Could December 25th just be a marketing strategy?

The Bible doesn’t directly explain why Christmas takes place in the winter. Was the Dec. 25 date really just a way to convert pagans?

Here’s a thought for the harried among us who are unready for the arrival of another Christmas season: There was a time when some scholars argued that the holiday should be observed in the spring. Just imagine three more months of shopping!

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It seems to us a matter of course that Christmas should come on Dec. 25. But over the past 2,000 years or so, the timing of Jesus’ birth — which, as the bumper stickers like to remind us, is the original reason for the season — has generated considerable controversy. In fact, there has been enough uncertainty about when to celebrate Jesus’ birthday that some Christians have chosen not to celebrate it at all!

The Bible offers little help in resolving the question: No dates are offered in the Gospel stories. There isn’t even a reference to the season of the year. Some readers have thought they detected a clue in the evangelist Luke’s mention of shepherds tending their flocks at night as they hear the news of Jesus’ birth. To some, this suggests not a December birth, but one during the spring lambing season, when the animals would be free to roam out of their corrals. But wait: Advocates for a December Nativity answer that sheep reserved for temple sacrifices would have grazed unfettered even in deepest winter.

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Clearly, any dispute that hinges on knowledge of Middle Eastern livestock practices of antiquity is not going to be resolved easily.

Why should it matter? The earliest Christian writers were more interested in Jesus’ death and resurrection than in his birth. The oldest of the Gospels, Mark’s, makes no mention of Jesus’ birth. Later, Matthew and Luke offered extravagant detail — stars, wise men, mangers — but no specifics about timing.

This didn’t stop others from making their own guesses. The theologian Clement of Alexandria, writing around 200, mentions some of the dates that had by then already been proposed as the true date of Jesus’ birth. Spring Nativities were popular, with dates in May, April, and March being proposed. Dec. 25 is not mentioned as a possibility.

So how did we end up celebrating a wintry white Christmas? The church only settled on a Dec. 25 Christmas in the fourth century. The standard explanation is that the early church conflated its celebration of the Nativity with pre-existing pagan festivals. Romans had their Saturnalia, the ancient winter festival, and northern European people had their own solstice traditions. Among the features: parties, gift-giving, dwellings decorated with greenery.

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The reasoning goes that the growing church, recognizing the popularity of the winter festivals, attached its own Christmas celebration to encourage the spread of Christianity. Business historian John Steele Gordon has described the December dating of the Nativity as a kind of ancient-world marketing ploy.

But some put forward another, less well-known explanation for the Dec. 25 date — one with appeal for anyone uncomfortable with a connection between Christmas and the old solstice festivals. According to some scholars, Christmas was set near the winter solstice not because of any pagan traditions but based on a series of arcane calendrical computations. This argument hinges on an ancient Jewish tradition that had the great prophets dying on the same dates as their birth or, alternatively, their conception. Thus, to follow this peculiar assumption, the first step in dating Jesus’ birth would be to date his death, which the Gospels say happened at Passover.

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The early Christian writer Tertullian calculated that the date given for Jesus’ death in John’s Gospel corresponds to March 25 in the Roman calendar. Many Christian churches came to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary to tell her that she would become the mother of Jesus, on this date. Adding nine months to this date produces a Dec. 25 Christmas.

This alternative explanation is sometimes deployed to dismiss the notion that the holiday had pagan roots. In a 2003 article in the journal Touchstone, for example, historian William Tighe called the pagan origin of Christmas “a myth without historical substance.” He argued at least one pagan festival, the Roman Natalis Solis Invictus,instituted by Emperor Aurelian on Dec. 25, 274, was introduced in response to the Christian observance. The pagan festival “was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians.” According to Tighe, the pagans co-opted the Christian holiday, not the other way around.

But even to some Christians, Christmas has always seemed like a version of a pagan feast — and therefore unworthy of observance. The early church father Origen argued against celebrating Jesus’ birthday: “It is only sinners like Pharaoh and Herod who make great rejoicings over the day on which they were born into this world.” The Puritans of 17th-century Massachusetts famously banned the holiday, in part because they found no Biblical authority for celebrating the Nativity on Dec. 25. (They also feared the Saturnalia-esque disorder and rowdiness that seemed to go with the holiday.) Quakers, too, abstained from celebrating. Harriet Beecher Stowe has a character in her 1878 novel Poganuc People explain why his family doesn’t observe Christmas: “Nobody knows when Christ was born, and there is nothing in the Bible to tell us when to keep Christmas.”

