Mark Owen writes

The truth about Christmas

Christmas is upon us once again - and a most peculiar celebration it is.

A pagan festival of gluttony and gift-giving married to a religious ceremony marking the anniversary of the birth of the prophet Jesus. Perhaps summed up in that figure so familiar to children - Father Christmas. A jolly old version of a Christian saint, his flowing beard and crimson robes sugar-coating the ultimate message - two thousand years ago a god came down to earth to live among us and then to die for us.

The child tries hard to sleep but would dearly love to see Father Christmas in person as he comes visiting, bearing gifts. We smile indulgently and try not to spoil the fun, however unreal the narrative. But the child's wonderment is no more naive than those millions of adults who accept the truly amazing story of Christmas.  A god come down to earth? It's a hoary old tale, repeated many times with other gods but there is no more reason to believe this version than the others. 

The story goes that Jesus was a baby born into humble surroundings, his arrival heralded by seers from the east and angels from on high, that he had come to save mankind by offering himself up as a sacrifice to his father in heaven. Well, that's the narrative as we have it. If only there were a few hard facts to back this fanciful story we might have to treat it with more reverence.

In what month was he born? He may have been born in March, or April or May, or perhaps January.  And in what year? Nobody knows. The great French scholar Guignebert says: 'We do not know, within about fifteen years, or perhaps more, the time when Jesus came into the world.'

The calendar that derives its dates from the year zero as marking the birth of Jesus is quite an arbitrary compilation, done by a Scythian monk, Dionysius the Less, hundreds of years after the event. And the date honoured as his birth date - 25 December - was chosen after much debate among the learned theologians of the West (the Orthodox celebrate on a different date - 6 January). 25 December is, in fact, the festival date celebrating Mithra, the solar deity!

And where was the prophet born? Nobody is sure of that, either, especially the New Testament, which gives two contradictory answers - Bethlehem and Nazareth.

Like everything else about the Christian story, a few simple events that occurred long ago and far away gradually evolved, under the impetus of blind belief, to the grand but muddled event we now know as Christmas, a strange amalgam of the secular and the sacred.

'Ding, dong, merrily on high!' - apt words, indeed!

From Tracts For Our Times - Mark Owen, 2008 -