The 2017 film ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ makes the big claim that Charles Dickens was its inspiration.
It was his short novel ‘A Christmas Carol’, published in 1843, that is said to have transformed a fading pagan tradition into a popular family feast of mince pies, turkeys, cake, and plum pudding, often spiced with singing, dancing and games.
Dickens also stressed that it should be a time of goodwill, charity, compassion and forgiveness, with the infant Jesus being replaced by a crippled child whose salvation depends on human rather than divine generosity.
From a secular viewpoint, in Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemption, Dickens demonstrates man’s ability to redeem himself without appealing to an invisible deity.
Yet it would be wrong to say that Dickens alone invented Christmas. It would be more accurate to say that he helped to revive what is essentially a mongrel festival that has added and subtracted diverse elements over the centuries.
The Bible gives no date for the birth of Jesus. The early Christians argued about when they should celebrate the momentous event. In about 350 CE, Pope Julius I decreed that the Feast of the Nativity should be celebrated on December 25 because it corresponded with other pagan midwinter festivals. Julius I therefore could claim to have invented ‘Christ’s Mass’.
For the Romans it was for a long time the climax of the winter solstice festival of Saturnalia which lasted for a week after December 17. The 25th was the ‘dies natalis solis invicti’, the birthday of the unconquered sun god Saturn. In the Roman Saturnalia, roles were reversed, presents exchanged, and gambling, feasting, drinking, and singing naked in the street were part of the festivities.
Not all Christians accepted December 25, but the sixth century theologian and mathematician Dionysius Exiguus (in English, Dennis the humble or little) offered an explanation.
In 525 CE he was asked by Pope John I to set out the dates for Easter from the years 527 to 626. Dionysius went further and invented the Christian Era calendar.
He calculated that Jesus was born on December 25, 525 years previously, though it was another 200 years before this Anno Domini date became dominant in Western Europe. Dionysius clearly has also claims as the inventor of Christmas.
We now know that Dionysius was doubly wrong.
The flight into Egypt, described in Matthew’s Gospel, if it happened at all, must have occurred in 4 BCE at the very latest, because King Herod, from whom Joseph, Mary and their baby were fleeing, died in that year. So Jesus was definitely not born in the year 1 CE.
The December 25 birth is also probably wrong. It it is unlikely that Jesus was born on that date; the event described in Luke of the shepherds watching their flocks by night suggests a spring or summer date rather than one in the Palestine rainy season.
The truth is that Christians hijacked a pagan festival and used its traditions to decorate the nativity myth. Holly and ivy are derived from the Romans, mistletoe came from the Druids, who believed it was a magical plant, and Yule logs were lit in ancient Scandinavia to honour Thor, the god of thunder.
The Christmas tree is found in many cultures – the Romans themselves regarded the fir as sacred and decorated it with red berries. Nor was it Dickens who brought it to British shores. It was Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III, who set up the first known English tree at Windsor in December 1800.
Yet we should also stress that many Christians have themselves objected to these pagan intrusions. Even before it happened, the 3rd century theologian Origen denounced the whole idea of celebrating the birthday of Jesus “as if he were a King Pharaoh”.
Much later, the 17th century Puritans in England and Massachusetts banned Christmas celebrations because they regarded the ‘debauchery’ as a dishonour to God. They also associated ‘Christ’s Mass’ with the Catholic Church which they regarded as ‘unChristian’.
Some modern sects want to change the date of Christmas because it is unhistorical and because it would provide an opportunity to have a simpler, more exclusively Christian festival, stripped of all the drunkenness, gluttony, and materialism that characterises the modern event.
As for us freethinkers and humanists, we’re probably in two minds about it all. Some of us think it is a stressful and costly period – yet another commercial contrivance in which there is a dreadful pressure to overspend. Others welcome an opportunity to celebrate being with family and friends and to enjoy a festival to cheer us up in the depths of winter and to celebrate the rebirth of the sun.
Does Christmas really make us more aware of the earth’s appalling poverty and man’s inhumanity to man and other animals? Does it make our local politicians more charitable and forgiving to one another?
Sadly, the world and Northern Ireland have still a long way to go to establish permanent peace and good will to all men. In this sense, if asked what we think of Christmas, we might reply: “It would be a very good idea.”
• Brian McClinton is a life-long humanist and a retired politics, economics, and history teacher at Friends’ School, Lisburn. He also edits the Irish Freethinker, a broadly humanist bi-monthly magazine, available in Eason.