Christmas carols: Make music for historical inconsistency

For an image of the world to come, look to the children: Justin Bieber, the Western world’s choirboy igni ferroque, released his first Christmas album, combining traditional carols — “Drummer Boy,” “Silent Night,” and the like, performed in his signature reedy contralto — with some festive canticles not previously loosed upon the Earth. (From one track: “I don’t want to miss out on the holiday/ But I can’t stop staring at your face.”) Bieber has said that his goal in recording this music, which has already hit No.1 on the Billboard charts, was to “work with people who had great experiences with Christmas albums.” This may strike some listeners as a quixotic ambition. Christmas carols are, if anything, the visiting relatives of the musical world: They show up at the same time every year, stick around a little longer than one might prefer, and set the tone of virtually all family entertainment while they are in town. A December without them would be strange and slightly lonely, yet the prospect of their absence tends to be, by one week in, a reason in itself to look forward to the new year.

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Why have Christmas carols stuck around so long — and not just boldly, puzzlingly, recording-career-of-Tom Jones long but centuries, epochs, eons? Consider the bizarreness of the product at hand: At face value, the Christmas carol may be the least captivating style of occasional song. While other popular tunes arise from passion or desire, heroism or defeat, the Yuletide songbook is a catalogue of modest thrills and postindustrial neuroses.

A quick survey turns up portraits of manic stress release (“Jingle Bells”), overwrought hallucination (“Do You Hear What I Hear?”), complex Freudian trauma (“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”), desperate midlife lechery (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”), forced enthusiasm (“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”), and thinly veiled xenophobia (“Dominick the Donkey … the Italian Christmas donkey!”). It was apparently decided long ago that we can overcome these demons by frightening them away with feckless vocalization. Carol-singing, like drinking, accounts for a large part of boisterous group behavior in this country. If a large posse of merrymakers rings your doorbell in the quiet suburban night, there is an equal chance that you should call the cops or offer them a nutmeg-flavored snack.

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Consider, too, that Christmas carols have no obvious counterparts among the other holidays. Large group odes are not sung in anticipation of Memorial Day. Any ditties written about Halloween tend, rightly, to collect in the storm drains and the lint filters of our culture. What few songs flourish elsewhere do so in private, forgoing carols’ wide exposure in favor of smaller, more selective audiences. (“Dayeinu,” the Passover song, is thought to be more than 1,000 years old, yet shoppers are unlikely to find it piping over the sound system of Forever 21 anytime soon.) Why?

Partly, this unobtrusiveness may be a gesture of self-defense: The Christmas-music empire has in the past been known to undertake bold conquest missions on its own behalf, laying claim to any tune that threatens its hegemony. “Jingle Bells” was composed as a Thanksgiving song but fell, like Carthage to the Romans, when it started to gain traction. Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus, which is actually about Easter, came under Yuletide jurisdiction for the same reason. It is only right that other holiday ballads should steer clear of these rolling ballistae, just as it is right for members of the populace to question the carols’ high-stepping motives. Maybe we listen to Christmas carols because we want to. Or, maybe, we are simply not allowed to quaff our nog to any other kind of song.

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Given these questions, it is tempting to dismiss carols as a symptom of seasonal hype, of “the commercialization of Christmas,” or of other pestilences of the modern soul. Actually, their excesses are the opposite of modern. Christmas carols have always been the product of hype and invented ritual, nurturing false nostalgia almost from the start. If anything, their legitimacy as tradition has only increased in recent years. Today’s carols are one of our few genuine access points to the history of Western pop music, the centuries of mainstream fare buried beneath our own.

An air of false exuberance has been the hallmark of Christmas songs as long as Christmas songs have been around. Although there are accounts of birth-of-Christ hymns being sung in second-century Rome — by order of Christian authorities, not public preference — it was not until the fourth century, when Christmas was formalized as a feast and fixed to Dec. 25, that a songbook started to take form. Some of the first contributions were existing, non-Christian carols adapted to the new celebration. The early church did not appreciate these pagan-Christian conversions and answered with hymns of its own. (“Veni, redemptor gentium,” or “Savior of the Nations, Come,” attributed to the fourth-century Milanese bishop St. Ambrose, may be the earliest still-extant Christmas carol.) Evidence suggests that people sort of hated these songs. The church-approved carols were in Latin and, in some cases, amounted to arcane doctrinal quibbles set to music. Christmas music swiftly became the yacht rock of the Dark Ages, proliferating in earnest even as it lost all public reputation.

