Growing up Catholic, I never doubted what the church taught me. Not only was I an altar boy as a kid, but I also was an participant in my church’s annual Christmas pageant and played the role of Joseph, desperately looking for somewhere for the “virgin” Mary to plop out the son of God before three random dudes showed up to give her some gifts.
Thankfully, once I went through the process of “first communion” (which is a big deal in the Catholic Church – they make you attend classes and learn about how the priest magically makes yeastless bread into flesh and watered down wine into blood every Sunday) that I first had my doubts with this whole “Christianity” thing. At 12 years old, I was miffed that the teachers couldn’t explain to me precisely what happens to the cracker that turns it into flesh, or how to differentiate a flesh cracker from just an ordinary non-flesh cracker. Learning about transubstantiation is what set in motion the process of me becoming an atheist.
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It wasn’t until just a few years ago – well after I started writing about atheism and openly criticizing religion – that I learned that Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25th like we were all taught as children. And hell, even if he was born on December 25th, we don’t know what December 25th it would have been (more on this later).
And I know exactly what many of you are thinking right now – “Jesus didn’t even exist, so of course he wasn’t born on December 25th!”
And yeah, you’re probably right.
There’s little to no evidence that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed. The only real “evidence” that Jesus existed is a book called “The Bible”, which was written 75 to 300 years after he died by people he never met. It’d be sort of like you or me writing a book about our BFF George Washington or Abraham Lincoln today. It wouldn’t make much sense and shouldn’t be taken very seriously.
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All that aside, we’ll assume for sake of argument that he did exist (even though he probably didn’t). Hell, I’m even okay with letting Christians believe he does exist, because there are so many other inconsistencies with Christianity that are more worthwhile to dive into.
But if he did exist, he was absolutely not born on December 25th.
Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival derived from older midwinter farming rituals and the winter solstice. Saturn was the ancient Roman god of agriculture and time, and around 100 BC expanded into a week-long festival, beginning December 17th. History.com explains more:
People decorated their homes with wreaths and other greenery, and shed their traditional togas in favor of colorful clothes known as synthesis. Even slaves did not have to work during Saturnalia, but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them.
Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.
Saturnalia today begins on December 17th, however under the Julian Calendar (which is what they used at the time), the festival began on December 25th. What a coincidence for our man JC!
What’s more, in the year 1752, after centuries of operating with two calendars (Julian and Gregorian), everything changed.
Prior to 1752, our calendars were built around the phases of the moon, rather than how long it takes Earth to complete one orbit of the sun. This changed for England – whose empire was so large that the sun never set on it – and its colonies that year. TimeAndDate.com explains the details more:
The papal bull issued by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, decreed that 10 days be dropped when switching to the Gregorian Calendar. However, the later the switch occurred, the more days had to be omitted. (See table below).
This created short months with only 18 days and odd dates like February 30 during the year of the changeover.
In North America, the month of September 1752 was exceptionally short, skipping 11 days.
Countries like France, Italy, Spain, Austria, and the Catholic states in Germany all made the change in 1582 or 1583. Other countries – like England – were much slower to jump on board. After all, the Church of England had just been established in 1534, so acknowledging the calendar put forward by the Catholic Church would have forfeited some of their credibility.
But once they did make the change, England and its colonies had to remove 11 days from the calendar, as Vsauce explains in this fantastic video:
If you lived in England or one of its colonies in 1752, you only had 19 days in September that year.
So even if Jesus existed, and even if he was born on December 25th, which December 25th was it? The Julian 25th? The Gregorian 25th?
Way back in the day, Pagans worshiped trees in the forest and brought them home to decorate them. Big Think explains further:
Celtic Druids believed that mistletoe would protect them against the elements of thunder and lightning. These druids would cut off a piece of mistletoe from the trees and then distribute that amongst their people for protection. It was also considered a symbol of peace and joy. Meeting under the mistletoe would call for enemies to put down their weapons and have a truce.
