At birthplace of Jesus, only two people carry on tradition of ringing bells

By Mihran Kalaydjian, CHA

At birthplace of Jesus, only two people carry on tradition of ringing bells

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BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK – A Palestinian college student is one of the last keepers of a fading tradition: ringing the bells of Bethlehem.

Khadir Jaraiseh climbs twice a week to the roof of the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born. He pulls the ropes of four bells in a rooftop tower for a total of 33 times to symbolize the number of years Jesus was believed to have lived.

Jaraiseh rings the bells for prayer services of the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of three denominations that administer the basilica, one of Christianity’s holiest shrines.

The Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox denominations at the basilica — each of which has its own set of bells — have switched to automatic bell ringers.

But there is something special about the traditional approach, said Jaraiseh, who uses both hands and a floor pedal to pull the ropes.

“I feel like I’m making music and talking to God,” said the 22-year-old, who has worked at the church for four years and is studying to become a tour guide. “There is nothing better than working in the place of Jesus’ birth.”

Jaraiseh rings the bells two days a week, and an older colleague covers the remaining five days. During the Christmas season, his task is particularly enjoyable, he said.

His rooftop perch offers a view of old stone houses and cobblestone alleys in the center of Bethlehem.

On Sunday, patches of snow were left on rooftops, remnants of a rare snowstorm that hit earlier this month. Much of the church was covered in scaffolding as part of urgent repairs of a leaking roof — the first face-lift in 600 years. Below, Manger Square was filled with tour groups, including visitors from India and Africa.

But the vista is disrupted by a string of Israeli settlements and Israel’s West Bank separation barrier in the background. Around Bethlehem, the barrier is made up of ugly gray cement slabs, one of the many manifestations of the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel portrays the separation barrier as a defense against militants, while Palestinians say it is an excuse for another Israeli land grab.

The conflict is ever-present in the Palestinian territories, even during the Christmas season. But tensions have dropped in recent years, the U.S. is making a new attempt to broker a peace deal, Bethlehem hotel rooms are booked through December and the number of visitors is rising steadily.

Jaraiseh said Christmas remains the highlight of his year despite the political situation. “We wait for it. It’s a happy day,” he said.

The Armenians mark Christmas on Jan. 19. The day before, Jaraiseh rings the bells for longer than usual while the Christmas Eve procession of the Armenian patriarch makes its way into church.

Though Jaraiseh is the bell-ringer for the Armenians, he is Roman Catholic and celebrates Christmas on Dec. 25.

The Greek Orthodox switched to a computerized system after their bell ringer died a few years ago.

“We just press the button, without any need to go up to the roof in bad or good weather,” said Issa Talgiyeh, a Greek Orthodox priest.

“This is much easier,” he said — though he acknowledged that the bells rung by hand sound more beautiful.

The Roman Catholics went the same route, using a generator to back up the system.

The Armenians initially had five bells that were installed in 1923. One was damaged during Israel’s 2002 siege of the church when Palestinian gunmen were holed up inside the shrine for 40 days.

Khat Joundourian, a senior Armenian priest, said his church decided to preserve tradition. “What if one day the computer (for the bells) doesn’t work or needs to be reset?” he said. “Would we skip the call to prayer?”

 

 

The Nation’s Top 10 Worst Ice Storms

By Mihran Kalaydjian, CHA

The Nation’s Top 10 Worst Ice Storms

#10: New Year’s 1961 (Northern Idaho)

The most destructive ice storms feature heavy ice accumulation, sometimes on the order of several inches, that, when sometimes combining with strong winds, bring down trees and power lines, plunging hundreds of thousands into the dark, sometimes for several days. We’ve collected a list of the top 10 worst ice storms in U.S. history, starting with one in northern Idaho.

A three-day ice event ushering in 1961 featuring not only freezing rain, but also occasional freezing fog  set a U.S.

Power outages and tree damage was widespread in this area. Incidentally, one somewhat common ice storm corridor is along the Columbia River, where subfreezing air spilling over the Continental Divide can sometimes remain trapped ahead of a wet Pacific storm.

#9: January 2000 (Atlanta)

Atlanta Ice Storm 2000

The timing couldn’t have been worse, and the impact of this ice storm continues to this day in Atlanta.

