In the year 167 B.C., a man named Mattathias slew one of his fellow Jews for offering sacrifice to the Greek god Zeus, sparking a series of events known as the Maccabean Revolt in which Mattathias' son Judah Maccabee led a guerrilla war that eventually repelled the Greek Syrian invaders from the Holy Land.
That series of bloody skirmishes resulted in a re-affirmation of Jewish religion and culture against outside influences, which culminated in the cleansing and rededication of the temple--an event commemorated by Jews to this day in the yearly celebration known as "Hanukkah."
About 2,400 years later, the Jewish comedian Adam Sandler (already famous for his holiday hit, "The Hanukkah Song") released what would be, to this writer's best knowledge, the only "Hanukkah movie" ever made, Eight Crazy Nights, in a market normally flooded by so-called "Christmas movies."
True to the Gentile template it apparently emulated, the 2002 animated film told the tale of a down-on-his-luck, emotionally closed-off Jewish man, whose appearance and antics were based loosely on Sandler himself, who eventually discovered the "true meaning of Hanukkah" by becoming kinder and gentler, coming out of his shell and opening himself up to friendships with the people in his community.
With its profound irrelevance to the events that gave rise to the holiday in question, the parallels are obvious between Sandler's artistic offering and the countless movies and customs peculiar to the Christmas season.
Santa Claus, Scrooge, flying reindeer, It's a Wonderful Life, Christmas trees, snowmen, stockings hung from fireplace mantles, the long lines of shell shocked parents awaiting a retail store's early-morning opening so they can fight over the last remaining Tickle Me Elmo or Nintendo Wii: as most people no doubt realize, the connections between these aspects of the "Christmas" season and the event purportedly commemorated are tenuous at best.
So, how did it all come about?
How did the humble birth of the long-anticipated Messiah come to be celebrated two millennia later with so much bric-a-brac and marginalia?
Early Christian history offers no clues for an answer, as the earliest church leaders made no mention of any celebrations of Christ's birth.
In fact, Origen, an early 3rd century Alexandrian theologian--a leading thinker of his day, denounced the idea of celebrating birthdays at all, be it Christ's or anyone else's, as a practice exclusive to "sinners" and pagans.
(While regarded as one of Christendom's most brilliant early teachers, Origen might also have been a little more tightly wound than was healthy. According to some sources, as a young man he took Christ's teaching about "becoming a eunuch for the kingdom of God" a little too literally, and gave himself a bit of an "extra circumcision" to keep himself from any temptations to scandal with the numerous young women who sought his wisdom--something for which he would eventually express regret later in life.)
That birthday "party pooper"-sentiment might have been something Origen inherited from the writers of the New Testament, which might explain why they made no direct mention of the date of Jesus' nativity.
Many scholars think there might be a clue or two, though.
The Gospel of Luke tells of shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks at the time of Christ's birth--something they generally only did in the spring during lambing, which was the only time sheep needed 24-hour monitoring, so it's highly unlikely he was born any time close to December 25.
Two decades after the death of Origen, though, December 25 would become a major holiday throughout the Roman Empire, but the celebration had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus Christ.
Rather, in the year 274, Emperor Aurelian established the sun god Mithras (or "Apollo," for those who preferred the traditional Greek and Roman name over the more fashionable-at-the-time Persian moniker) as the chief god of the empire, and December 25--the day of the winter solstice--was observed as Dies Sol Invictus, "The Day of the Unconquered Sun," in observance of the sun god's birth.
The Romans weren't the only ones who made a big deal out of winter celebrations. Other people groups observed their own winter festivals long before Dies Sol Invictus became an imperial institution.
In northern Europe, a festival called "Yule" was observed at the winter solstice, with varying customs in various lands.
An observance most northern Europeans had in common, though, was to slaughter livestock so they wouldn't have to be fed through the winter, so an extended feast was held during this, the only time of the year when there was meat in abundance to be enjoyed.
Another aspect of the Yule festivities observed among Germanic peoples was to devote much of the time to honoring Odin, the chief god in their pantheon, who was depicted as a white-bearded old man.
It was believed that during the Yule season, Odin flew over them at night on his eight-legged steed Sleipnir, dispensing blessings and curses as he saw fit, depending on who had been faithful in honoring him during the holy season.
Another custom among the Scandinavians was for families to burn a huge log in their homes in honor of the god Thor, called a "yule log," feasting until it was reduced to ash and believing that each spark or ember rising from the log represented a head of livestock to be born to the family in the year to come.
Also, prior to the institution of the Day of the Unconquered Sun, the Romans also held a festival called Saturnalia, from December 17 to 24, which was essentially a week-long party in honor of Saturn, the Roman god of the harvest.
All of these festivals were pretty well-established by the time Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century.
It isn't entirely clear when the "Christ Mass" became a major feast day on the Christian calendar, but it is pretty well-established that Christian missionaries routinely adapted popular pagan customs for church use to make the transition easier for converted peoples.
So, the dots are easy to connect: rather than deprive Roman citizens of the solar festival they so anticipated every year, it's apparent that church leaders set December 25 as the day to celebrate the nativity of Jesus Christ as a means of weaning converts from the solar worship they were accustomed to that time of year.
Through History and Back
In its early observance, though, Christmas wasn't quite the big production we make it out to be today.
There was no mad rush to gather presents for all immediate relatives and cards for acquaintances.
