Jesus was a real person; His name was recently discovered in the Nazareth phone book of the correct period. There were two Jesus Christs in the 972 area code, one of whom was listed under both rabbinical and woodworking in the yellow pages (Jesus H. Christ*). Surely this was the Man himself. But this is where the record ends; there is no suggestion as to what time of year he was born, although the traditional heavy tourist season in Bethlehem was mid-August until the second century AD, so if his folks were going to have trouble finding a hotel room, it was surely mid-summer. The place was a ghost town in December, according to Chamber of Commerce records. You could get a suite for the price of a double room. Of course if there were recent lambs around, as suggested by the New Testament and ‘the Little Drummer Boy’, Christ would have been born in the spring. The Lamb of God may have been born at the same time as the lamb of Jim Horowitz, who was at the Holiday Inn for a shepherd’s convention that year.
Until roughly 336 AD his birthday was celebrated January 6th (Christ’s, not the Horowitz lamb, whose existence is on the historical record because his birth ruined the carpet in room 22 and the management sent a bill for repairs which ended up hidden in a cave along with the Dead Sea Scrolls). In 566 AD, responding to the problem that folks were perfectly willing to throw Christ’s birthday in with the old midwinter pagan holidays, the Catholic Church via the Council of Tours II announced a 12 day holiday, from birth (December 25th) to baptism (January 6th). This effectively bracketed the old school celebrations so there was no excuse, church-wise, to bust a move in the name of Apollo or Mithra or whomever Grandpa had a statue of. Not that the idea caught on all of a sudden; Christmas wasn’t celebrated in Ireland until the 5th Century and in Germany until the 8th Century. It all begins to sound rather contrived.
So why do we celebrate his birth on the 25th of December? Long before Christ, there was the Winter Solstice. This is the day when the sun is farthest from the celestial equator (an imaginary line drawn in the night sky to reflect the position of the Earth’s equator; in 1798 there was an attempt to draw the actual line across the sky but it was abandoned when the chief financial backer of the project was beheaded and the astronomer whose idea it was fell under a passing ox) and there are the fewest daylight hours (weather permitting); it usually falls around December 21st.
The Romans, who knew a thing or two about parties, reserved this time in late December (Decembris, which is Latin for “my balls [testis] are freezing in this toga”) for the Saturnalia. The Saturnalia was a massive hoe-down to Saturn, god of agriculture, because about then everybody started to worry he’d dozed off and the days would keep on getting shorter and there would never be another spring. And the holiday was not just for Saturn, but Mithra (Persian god of light) Apollo (god of the sun, also depicted as a shepherd) and a host of others- anybody who could get the sun to perk back up. In Rome it was a big party with feasting and gifts and a lot of slaves getting furlough; this was one of the few Roman holidays that didn’t involve mandatory screwing or sacrifices, except for the odd pig (sacrifice only).
But the farther North you went, the more serious the holiday became. Forget the lambs- the Germanic peoples associated the holiday with boars in honor of Nerthus, Freyja, and Freyr, who don’t get around much any more. The midwinter or Yule festivals could include such activities as snogging under a clump of mistletoe (which has, like most things over the last 1800 years, been Bowdlerized until it’s no fun any more) but by the time you get into the Norse territories we’re talking about human sacrifice (midsvetrar bl?t, AKA h?ggu-n?tt, or ‘butchering night’. Christmas trees have a long tradition; in the North they were probably great bonfires to drive back the night (it got really dark up there, and if you get nekkid for a party it’s a good idea to have a ready source of heat nearby) and to dispose of sacrificed materials.
The midwinter burning tradition, however, goes as far south and as far back as the Egyptian Empire. The Yule log is an ancient good luck charm. It wasn’t until someone worked out an acceptable Christian symbolism (the tree as evergreen source of light, IE Christ) that we got the modern Christmas tree sorted out- the modern article is mentioned first in 1605 in Strasbourg, where they apparently put fir trees in their parlors and hung them with sweets, paper roses, and so forth. Knowing those Germanic types, though, I think we can guess they were hedging their bets with a nod to the olden gods, who were not long dead. Later on the idea was to cover the tree with candles and thus frequently burn the village down along with the tree. It wasn’t until Victoria and Albert set a Christmas tree up at Balmoral Castle that the practice became general and the tree made its migration indoors. But what about Santy Claus?
That jolly old elf was originally the medieval bishop Nicholas, who presided over a slum. He was in the habit of showing up in the hovels at night and slipping gifts in children’s shoes, although in light of recent discoveries we can guess what else he got up to. He was the first Saint Nick. For the record, he was a Turk. In America, though, he’s amalgamated with the Dutch traditional figure of ‘Sinter Klaas’, who shows up on a horse along with the pickaninny ‘Black Peter’. Black Peter takes the bad kids to Spain and pickles them or similar and Sinter Klaas licks the good children’s toes, or something along these lines. I can’t remember, and I get him mixed up with several other cats like Grandfather Frost (Russia) and Jultomten (Sweden, magical pagan gnome with bag of toys). The foot/shoe fetish shows up in Spain, Italy, and several other countries, which makes me want to block the chimney. But despite his undiagnosed pedo/podophilia, Santa is catching on: in Japan, the kiddies (with their tiny little feet) call him ‘Santa no ojisan’, ‘Uncle Santa’. I’ll bet they do.
So this Xmas?, get in touch with your roots. Make a big old bonfire, sacrifice a pig, and spend twelve days reeling around in your undershirt, drunk and noisy, ideally with a sprig of mistletoe clenched between your buttocks. Intone the names of a few ancient gods and pray for the sun god to be reborn. It’s cathartic, if nothing else. Jesus won’t mind; he’s the forgiving sort. If you feel guilty afterwards, wait until spring and go somewhere where there are lambs and whisper “happy birthday, Jesus”, because you’ll be a lot closer to the correct date. As for me, I’m going to leave a little something in my shoes this year for that filthy old son-of-a-bitch with the red suit and the roving eye. I’ll make his sugarplums dance, you wait and see.
*Actually the letter ‘tof’, commonly mistaken for an ‘H’. Hebrew letters have numerical value; the ‘tof’ here probably refers to his street address, which was 400 Lower Galilee Street.
?Xmas comes from the Greek initial in Xpist?s (Christos), hence the X Games, which are held in Christ’s honor.
BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter, political satirist and cartoonist. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org