The week before Super Bowl XXXIV, an ice storm left half a million customers without power, some for more than a week. Just days later, another winter storm hit Atlanta on Super Bowl weekend.

Jan. 2000 ice storm facts:

Estimated total losses in north Georgia: $48 million

The second winter storm disrupted practice the Saturday before the Super Bowl. Roads from the teams’ hotel to the Georgia Dome were too hazardous.

Atlanta has not hosted another Super Bowl since 2000. 

Atlanta lost a bid to host the 2009 Super Bowl, awarded instead to Tampa, Fla.

In February 2011, Super Bowl XLV was disrupted by a week-long snow/ice event in Arlington, Texas.

#8: New Year’s Eve 1978 (North Texas)

There have been many ice storms in Texas history. Six inches of ice accumulated in parts of northwest Texas on Jan. 22-24, 1940, according to Weather Underground’s Christopher Burt.

New Year’s Eve 1978 was the worst ice storm in North Texas in three decades, producing ice accumulations up to 2 inches thick in a 100 mile-wide swath from just west of Waco to Paris, Texas.

New Year’s Eve 1978 ice storm facts:

2,000 residents treated for injuries from vehicle accidents, falls on ice and frostbite.

Nearly 300,000 Dallas County customers lost power for two days. Others lost power for up to 10 days.

$14 million in damage in Dallas County

#7: Christmas 2000

Christmas 2000 Ice Storm

You can certainly vouch for grumpy moods around Christmas 2000 in parts of the South.

In mid-December, an ice storm left more than 500,000 without power in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. At the time, one Arkansas official called it the most destructive ice storm he’d seen to the electrical utility infrastructure, there.

Just under two weeks later, the weather grinch delivered a lump of coal to stockings from New Mexico to Oklahoma and Arkansas in the form of another ice storm. 

Christmas 2000 ice storm facts:

Over 1 inch of accumulated ice in many locations from northeast Texas into southeast Oklahoma, Arkansas and northern Louisiana.

At least 600,000 customers were without power.

These were the two most widespread, damaging ice storms of record in Arkansas history at the time, dating to 1819, according to the National Weather Service.

Much of cities of Texarkana, Hot Springs and Little Rock, Ark. were without power.

Water systems in Texarkana and Hot Springs, Ark. were also down.

FEMA Director James Lee Witt’s western Ark. farm also lost power.

#6: New England 1921

November 1921 ice storm

One of the most prominent ice storm alleys in the U.S. is the interior Northeast, from northern Pennsylvania, central and upstate New York into New England.

In the days after Thanksgiving 1921, a four-day ice storm with accumulations over three inches in spots, crippled parts of New England, including the city of Worcester.

Damage to power lines, trees, and phone lines was estimated at $20 million. Adjusted for inflation, this storm today would’ve caused over a quarter million dollars in 2013.

Compounding the mess were high winds, turning streets into ice rinks, a challenge to anyone on foot.

In his book, Extreme Weather, Weather Underground’s Christopher Burt cites a paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society stating “ice on the side of any dense, unbroken evergreen tree 50 feet high and on average 20 feet wide would have weighed five tons” due to the weight of accumulated ice.

At the time, this was the most destructive ice storm of record in New England.

#5: Great Ice Storm of 1951

 

A more than 100-mile wide swath from Louisiana to West Virginia was affected by a severe ice storm from Jan. 29-Feb. 2 in 1951.

1951 ice storm facts:

Ice accumulations of up to two inches reported on powerlines and tree limbs.

The heaviest accumulations were between Memphis, Tenn, Nashville, Tenn. and Lexington, Ky. Nashville was buried under ?eight inches of ice and snow by the time everything was finished on Feb. 1.

High winds from a line of thunderstorms that developed from southwest Louisiana to central Mississippi and northern ?Alabama combined with the glazing of ice to result in widespread tree and powerline damage.

The storm was also accompanied by frigid temperatures. Nashville recorded a low temperature of 13 degrees below zero on Feb. 2.

Communications and utilities interrupted for a week to 10 days.

Damage was estimated to be $100 million.

25 people were killed and about 500 were injured.

#4: Dec. 4-5, 2002 Ice Storm

An early-season winter storm struck many states from Dec. 4-5 in 2002. Locations from Oklahoma to southern Missouri, southern Illinois, Kentucky, northern Tennessee, northeast Georgia and the Carolinas were impacted by freezing rain, sleet and snow. Accumulating snow also affected parts of the Middle Atlantic and Northeast. North Carolina was hardest hit by freezing rain accumulations.