Ivy on the other hand was the great symbol of Bacchus, the Roman equivalent of Dionysus – God of wine, fertility and ritualistic madness. Ivy is a symbol of eternal life.
Traditional Christmas colors like green and red represent fertility. Burning Yule logs was representative of the returning sun as the days began to get longer again.
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So Christmas trees are yet another thing Christianity stole form another culture. Which seems rather odd when you consider that it’s counter-intuitive to the Bible’s own teachings.
Hear the word which the LORD speaks to you, O house of Israel. Thus says the LORD: Do not learn the way of the Gentiles; do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the Gentiles are dismayed at them. For the customs of the peoples are futile; for one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple. (Jeremiah 10:1-4)
I’m no theologian, but it sure seems like that says “hey, don’t do what the locals are doing, you’re better than that, and definitely don’t chop down/decorate trees.”
Also, nowhere in the Bible does it say a single thing about Christmas trees being an integral part of celebrating the birth of a person who probably didn’t actually exist in the first place.
Then there’s that whole “Star of Bethlehem” thing. Or, more accurately described, the “Star That Wasn’t”.
The word “magi” was translated as “wise men” but more than likely actually meant “astronomer” or “astrologer” in the context that it was used. This is a problem, because the Catholic Church at the time wasn’t exactly a big fan of astrology, and in fact said it was demonic. But we’ll let that slide for now.
The fact is, the “Star of Bethlehem” wasn’t actually a star, since we can’t observe it today and there haven’t been observations since. And you have to remember that 2000 years ago, our understanding of the universe around us was in its infancy – most people were illiterate and didn’t know where the sun went at night.
Some possible explanations for the “star” were put forward by astronomers. In 1614, Kepler discovered that in the year 7 BC, there were three conjunctions of Saturn and Jupiter, which could have explained the “star”. Others have suggested that Saturn and Jupiter could have been in conjunction with the constellation Pisces, which may have created an interesting effect in a night sky that was free from light pollution.
There’s also a hypothesis that the “star” could have been a supernova or hypernova from the nearby Andromeda galaxy. However, observing remnants from this in another galaxy is extremely challenging, though we do have evidence of supernovas occurring in other galaxies.
It also could have been a comet. Halley’s comet was visible in 12 BC. Around 5 BC, a comet or possibly a supernova was also observed by Chinese astronomers.
Then there’s my favorite explanation, because it relies on the Bible itself as well as a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter to explain the “star”.
Space.com explains more:
Taken literally, the biblical account of the story of the Star of Bethlehem calls for not one, but two “stars.” One to be seen at the start of the Magi’s journey, while the other appearing to them upon their arrival in Bethlehem.
Interestingly, in August of 3 B.C.,VenusandJupiterwere prominent in the predawn eastern sky, and on Aug. 12 they came within just 9 arc minutes (0.15 degrees) of each other as seen from the Middle East. Incidentally, this sign would have been seen by men “in the east,” explaining the phrase in the Book of Matthew.
Ten months later, Venus and Jupiter got together again for an even more spectacular encore on June 17, 2 B.C., when at sundown from Babylonia they were separated by just 4 arc minutes of each other, about 35 degrees above the western horizon. As the sky grew dark, the two brightest planets drew closer to each other until finally at 9:15 p.m. local time they drew to within 36 arcseconds(0.01 degree) equal to the mean apparent width of Jupiter as seen through a telescope, at an altitude of 15 degrees above the horizon. To most people, the two planets must have appeared to coalesce into a single “star” somewhat brighter than Venus alone. Eyeglasses were many centuries in the future, so only people with unusually acute vision would have seen the planets separated.
The fact that Jupiter and Venus had such a close conjunction at this time in history has led some people theorize that it could be an explanation for the Star of Bethlehem.
So really, this is all a lot of words to say that Jesus is a Gemini, not a Capricorn.
Adjust your astrological calendars accordingly.