Your RDA of Irony

Scheduling Jesus’ Birth

Christmas has not succumbed to marketing. It was conceived in marketing. The very date–December 25th–was the choice of a fourth century focus group. No one knows the actual date of Jesus’ birth; in fact, we can only estimate the year–sometime between 4 B.C. and 8 B.C.

By the early second century, in between persecutions, Christian scholars flaunted their erudition by mathematically and theologically calculating the specific date of Jesus’ birth. Some of them concluded that Jesus was born in January, April, May or June. There was a general consensus that he died in March or April; the Gospels did provide some basis for that deduction. Based on this assumption, some over-educated Greek Christians felt that there should be a mathematic formulaic congruity in Jesus’ life; in their calculations, if Jesus died in March or April he must have been born in December or January. (I can’t follow that logic; it’s a Greek thing.)

The idea of a December birth may have been intellectually absurd, yet it was very practical. Late December was a traditional time of celebration in the ancient world. Pagans celebrated the Winter Solstice and the Saturnalia; December 25th was honored as the Day of the Invincible Sun. Until the early fourth century, the Church was subject to periodic persecution. The faithful could mask their celebration of Jesus’ birth amidst the pagan antics. Furthermore, the Christian minority would have the psychological crutch of having its own holiday, the same solace that Jews now find in Hannukah.

That Christian sense of inferiority ended with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (A.D. 306-337) and his decided favoritism. Christianity was the new state religion. Yet, the majority of the Empire’s population–75 percent–was pagan. That was a lot of people to convert. Constantine’s coercion made a certain impact but the Church also relied on its gift for marketing. The celebration of Christmas on December 25th helped win the more extroverted pagans who were fond of their Winter Solstice parties. “Hey, who said that Christianity isn’t fun! You can have eternal salvation and a birthday party for the Savior.”

And since then, the official policy has been to celebrate December 25th as Jesus’ birthday.

  1. Mary Ann Jung says:

    To quote from the movie “Talledega Nights”, I like to think of Jesus as a Ninja. There’s a hilarious mock- serious discussion of how Jesus should be viewed- as a baby in the manger, a grown man with a beard etc…It ends with the Ninja line which speaks the greater truth that people will see what they want to see. Happy platitude of the day!

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