2002 ice storm facts:

One of the worst ice storms to ever hit North Carolina. 

Accumulations of up to an inch were reported in central parts of the state. 

The storm caused the largest power outage in North Carolina’s history. More than 1.7 million customers lost power and 41,000 remained without power eight days later.

Widespread damage to trees and power lines was reported.

Property damage almost $100 million in North Carolina.

Parts of the Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham metro areas were paralyzed for days.

#3: Jan. 26-28, 2009, Arkansas and Kentucky

Days of freezing rain led to heavy ice accumulations of one to locally more than two inches in northern Arkansas and portions of Kentucky in late January of 2009. For perspective, accumulations of more than a half inch are considered crippling.

The heavy ice coatings caused widespread damage to trees, power lines and power poles. Trees fell on homes and cars and blocked roads.

The storm was so damaging that the National Weather Service in both Paducah, Ky. and Louisville, Ky. rated it as the worst weather event of the decade for their respective areas.

Kentucky’s governor, Steve Beshear, described it as the biggest natural disaster the state has experienced in modern history. Governor Beshear called in National Guard troops to help clear roads and go door to door to check on families in the western part of the state (the worst-hit area).

In Arkansas, Mel Coleman, CEO of North Arkansas Electric Cooperative described the scene, “In all of my years I have never seen anything that compares to the damage this storm has caused. I have yet to see a mature tree standing that was not severely damaged. Just opening the door to the outside sounds like a war zone, with the continuous sounds of trees and limbs breaking.”

2009 ice storm facts:

At its height, a total of 1.3 million residents were left without power in multiple states.

For Kentucky, it was the largest power outage in history with 609,000 homes and businesses in the dark.

Over 200,000 lost power in Louisville and it took as long as 10 days to get all customers back online. Area schools were out for up to a week.

Necessities such as food and water were difficult to obtain and lines for gas were hours long.

Heavy sleet accumulations across much of southern Illinois and parts of southeast Missouri caused dozens of roof collapses. 

At least 30,000 power poles were downed or snapped in Arkansas.

More than 145 miles of high-voltage transmission lines were downed in southeast Missouri.

Clean up of debris from the storm lasted into the summer

The storm claimed 24 lives in Kentucky and another 18 in Arkansas from a combination of traffic accidents, hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning.

#2: Feb. 9-13, 1994, Southern Ice Storm

The second worst ice storm in history hit the South Feb. 9-13, 1994. Extensive damage totaling $3 billion was reported in portions Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.

1994 ice storm facts:

Of all the states affected, Mississippi Tennessee and Alabama saw the worst impacts.

More than 2 million lost power. A half million were still without power three days after the storm. Some residents in Mississippi were without power a month after the storm.

More than 80,000 utility poles were pulled down by the weight of the ice.

Downed trees and limbs caused widespread damage to homes, businesses and vehicles. Many roads were blocked as well, making travel nearly impossible in some areas.

In Mississippi, 3.7 million acres of commercial forests were damaged severely.

At least nine deaths related to direct or indirect impacts from the storm.

#1: Jan. 5-9, 1998, New England and Southeast Canada

A crippling, devastating ice storm hit portions of upstate New York, northern Vermont, northern New Hampshire, much of Maine and southeast Canada. Its impacts were so severe that it made an exclusive list as one of 144 weather disasters compiled by NOAA which have exceeded a billion dollars in damage from 1980-2012.

1998 ice storm facts:

Total damage was $1.4 billion in the U.S. plus another $3 billion in Canada.

Over 500,000 in northern New England lost power. Near 80 percent of Maine’s population lost electrical service.

The extensive power outages lasted for days and in some cases weeks.

16 lives were lost in the U.S. and an additional 28 deaths related to the ice storm were reported in Canada.

Ice accumulations were as much as 3 inches thick in northern New York, northern New England and southeast Canada.

Rapid ice accumulations from the Jan. 7-9, 1998 downed millions of trees and caused widespread destruction of power lines and power poles.

Included in the millions of damaged trees were many maple and apple trees, which affected the maple sugaring and apple industries for years.