Ostensibly, it was a time to reflect upon the miracle of God becoming man in the person of Christ.
In practice, it was a time to feast and celebrate, just like the pre-Christian winter festivals it replaced.
And, of course, with most people so accustomed to the wild partying of Saturnalia, the custom was to do the same at the time of Christmas.
This, of course, led many church leaders to denounce the wild Christmas party-animals, and to hold various councils at various times and in various corners of the empire to declare the sanctity of the holiday and to try to curb the debauchery attached to it.
But, then as today, hardcore party animals generally don't tend to let a few disapproving sermonizers get in the way of a good time, so the various church leaders who attempted to subdue their excesses met with only limited success.
Meanwhile, as Christianity spread throughout Europe through the Middle Ages, so, naturally, did observances of Christmas and other holy days.
It was in the 8th century that a Frankish guy named Boniface decided to take Christianity into the land known today as Germany.
Through the course of his missionary efforts, he found the inhabitants of the land worshiping the Norse god Thor at a huge oak tree they'd designated as holy and dedicated to the thunder god.
Taking a page out of the Old Testament, the missionary arranged a "contest" of sorts between Thor and Jesus Christ, which consisted of him chopping down the sacred oak. When Thor didn't strike him down for the affront, the Germans took that as a sign that Christ was the real deal, and converted to Christianity.
A fir tree had grown up through the roots of the oak, and Boniface proposed it as a new symbol for their new religion, instructing them to put fir trees in the center of their homes during the Christmas season as a symbol of "Christ at the center of their lives."
Thus the Christmas tree custom was born.
As missionaries like Boniface and others carried Christian teachings and theology throughout the western world, so also did tales of its heroes circulate among the converted peoples.
One that had particular resonance was the story of a guy named Nicholas.
Nick was the bishop in a town called Myrna, in what is today Turkey, during the first half of the 4th century.
He was one of the 300-some-odd participants in the pivotal Council of Nicea convened by Constantine, but that's not what he's best known for.
One of the best-known traditions about him involved a man in Myrna who was too poor to afford dowries for any of his three daughters. As the story goes, since they couldn't afford to get married, they'd have to fend for themselves, which, in those days, would have meant a life of prostitution.
Upon learning of the girls' plight, though, Nicholas stealthily ventured to the poor man's home late one night and tossed three purses full of gold through an open window, which he did in secret so as not to offend the man's pride nor his own modesty by making a public show of charity.
So, Saint Nicholas came to be associated with late night, secretive gift-giving, and his similar depiction to Odin as a venerable, bearded old man eventually led to his identification with the ancient deity and his winter night rides, dispensing punishments and rewards for the naughty and the nice, respectively, as Christianity eventually overtook the older Norse religion in northern Europe.
The Dutch called him "Sinte Niklaas," which was often shortened to "Sinterklaas."
So, when Dutch immigrants came to America, bringing their Christmas customs with them, "Sinterklaas" became "Santa Claus."
But stories about Santa's night rides and the other various customs making up the hodge-podge of today's Christmas season weren't instant hits in the New World.
Those party-pooping religious "grinches" actually outlawed Christmas festivities in Boston in the latter half of the 17th century.
The Puritans in particular took an unfavorable view of Christmas, believing that its "debauchery" and "waste" distracted from the true tenets of Christianity.
They inherited much of their distaste for Christmas from the Reformation, in which Protestants denounced Christmas as an institute of the Roman Catholic Church, alien to the core teachings of Christianity as recorded in the Bible.
Meanwhile, during the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the religious aspects of Christmas were emphasized to offset the more party-oriented practices associated with it.
In what would become the United States of America, though, as the Puritans' ideas on religion and public life gave way to and mingled with other influences, Christmas eventually came back into favor, but it would still be a long while before it grew into the economic behemoth it is today.
Decades before Christmas was declared a federal holiday in 1870, across the pond the holiday was practically reinvented by a certain English novelist named Charles Dickens, whose book, A Christmas Carol, was published in 1843.
The novel recast the controversial melting pot of traditions into a time to reflect on the virtues of family, regardless of what religious meanings were attached.
Dickens' vision of Christmas, with its three spirits of "Christmas' Past, Present and Future" emphasizing generosity and quality family time, practically reshaped the rest of the western world's view of the holiday.
But, that wouldn't end the controversy that has historically clung to Christmas.
Gift-giving had always been a minor aspect of Christmas, when it was an aspect at all, but it's only been in the past 200 years, after vendors and retailers caught on to the holiday's awesome power as a marketing tool, that Christmas gifts have become driving force of the nation's economy for a full quarter of the year.
As such, the age-old tension between the Christian and pagan aspects of the holiday have translated in modern times into a comparatively new tension between its religious significance and its secular and commercial aspects.
Some commentators, like Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, have in recent years perceived that tension as a "war on Christmas" by "secular progressives" working to remove Christian customs from public life by, among other efforts, pushing for the removal of "Merry Christmas" from retail advertisements and government publications in favor of the more inclusive and nebulous "Happy Holidays."
The extent to which there has been a concerted effort by "anti-Christmas" forces is debatable, but some might find it ironic that today's religious conservatives would find themselves on the opposite side of a cultural struggle than their predecessors, who at times succeeded in their own "wars on Christmas," not to undermine Christianity but, in their view, to protect it.
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