Some Christians will tell you they know the ‘true meaning of Christmas’. Here are the facts about Christmas.
The Jesus Story
There were more than four gospels written about Jesus. The four that are in the New Testament were selected. The others were lost (and some have been partly found). Two include the story of the birth of Jesus: those written by Matthew and Luke. These are inconsistent.
The gospels were written after the death of Jesus. Jesus and his disciples were illiterate peasants. The gospels were written c.65 -100 CE, so they weren’t written by anyone who actually knew him. The only other existing reference to Jesus in ancient writings is an oblique reference to him in regard to his brother, James. The gospels were written after the Romans destroyed the temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE. After this event the early followers of Jesus, who were Jews following a Jewish messiah, became a new religion for Jews and Gentiles. This change was driven by Paul, who was Saul and converted on the road to Damascus. Again, Paul never met Jesus. He was a Jew and and a Roman citizen, who took the message of Christianity to the broader world, and wrote about half of the New Testament. There is evidence of him breaking with the original followers of Jesus, who, after the death of Jesus, were led by his brother, James.
The story of Jesus states he was born in Bethlehem. There is no evidence of this. If Jesus was born in Bethlehem he would be known as Jesus of Bethlehem rather than Jesus of Nazareth. The story places his birth there to connect him to the line of King David, in order to fulfil an ancient Jewish prophecy. There were about forty generations between King David and Joseph. King David had multiple wives, so would have had tens of thousands, if not a million, heirs. If Jesus is the son of God and Mary is a virgin, then the lineage of Joseph is irrelevant. Virgin births were common in ancient mythology. The story says that Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem for a census. This is not true. It doesn’t fit with other Roman documentation. Luke says Jesus was born when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Quirinius was governor of Syria when Jesus was 8-10 years old. There were censuses in ancient times, but not ones under the rulers as stated in the story and not ones that asked people to travel. To travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have taken seven to ten days, in the heat of the day and the cold dark of night, resting in fields, and eating only the supplies that could be carried. The is no mention of Joseph outside the birth stories. There probably was no star. Ancient peoples didn’t know about how the planets and the universe worked. They believed that a bright star marked the birth of a prophet. Matthew writes that Herod ordered the slaughter of baby boys. This is not true. Its purpose is to link the story to the story of Moses. Again, this is written to conform with ancient Jewish prophecies, which were inconsistent. The early readers of these stories would have known them to be untrue. There were not written as historically true stories.
In Mark’s earlier gospel he writes that someone says ‘Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?’ This would have been an insult, akin to calling a person a bastard, since men were named according the paternal line. Mark doesn’t mention the birth story. Paul, writing 50-64 CE says that Jesus was born of a women. The stories about Jesus’ birth hadn’t started yet.
There is nothing in the gospels about Jesus being born in December. In the early Christian communities the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. Emperor Constantine, who declared Christianity the official religion for the Roman Empire, declared in 336 AD that December 25 would be celebrated as the birth of Jesus. This was reinforced by Pope Julius I a few years later.
Some people think that Jesus was actually born in April or September.
Before the birth of Jesus pagans celebrated the winter holidays. In the northern hemisphere winter solstice was celebrated on December 22. In Rome, Saturnalia meant feasting and fun. The festival of Juvenilia celebrated children. Romans also celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the sun, on December 25th.
These celebrations, in the cold and dark of winter, included bringing the outside in. In ancient times people believed that having evergreen branches in their homes would keep out evil spirits. A yule log was burned in the fireplace.
Pagan rituals were turned into Christian ones. The early Puritan settlers of America banned the celebration of Christmas because of its pagan roots.
The Story of Santa
St Nicholas was a priest, and then Bishop, who lived in Asia Minor about 300 CE. He was kind and generous. The Roman emperor declared he was a god, but Christians did not worship that way, so Christians and St Nicholas were imprisoned. He was imprisoned for five years. When he was released his reputation grew, as it did after his death. In the 17th Century Dutch immigrants brought the story of St Nicholas to America. In 1822 the story ‘The Night Before Christmas’ was written. In the 1920s the image of Santa became a jolly fat man wearing a red suit with a white trim. Coca Cola owns the rights to the image of Santa created for their advertising 1931 - 1964. The practice of exchanging gifts began in the late 1800s. It became a national holiday in the US in 1870.
The first recorded use of the word Christmas was in Old English in 1038 CE. The words ‘true meaning of Christmas’ were first used on the blurb for Dickens’ book ‘A Christmas Carol’.
Christmas today can bee seen as a celebration of friends and family. It can be valued as an time of economic upturn. It can be seen as a festival of excess and waste.
So, you can see, the story does not have one true meaning. The meaning is constructed, contested, and shifting.