The convoluted history of Christmas

December 25 will see most Christians celebrating Christmas. However, Armenians, an orthodox branch of Christianity, will be celebrating it on January 6. Read on to know about this disparity

As the long winter nights close in around us, as we say goodbye to Durga and Kali Pujos, as the last of the Diwali lights dim, Kolkata transforms itself as it gears up for Christmas, with the Park Street Christmas Festival now the biggest Christmas event in India, and quite possibly in Asia. December 25 will see most, but not all, Christians celebrating Christmas. The Armenians, an orthodox branch of Christianity, will be celebrating it on January 6. Why the disparity? Because the story of the birth of Christ has never been a straightforward one.

It is now accepted that Yeshua Ben Joseph was a real person. His metamorphosis into Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is for the believers. It is also accepted that there is no mention of the 25th of December, or any other date, in any version of the Bible or any historical reference. The two Biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus are in the books of Luke and Matthew, and even those two contradict each other. Matthew states that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod, while Luke says it was during the census of Roman Governor of Syria, Quirinius. Today, there is a consensus that he was born sometime between 6-4 BC.

The first mention of the 25th of December comes from the 2nd and 3rd century Christian theologian Hippolytus of Rome in the early third century. This is linked to the 'Council of Nicaea' which was held in Turkey, an ecumenical council called by Roman Emperor Constantinople ostensibly to unify the various factions of Christianity, but an underlying cause was the waning of the Roman Empire, and he was politically astute enough to see the rise of Christianity and so decided to shift the Empire from a military to religious one. At the Council, religious dates were not only finalised but also realigned to mask Roman Pagan Gods, the most widely worshipped of whom was Saturn. The Pagans celebrated Saturn on the 25th of December, so the birth of Jesus was accordingly realigned, and Saturn was, over a course of time and many bloody battles between Christians and Pagans, forgotten. This adoption of a Middle Eastern faith, Christianity, by the Romans would henceforth be known as 'Roman Catholicism'.

The Romans, through Julius Caesar and later the Roman Catholics, through Pope Gregory, added to the confusion in dates by instituting two calendars – the 'Julian' in 45BC and the 'Gregorian' in 1582, although Germany didn't upgrade to the new calendar till 1775, while Bulgaria upgraded in 1917. This change caused a schism, the Gregorian calendar leapt forward by 10 days. Both the Council of Nicaea and the fumbling of calendars was ignored by the Armenians, who still go by the Julian calendar, celebrating Christmas on the 6th of January. As if all of this wasn't enough to confuse the faithful, Armenians in the Holy Land have an altogether different calculation of when Christmas should be celebrated, the 18th of January. The Armenian congregation, led by the Patriarch, leave Jerusalem on the 17th, arriving in Jesus' birthplace of Bethlehem on the 18th, where they celebrate Christmas along with local dignitaries. Other Orthodox Churches also have various calculations, the Russians, Georgians, Serbians and Ethiopians celebrate Christmas on the 7th, the Greeks, Ukranians and Armenians on the 6th.

The 'Christmas Tree' and the red Santa Claus, both icons of the Nativity, are also new but totally unconnected to the story of the birth of Jesus. The Fir Tree was first thought of by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who had one installed at Buckingham Palace and decorated it with his family as recently as 1848. This captured the imagination of Victorian England and so it spread across the British Empire, and then the world. This tradition took on a new lease of life when Norway chose the Fir Tree as a symbol of gratitude to the British for liberating them from Nazi Germany. Every year, the Norwegians fell the tallest Fir Tree in their land and ship it to London, where it is decorated and takes pride of place in the heart of the city, Trafalgar Square. This ritual has been practiced for more than 70 years.

World War One has also played a heart-warming and key role in the story of Christmas. The British and Germans, although on opposite warring sides, were said to have stopped all fighting on Christmas Day as both sides were Christians. The following day, 26th December, both sides were severely hung over and decided to play football on the 'No Man's Land' – the killing zone between the two sets of trenches. Being hung over with aching and foggy heads, the football match soon descended into chaos, a mass hand to hand fight broke out leading to the name for the day after Christmas – 'Boxing Day'.

The final examples of the influences on Christmas is Santa Clause himself. His origins are quite real, St. Nicholas, who was from what we now call Turkey. A Bishop of the region, he is said to have saved three girls from prostitution by dropping sacks of gold down the chimney of their home so their father could pay their dowry and get them married, rather than selling them into prostitution. He also resurrected three children who had been murdered, butchered and then pickled to be sold as Pork.

The legend of Santa Claus began with Dutch immigrants to the United States, telling the story of Sinterklass or Sint Nicolass, which along with the British renaming St. Nicholas as 'Father Christmas', gave birth to Santa Claus. Santa Claus was depicted in many different forms and outfits, including a Gnome, a Bishop (in line with St. Nicholas) and wearing a light brown coat. It was on January 3rd 1863 that illustrator Thomas Nast portrayed the red-outfit Santa Claus for the first time in 'Harpers Weekly' magazine. This was propelled globally in an act of very clever marketing by Coca Cola when their public relations artist Haddon Sundblom drew his own face as that of Santa Claus, with the red outfit, and showed him consuming the famous soft drink – the legend of Santa Claus went viral, as we would call it today.

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