To nourish your mind as well as your body

Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.

-Mahatma Gandhi

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Celebrating Christmas

(I am going to focus here on the religious Christian holiday of Christmas and will have another blog relating to the less religious version.)

Christmas is the Christian celebration of the Nativity (birth) of Jesus Christ, who is considered the Son of God, the savior of all people, according to the Old Testament's prophecies of a Messiah (savior). Without Christ, there would be no Christianity, so Christmas is, in effect, the celebration of the beginning of Christianity as well. "Christmas" derives from "Christ" (Anointed One) and "Mass" (a religious festival). Christians have celebrated this holy day since about 400 AD. [Interesting note: Christmas is celebrated on December 25th, and many of the mental images of 'traditional' Christmas involve shepherds and the terrible cold of a winter night; however, since the events of the story take place during the census and tax collection, it is far more likely that the historical figure Jesus was actually born in March.]

The story of Christmas is based on the biblical accounts of Jesus' birth given in Matthew 1:18-Matthew 2:12 and Luke 1:26-Luke 2:40 [*Matthew 1:18 would translate to the "gospel of Matthew, chapter 1, verse 18"]. According to these gospels, Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she would give birth to the son of God. But when the child was due, Mary and her husband Joseph had to travel to the city of David (Bethlehem) to have their census taken and pay their taxes. The city was crowded with people and there was no place for them in any of the inns. According to popular tradition, Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable, though there is no specific reference to this in any of the bible verses. [When I went to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, they claimed to have proof that Jesus had in fact been born within a small cave which traditionally sheltered sheep from the weather, but was a naturally occurring shelter. The Church of the Nativity was built atop the specific cave they believe he was born in and visiting it was a fascinating experience.] Regardless, the bible does say in Luke 2:7 that Mary "wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger"(a manger is a trough used to hold food for animals). Shepherds from the fields around Bethlehem were told of the birth by an angel and were the first to see the child.

The idea that Jesus's birth occurred on December 25th is believed to have been theorized by Sextus Julius Africanus, a third century Christian missionary [*the earliest reference to Christmas occurring on this date is found in the Chronographai, a reference book which this missionary wrote in 221 AD]. Whether it was his intention or not, this theory allowed for the Romans to tie the Christian holiday in with their own pagan winter rituals (including Saturnalia), which made conversion to Christianity far more palatable. In 303 AD, the Christian writer Arnobius of Sicca wrote his Adversus Nationes, which belittled the idea of celebrating the birthdays of gods, suggesting that Christmas at this time was a holy day but not a feast day. The earliest reference to Christmas as a feasting day occurs in the Chronography of 354, an illuminated manuscript compiled in Rome in 354 AD - so somewhere between 303 and 354, a change occurred in the way Christians celebrated the holiday.

You only need to consider how many branches of Christianity there are in the world to imagine the variety of ways Christians celebrate Christmas: according to the World Christian Encyclopedia of 2000, global Christianity includes 33,820 denominations with 3,445,000 congregations/churches composed of 1,888 million affiliated Christians.

Eastern Christianity (the Christian churches and traditions that developed in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, Northeastern Africa, and southern India - e.g. the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and the Eastern Catholic Churches) traditionally combines the Nativity holiday with the Epiphany - which is a Christian feast day that occurs on January 6. Western Christianity (including the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Anglican and Protestant churches) instead celebrates the two holy days separately. The Epiphany in Eastern tradition celebrates the revelation of God in human form in the person of Jesus Christ, while in Western tradition, the feast day focuses more on the visit of the magi (i.e. the "Three Wise Men" who are said to have visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh - extra points to anyone who knows what frankincense and myrrh are and more points to anyone who knows what the significance of those three gifts is without looking them up).

In the Early Middle Ages, the forty days leading up to Christmas were celebrated as the "Feast of St. Martin of Tours", which later became known as Advent. Advent is a Western Christian traditional season of preparation for the celebration of the Nativity and involves the reading of scriptures related to the first coming of Jesus as savior and the second coming as judge; many churches make advent wreaths during this season, which have one candle representing each of the four Sundays of the season. Eastern Christian tradition has their own traditional equivalent called the Nativity Fast, which begins on September 1 and differs in its observances.

Note: The above information was researched for the sake of education and appreciation, in a hope to promote cross-cultural pollination, tolerance, and peaceful understanding. If I got anything wrong or missed anything, please feel free to comment. I love to learn and I'd like this to be as factual as possible.

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