My daughter Rowena Hrothwyn1 tells me (while living up to her well-earned cognomen of Attila-the-Honey, and all that entails in the Flagellum Dei department) tells me (and when you've been told by Attila-the-Honey, my little Flagellum Dei, you stay told) tells me that I must (absolutely must) tell you all that you're celebrating Christmas at quite the wrong time.
Of course she's not really jeremiadising about the fact that most of you act as though the Christmas season stops on Christmas Eve, even though you probably all know that that's exactly when it starts. No, no, she's directing me to essay on the well-known fact that the birth of Christ almost certainly was really at a totally different time of year and its concomitant fact that the REAL real meaning of Christmas is not the 'real meaning of Christmas' as it's usually construed, but instead ... well more of that later.
But first let's look at the starting point. There are two, pretty-much orthogonal, descriptions of the first noel in the Bible; and about the only things that they agree on are Mary, Joseph, Jesus of course, Bethlehem, Nazareth and (and most importantly for this essay) the fact that they don't give the time of year!---they don't give the year of time either, but do imply wildly, wildly different years (I mean, the only census that Luke could be looking at is in AD 6 and Matt's mention of Herod would have to be somewhat pre-4 BC if he was going to be in a fit state to out-herod himself or even to massacre anyone) so we won't step into that little nest of historiographies.
In fact the only vaguely seasonal hint in the whole thing is Matt's field-abiding shepherds2, a most unlikely occurrence in the deep mid-winter.
And once you realise that the earliest (known) suggestion that the date of Christmas was when we celebrate it (on the eighth day before the kalends of January) did not occur until the middle of the fourth Century, and upwards of three hundred and forty eight years after the event, the awful truth just ... glares at you.
So if it's not really the birth of Christ that we are celebrating then what (apart from shopping and the number of days left in which to do it) then are we celebrating?
Well, Christianity grew up in the Roman Empire, and the Romans had a couple of candidate festivals, the first of these being the Saturnalia, which started a bit over a week before our Christmas, and as the years went by eventually continued right up to the eve of our Christmas Eve, and included presents and eating and drinking and other such Christmassy activities and then there was their celebration of the birthday of Sol Invictis, the Unconquered Sun, actually on the 25th.
There is debate about whether this is a mere coincidence or an early example of repurposing, so I won't step into that little nest of wassnames either. And then, it's not only the Romans who were at it at that time of year, look at the ancient Germanic peoples and their *jeul-, not to mention pretty-much anyone else who ever lived where it's cold in winter.
You see, mostly what we and the Ancient Romans and the Yule fanciers and the pretty-much everyone elses are REALLY really celebrating is the Ür holiday: the original, the grandfather, the immemorial and universal celebration of "Oh bugger is it that time of year again?" in its uniquadripartite manifestations of "Damn I've almost missed the time of planting", "Bloody hell it's hot this summer", "Those sodding migrant workers are late for harvest again" and culminating in the great and more-or-less joyous "Oh! God, it's cold and we've nearly run out of more-or-less fresh food, so the Hell with it and let's have a bash with what's left, and we'll survive and fart on dried beans till spring!" . . .
Finally, as an aside and an obvious Christmas miracle, I should admit that this is actually the second time I've written this essay. Immediately after my first attempt, and before I could get the damn thing saved to my back-up, my hard drive crashed horrendously and had to be replaced---and of course the only thing I lost irretrievably was the essay: see, it's a miracle telling me and Attila-the-Honey to mind our own business about the date of Christmas, but being me I couldn't take the hint and so I plodded on regardless and re-did it as you've just heard. So I guess you can look for me in the coming weeks to be walking around like 'Pig-Pen' in my own personal cloud of Biblical plagues.
Cheerio for now
1 Rowie Hrothers was named, by the way, for Mrs Vortigern. See here for an article on her---though I think they (spitefully??) turned the dental fricative into a dental plosive, Hrotwyn rather than Hroþwyn: 'Scum-joy' rather than 'Fame-joy'! The buggers!
2 Yes I know it's Luke who had the shepherds. Either it was a lapsus linguae (or more properly calami since I wrote it that way, or even more properly lapsus clavis, since I was typing rather than penning) or yet more evidence that I should have taken the hint of that lapsus discus durus* and left well alone.
* As it turned out, though it was hard it was not long-lasting!
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