to Bethlehem to fulfill a type of civic duty (a census) that most women would never have even participated in during those times.Also factual nonsense are the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, which disagree with each other, as do their implied dates of Jesus’ birth. Quirinius was governor after Herod died, not before.
But we don’t need Bible scholars to tell us that the manger myth lacks facts; any intelligent reader can infer its disagreements with science and history. Myths are not about facts; they're about meaning.
Not until the third century, at the earliest, did Christmas begin. It developed in competition with Pagan feasts observing the birthday of the sun on the winter solstice, when the sun “dies” as daylight reaches its shortest point and then is reborn or resurrected as daylight increases. The Romans celebrated Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, “whose annual journey across our sky can be celebrated worldwide as a truly unifying expression of our global family.” This last lovely sentiment comes from Acharya S., an atheist writer. I note this to banish Christian notions that we own Christmas exclusively.
The earliest written record of Christmas appeared in 336 CE, and in 354, a calendar entry for December 25 listed the births of both Sol Invictus and of Christ in Bethlehem of Judea. This double notice provides an example of syncretism, the melding of religious ideas, which, contrary to Christian claims, occurred often in our tradition.
Before the earth was known to be a revolving sphere, the sun mysteriously disappeared in the west every evening, followed some unknown course below earth during the night, then reappeared in the east every morning. Naturally this cycle of nature inspired mythmaking. The Goddess enveloped the sun in her body in the evening and sent it forth in the morning. The Greek sun god Helios crossed the heavens from east to west in a shiny chariot, descended to the underworld, and was "born anew every morning," sang the poet Horace.
The sun's daily descent and ascent also provided rich Christian symbolism. Surrounded by and steeped in Greek myth, Christians of the early centuries imagined Christ journeying to the underworld and rising in the east. "As the sun rises daily for all, so the mystical Sun of Righteousness rises for all," sang a Christian verse. In ancient records Christ was listed as one sun deity among several.
Pagans called their birthday feast of the sun god “Epiphany,” meaning "appearance." The Pagan Epiphany happened on January 6, which also became the date of the rival Christian feast celebrating Christ's appearance in the flesh, showing Christmas to be one solar celebration among several.
Calendar adjustments moved the winter solstice to December 25 and later to December 21. Some quarreling between Christians in East and West broke out when the East continued to observe the birth of Christ on January 6 after the West switched to December 25. Today Eastern Orthodox Christians still celebrate Christmas on January 6.
Because of its Pagan origin, the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas at all, and a few other Christian groups have discredited Christmas for the same reason. But that would also disqualify Easter, All Souls Day (Halloween), and other Christian feasts related to Pagan holidays.
For thousands of years before Christians took over solstice celebrations, human cultures developed myth and ritual to mark it. Huge bonfires were an important part of such events. We can easily imagine that before artificial light existed, the annual shrinking of light down to the shortest day of the year, followed by the steady growth of light foretelling spring, would have had a huge impact on human life.
Today we see the human impulse to light up the darkness in the riot of artificial lighting from November to January. The lights are not necessarily related to the Christian festival, as few people in the West believe the manger story literally anymore.
But for good reasons we continue singing songs that repeat and embellish the myth. There must be something besides commercial value that makes Christmas precious to more than believing Christians. The birth of the Child represents the birth of the precious Self inside each of us, the Christ consciousness in every person—the urge to give generously, the warm feelings of unity with all. This, I believe, is the enduring value of Christmas.
Christmas message, December 26, 2008
Here's my Christmas message along with my consoling philosophy/faith. I learned 28 years ago that I could reconcile my knowledge of Christian myth with my need for spiritual solace by trusting in a Higher Power. It shows Its face in interesting ways when I give myself over to Its guidance.
I was planning to drive somewhere on Christmas Day, having spent Christmas Eve with my son and daughter. In various ways I was prompted to change my mind, sure that it was best to stay home. I prepared to enjoy music and reading. But a friend in emotional need called and we spent much of the day together. I could not have been there for her, had I insisted on my original plan instead of being attuned to the subtle prompts diverting me from that plan.
This sort of thing happens to me often—an inner thread pulling me through the little and big decisions of life. Others attuned to a Higher Power, whether they respond to Jesus or another name, will not scoff at this.
I don’t consider this a late Christmas message. When I was growing up we started the Christmas season on December 25, and it lasted through January. The Advent period before that really did await the day when celebrations would start. On Christmas morning we woke up to the miracle performed by Christ Kindchen the night before. He brought our presents, trimmed the tree, made Christmas cookies—everything. When a school classmate told me slyly that Santa Claus was fake, I was surprised that he’d ever believed in silly Santa Claus. It did start the wheels in my little brain turning with regard to belief in the miracle.
I resent consumerism for stealing Christmas. On this day after December 25, radio stations refuse to play Christmas music anymore, the inspirational, meditative music appropriate to this dark and wintry transitional time between the old and the new. Professional musicians and singers who perform the music know its text is based on myth but appreciate our spiritual heritage. But the commercial world has convinced Americans that material stuff makes up the whole purpose of life. No more buying presents after the 25th, so no reason to play Christmas music. Despicable reasoning.
I wonder what the purveyors of consumerism think “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are about. The twelfth day was Epiphany on January 6, which was the Roman Empire’s winter solstice until a calendar adjustment moved it to December 25. Pagan religions celebrated the birth of the sun on this day and Christians established a rival feast to celebrate the birthday of their “true sun.” When the solstice moved to the 21st in another adjustment, Christmas stayed on the 25th in the West, but Eastern Orthodox still celebrate Christmas on January 6.
Dates and names are less important than the theme of death and renewal—Easter’s theme. For this reason it was a more important Christian feast than Christmas, before consumerism stepped in. Enough of that.
May the economic downturn direct us away from material things during the following year and toward healthy, loving relationships. This is my Christmas wish for all.