The man who freed the Christmas carol from this prison of poor taste was St. Francis of Assisi, one of the church’s gentlest but most crucial reformers. In the 13th century, Francis tried to break the Christmas celebration from its tedious husk, mostly by making the birth of Christ into a live theatrical event. He organized nativity pageants featuring real hay, real animals, and, for the first time, real music: Deviating from tradition, he allowed for narrative songs in audiences’ native languages, turning Christmas music into an opportunity for mainstream creativity. Drinking songs were given Yuletide lyrics (greatly to the church’s horror) and disseminated by traveling entertainers. Christmas began to take on a life of its own, beyond the exigencies of the sacred feast.

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Those halcyon days didn’t last. Martin Luther was a strong backer of the new, folkier Christmas music, which dovetailed with his new and folky thinking about Christianity, but certain of his disciples were not. Christmas in the English-speaking world died a second death when the Puritan movement — which did not believe in religious song, let alone general merriment — banned Christmas celebrations altogether in 1647 by Parliamentary law, with the support of Oliver Cromwell. Their suspicion of the holiday managed to cross the Atlantic as well. For a time, persons in the Massachusetts Bay Colony found to be observing Christmas (“consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth,” to quote the complaints of the Rev. Increase Mather) faced a fine.

It took the English-speaking world nearly 200 years to rediscover Christmas fully, and it happened largely through the songs. In 1822, the MP and amateur historian Davies Gilbert published a compilation of “ancient Christmas carols”; 11 years later, a second, still more influential volume by another compiler, William Sandys, publicized several tunes still sung today, including “The First Nowell, the Angel Did Say” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

Then came the royal intervention. In 1840, Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, a German who made it one of his projects to import Continental-style Christmas as “an echo of … the old time, of what we thought and felt” — in essence, to invent an English Christmas tradition where little had previously existed. Among the subjects to embrace this change was the young writer Charles Dickens, who, in 1843, published A Christmas Carol as a blow against the grim, Puritan-inflected holiday. In some sense, the most crucial character in the book is neither Scrooge nor Tiny Tim but the Ghost of Christmas Past — a revisionist tour guide whose voice allowed Dickens to describe a history of festive, music-infused British Christmases as the norm.

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The Christmas of the 20th century — festive, secular, obsessed with tradition — is an extension of this Victorian holiday, just as modern carols are an outgrowth of its 19th-century tunes. No Christmas song may embody the holiday’s self-perpetuating narratives better than “White Christmas,” a secular anthem that the Jewish Irving Berlin, who did not much care for the holiday, wrote early in 1940 in a spirit of some irony. Slate’s Jody Rosen, who published the definitive biography of the song, has described how this wry hymn became an earnest Christmas standard and “the biggest pop tune of all time” thanks in part to growing cultural nostalgia and the homesickness of wartime soldiers. This sort of approach grew into the norm, and a new generation of carols rose by appealing more to the Yuletide mood than to the holiday itself.

Today, in fact, an important feature of Christmas carols is that they are only nominally about Christmas. Listeners faced with the full canon might distinguish between sacred songs (those that make some mention of Christ’s birth) and secular ones (Santa Claus, snowmen, mistletoe, “cheer,” and all manner of wassailing), but this is like insisting on a basic difference between hot cross buns and Danishes. Both are iced and sweet and good for a light meal with coffee. “Christmas spirit” sounds like a vague and euphemistic term, but it conveys the loose relationship these tunes have to the details of the holiday at hand.

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Instead, they offer us a story of their own development. The 21st-century Christmas-carol listener has an anchor line cast into Western history: In no other context do most of us find ourselves using wishing for sables and light-blue ’54 convertibles, deploying 19th-century regionalisms like “upsot,” and gathering to perform plainsong chants in premodern modes. Carols carry us back to a time not merely before Shakespeare but before Beowulf — and then to many of the eras in between. When people speak about the “Christmas spirit,” they mean a form of reassurance virtually expunged from modern life: the comfort of continuity, the pleasure of return, the knowledge that not everything we have will one day disappear. Christmas carols are our mainstream widow to the past and, as a consequence, the closest thing we have to a guarantee of our own era’s future.

There is something familiar about all these erstwhile Christmas controversies. The holiday is still prime time for disputation. At this time of year, more than any other, the sacred and the secular spend a lot of time jostling for space, and eventually, accommodating each other. So, believers need not be threatened by Christmas’ putative pagan roots. If the church repurposed the old solstice feasts, it only goes to show its power to bend the broader culture to its pastoral purpose.