Outside of the crippling ice, this storm system also brought flooding to portions of the South, lower-Mississippi Valley and Upstate New York. The most severe flooding was in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee where more than 700 homes were damaged or destroyed. Total costs were $15 million in North Carolina and $20 million in Tennessee.

 

 

 

 

 


 

5 Unique Christmas Traditions From Around the World

By Mihran Kalaydjian, CHA

5 Unique Christmas Traditions From Around the World

 

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The world is, of course, a multicultural place, with its people celebrating myriad holidays during the final weeks of the year, from Hanukkah to Kwanzaa.

With one-third of the world’s population Christian, Christmas is celebrated in many nations. Yet in places where Christians are in the minority — take Japan, for example, where less than 1 percent of the population follow the religion — many may still honor the holiday, albeit in unexpected ways.

1. The Philippines

No other country in the world celebrates the season quite like Filipinos, the third-largest Catholic nation in the world.

The Philippines one-up the United States’ propensity for immediately replacing Halloween décor with Christmas lights by commencing celebrations in September — making it the longest Christmas celebration in the world.

The southeast Asian’s Catholicism is a holdover from the Spanish colonial era of the Philippines, as are traditions like the marathon nine-day series of Christmas masses called simbang gabi.

So, too, are the festive parols, or star-shaped lanterns, that brighten windows during the entire holiday season. The lights, which are meant to reflect the Star of Bethlehem in design, are named after the Spanish word for lantern, farol.

This year, the lighting of the traditional Christmas lanterns carries particular meaning in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda.

In the Philippines, Merry Christmas is “Maligayang Pasko.”

2. Sweden

The Yule Log is customary in European-derived Christmas traditions. It crackles brightly on many an American TV as something of a faux hearth. The French bake a confectionary version of the holiday-themed tree part. But Sweden skips the wood and goes for the goat instead.

The Yule Goat isn’t a real animal; it’s typically made almost entirely of straw. In the Swedish tongue, the Christmas goat is known as the Julbok. The Julbok’s origins are rooted in mythology, but it’s been warmly adopted by Swedes as part of modern Christian tradition — perhaps too warmly.

The Swedish town of Gävle has erected a giant version of the Yule Goat since 1966. And every year since, people have tried to torch it, kidnap it and otherwise harass the apparently rather expensive symbol of Christmas joy. At least 28 of the 45 goats have succumbed to what the authorities dub as “vandals.”

But, according to The Local, an English-language Swedish newspaper, “half of (Gävle’s) inhabitants take pride in the giant animal, while the other half take equal pride in attempting to burn it down.”

Merry Christmas in Swedish is “God Jul.”

3. Australia

In Australia, Christmas falls right in the middle of some of the hottest weather of the year. Because of the extreme heat, Christmas is often marked by electrical storms and brush-fires rather than gently falling snow.

But that doesn’t keep Aussies from getting into the Christmas spirit. A Canberra family  recently broke a world record by stringing more than 31 miles of Christmas lights around its property.

Some Australians who celebrate Christmas honor the nation’s Anglo-Celtic influence with English-style holiday fare likely more appropriate for colder climes. Roast turkey, steamed pudding and gingerbread all might end up on the table.

But it’s not all about plum pudding, which is increasingly served with ice cream to help tolerate the Australian summer temperatures, anyway. To further beat the heat, up to 40,000 Australians flock to Bondi Beach in Sydney at Christmastime — and beaches mean barbecues.

Carols by Candlelight, derived from a 19th-century Australian tradition, has turned into a big, down-under outdoor Christmas festival. Held on Christmas Eve in Melbourne for the past 76 years, the outdoor concert is now a fundraiser for  Vision Australia. Similar events are now held around the world.

4. Finland

Finland seems made for Christmas. Reindeer run rampant in Finnish Lapland and Joulpukki, a bearded mythical figure who looks and acts for all the world like Santa Claus, is said to make his home where those same reindeer roam.

But it’s not all snowflakes and cookies on Christmas Eve, when at noon the Declaration of Christmas Peace is read in a formal ceremony in South Finland.

The statement, which has been tweaked a bit since it was first read in the 13th century, offers a surprisingly emphatic reminder that any sort of unruly behavior that challenges the holiday “shall under aggravating circumstances be guilty and punished according to what the law and statutes prescribe for each and every offense separately.”

