By N Oji Mzilikazi
25 December 2016
In 318 AD, the Roman Empire supposedly put their pagan Gods to sleep and accepted Christianity as their official religion and Jesus Christ as their one true God and saviour.
How could a people that prosecuted and tortured Christians, even feeding them to lions repudiate that history and maintain the masses on their side? The answer is quite simple—and brilliant.
Assisted by the ruling machinery of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church employed tact, compromise, and sleight of hand bordering on light-weight cosmetic surgery in order to manipulate the masses and keep the followers of centuries-old deeply-embedded pagan rites, rituals and religious beliefs as well those of newly-formed Christianity happy.
They penciled in religious Catholic festivities or Holy Days immediately after “pagan” high days so adherents of their fledging religion wouldn’t be envious, jealous or feel they are missing out on good times. They also did so with the view towards their new Christian traditions eventually supplanting those pagan festivities.
Thus Lent, the forty-day period of fasting, penance, and prayer commences the day after Carnival, All Saints Day and All Souls Day follow Halloween, and Christmas comes after Saturnalia, the Roman harvest festival that pays tribute to Saturn, the God of the harvest.
Per the Bible, Jesus’ parents did not have any social standing nor were celebrities of any kind. As such, Jesus’ birth was typical of the common man—an ordinary affair with parents, relatives and friends the only interested parties. Consequently, there was never a known birth date for Jesus.
Jesus’ birth was thrust into prominence only because King Herod heard from the Magi (Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar, the mythical Three Wise Men/Kings) about the birth of the foretold messiah that would rule the world; in effect, supplant him or his heirs. Herod only heard about Jesus’ birth two years after the fact. Hence, his edict that all male children under two years of age must be put to death—as a surefire way to ensure the death of the infant Jesus. So why was December 25th positioned as the birthdate of Jesus?
In the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, December 17-23, schools and law courts were closed. There were lavish feasts plus the exchange of the gifts. Celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25 allowed the followers of Jesus/Christians to throw their own party. However, their gift-giving was reserved for January 6, the Twelfth Day of Christmas known as the Feast of the Epiphany, and a designated children’s holiday—that seems to have disappeared.
Catholic tradition is that the three Magi brought the gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense for the Christ child. Hence, Epiphany is the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi. And so “Christmas” gifts for children were laid out the night before Epiphany.
In Latin America, Epiphany is known as El Día De Los Reyes or the Three Kings Day. Filled with pomp, ceremony and parades, Three Kings Day is huge, wildly celebrated holiday that is deeply- imbedded in the heart, soul, and culture of its peoples.
Growing up in Trinbago, Epiphany embraced the Feasts of the Holy Innocents or Innocents Day that commemorated the massacre of the male children by Herod. We would take our toys/gifts received for Christmas to mass to both get them bless and to show them off to friends and others.
Some Western churches celebrate Innocents Day on December 28. Eastern churches do so on December 29.
Although December 25 is not an accurate birthdate for Jesus, it has been celebrated for centuries as if it is—and I have no problems with that. Sadly, though Jesus is the reason for the season, Christian churches have stood idly by and allowed the fat red-outfitted Santa Claus rather than Jesus to dominate and be the face of Christmas.
For all the popularity of Three Kings Day in Latin America, the global marketing of Santa Claus has it losing serious ground. Latin American children are increasingly not willing to wait for January 6 to receive gifts when the rest of “Christendom” are getting theirs on December 25.
The rise of Santa Claus and dearth of Christmas carols, Christmas songs, and the telling of Christmas stories, especially in regards to the nativity in communities, homes, in schools, on the radio and in churches now has Christmas divorced from Christianity. In fact, one could say that the two “s” in Christmas now represent dollar signs.
Since Christmas is a period people are conditioned to spend money for; to give gifts, to eat sumptuously, uptake their consumption of alcohol and other drinks—engage in merriment and gluttony, businesses look forward to Christmas for the great profit it generates as well as to get rid of their poorly-selling goods and old stock.
For businesses, Christmas is annually their biggest and highest-grossing period of the year, especially when it snows. The psychological response to deeply-entrenched idyllic and picturesque imagery of a “white Christmas” causes people to shop—and spend more.
The social pressures of Christmas consumerism force people to spend money they don’t have—get into debt with credit card companies, loan sharks and others, and even abandon personal values and morals in order to provide their children with a “good” Christmas.
Would that the Christian Churches call for the period of Christmas to become symbolic of the rebirth of Christ in its followers lives and enjoin more prayers, even fasting to aid in such a spiritual rededication.
“Unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given.” Would that we could see the Christ child in all children, treat children better, demand better treatment for children, oppose child labour and the abuse and exploitation of children.
Gifts to children can never replace parental love, affection, a safe environment to live and grow up in or children feeling they are wanted, loved, cared for and are protected. The newness of toys eventually wear away, but the pain of hunger, abuse, neglect and abandonment leave deep scars that last a lifetime.
While Christmas is indeed the most wonderful time of the year, Christians ought to guard against its out of control commercialism, otherwise it would be spiritually bankrupt and meaningless.