In other words, hooligans, don’t mess with Finnish Christmas.

The peaceful declaration goes on to wish the inhabitants of Finland a joyous Christmas feast. There, a feast is made joyous with the addition of Christmas ham, smoked and pickled fish, cheeses and sweet Christmas breads. The people in the northernmost parts of Finland sometimes even eat reindeer for Christmas.

Sorry, Rudolph. 

In Finland, people wish each other “Hyvää Joulua” on Christmas.

5. France

In France, Christmas Day is always preceded by a “Reveillon”, which means staying awake to usher in the next day, according to Susi Seguret, who leads the  Seasonal School of Culinary Arts in several different cities, including Paris.

“This means essentially gathering with friends, often a dozen or more, and enjoying a multi-course dinner, in company of many bottles of wine and much champagne,” Seguret says. “This is a time to dress to the nines, even if at home, and to get out the best china and silver and crystal and all the candles.”

Seguret says the meal always includes fresh oysters, a fish course, a poultry course, a meat course, an extensive cheese platter and delicate desserts.

“In the south of France, around Provence, les treize desserts — the 13 desserts, representing Jesus and the 12 apostles — figure into the season.”

The components of the dish vary by local or familial tradition, but tend to include dried fruits, nougat and other traditional sweets.

In northern France, particularly in Alsace, traditional Christmas markets abound. They burst with holiday sweets like the bredele and gingerbread as well as warming mulled wine. On Dec. 6, white-bearded St. Nicolas walks through the streets of Alsace, passing out sweets to all of the “good” children. Sound familiar? 

Merry Christmas in French is “Joyeux Noel.”

 

 

 

 

 

How December 25 Became Christmas

How December 25 Became Christmas

Written by Mihran Kalaydjian, CHA   •  12/18/2013

On December 25, Christians around the world will gather to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Joyful carols, special liturgies, brightly wrapped gifts, festive foods—these all characterize the feast today, at least in the northern hemisphere. But just how did the Christmas festival originate? How did December 25 come to be associated with Jesus’ birthday?

The Bible offers few clues: Celebrations of Jesus’ Nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or Acts; the date is not given, not even the time of year. The biblical reference to shepherds tending their flocks at night when they hear the news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8) might suggest the spring lambing season; in the cold month of December, on the other hand, sheep might well have been corralled. Yet most scholars would urge caution about extracting such a precise but incidental detail from a narrative whose focus is theological rather than calendrical.

The extrabiblical evidence from the first and second century is equally spare: There is no mention of birth celebrations in the writings of early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (c. 130–200) or Tertullian (c. 160–225). Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) goes so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as “pagan” practices—a strong indication that Jesus’ birth was not marked with similar festivities at that place and time.1 As far as we can tell, Christmas was not celebrated at all at this point.

This stands in sharp contrast to the very early traditions surrounding Jesus’ last days. Each of the Four Gospels provides detailed information about the time of Jesus’ death. According to John, Jesus is crucified just as the Passover lambs are being sacrificed. This would have occurred on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, just before the Jewish holiday began at sundown (considered the beginning of the 15th day because in the Hebrew calendar, days begin at sundown). In Matthew, Mark and Luke, however, the Last Supper is held after sundown, on the beginning of the 15th. Jesus is crucified the next morning—still, the 15th.

Easter, a much earlier development than Christmas, was simply the gradual Christian reinterpretation of Passover in terms of Jesus’ Passion. Its observance could even be implied in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 5:7–8: “Our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the festival…”); it was certainly a distinctively Christian feast by the mid-second century C.E., when the apocryphal text known as the Epistle to the Apostles has Jesus instruct his disciples to “make commemoration of [his] death, that is, the Passover.”

Jesus’ ministry, miracles, Passion and Resurrection were often of most interest to first- and early-second-century C.E. Christian writers. But over time, Jesus’ origins would become of increasing concern. We can begin to see this shift already in the New Testament. The earliest writings—Paul and Mark—make no mention of Jesus’ birth. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide well-known but quite different accounts of the event—although neither specifies a date. In the second century C.E., further details of Jesus’ birth and childhood are related in apocryphal writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Gospel of James.b These texts provide everything from the names of Jesus’ grandparents to the details of his education—but not the date of his birth.

Finally, in about 200 C.E., a Christian teacher in Egypt makes reference to the date Jesus was born. According to Clement of Alexandria, several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Surprising as it may seem, Clement doesn’t mention December 25 at all. Clement writes: “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”2

Clearly there was great uncertainty, but also a considerable amount of interest, in dating Jesus’ birth in the late second century. By the fourth century, however, we find references to two dates that were widely recognized—and now also celebrated—as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor). The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6; for most Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas.

The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”3 In about 400 C.E., Augustine of Hippo mentions a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists, who apparently kept Christmas festivals on December 25, but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, regarding it as an innovation. Since the Donatist group only emerged during the persecution under Diocletian in 312 C.E. and then remained stubbornly attached to the practices of that moment in time, they seem to represent an older North African Christian tradition.

In the East, January 6 was at first not associated with the magi alone, but with the Christmas story as a whole.

So, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, we finally find people observing his birth in mid-winter. But how had they settled on the dates December 25 and January 6?

There are two theories today: one extremely popular, the other less often heard outside scholarly circles (though far more ancient).4

The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.


In the five-part documentary An Archaeological Search for Jesus, Hershel Shanks travels from Galilee to Jerusalem in search of the first century world in which Jesus lived. Visit Nazareth, Sepphoris, Capernaum, Bethsaida, Qumran and other landmarks as Shanks interviews eminent archaeologists and New Testament scholars about the sites associated with Jesus and other gospel figures.


Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.

 

It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday.5 In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea.6 They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly.

More recent studies have shown that many of the holiday’s modern trappings do reflect pagan customs borrowed much later, as Christianity expanded into northern and western Europe. The Christmas tree, for example, has been linked with late medieval druidic practices. This has only encouraged modern audiences to assume that the date, too, must be pagan.

There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.

Granted, Christian belief and practice were not formed in isolation. Many early elements of Christian worship—including eucharistic meals, meals honoring martyrs and much early Christian funerary art—would have been quite comprehensible to pagan observers. Yet, in the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E.

This would change only after Constantine converted to Christianity. From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. At this late point, Christmas may well have acquired some pagan trappings. But we don’t have evidence of Christians adopting pagan festivals in the third century, at which point dates for Christmas were established. Thus, it seems unlikely that the date was simply selected to correspond with pagan solar festivals.

The December 25 feast seems to have existed before 312—before Constantine and his conversion, at least. As we have seen, the Donatist Christians in North Africa seem to have known it from before that time. Furthermore, in the mid- to late fourth century, church leaders in the eastern Empire concerned themselves not with introducing a celebration of Jesus’ birthday, but with the addition of the December date to their traditional celebration on January 6.

There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years. But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.

This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.” Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.

Augustine, too, was familiar with this association. In On the Trinity (c. 399–419) he writes: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”

In the East, too, the dates of Jesus’ conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar—April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6—the eastern date for Christmas. In the East, too, we have evidence that April was associated with Jesus’ conception and crucifixion. Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis writes that on April 6, “The lamb was shut up in the spotless womb of the holy virgin, he who took away and takes away in perpetual sacrifice the sins of the world.” Even today, the Armenian Church celebrates the Annunciation in early April (on the 7th, not the 6th) and Christmas on January 6.

Thus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6).

Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together. One of the most poignant expressions of this belief is found in Christian art. In numerous paintings of the angel’s Annunciation to Mary—the moment of Jesus’ conception—the baby Jesus is shown gliding down from heaven on or with a small cross (see photo above of detail from Master Bertram’s Annunciation scene); a visual reminder that the conception brings the promise of salvation through Jesus’ death.

The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is also reflected in ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a dispute between two early-second-century C.E. rabbis who share this view, but disagree on the date: Rabbi Eliezer states: “In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born … and in Nisan they [our ancestors] will be redeemed in time to come.” (The other rabbi, Joshua, dates these same events to the following month, Tishri.) Thus, the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies: Jesus would have been conceived on the same date he died, and born nine months later.

In the end we are left with a question: How did December 25 become Christmas? We cannot be entirely sure. Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions. Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism—from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year—than from paganism. Then again, in this notion of cycles and the return of God’s redemption, we may perhaps also be touching upon something that the pagan Romans who celebrated Sol Invictus, and many other peoples since, would have understood and claimed for their own, too.