December is the Great God of Capitalism, that time of the year when spending is mandatory, and the manufacturers of socks rub their hands in glee. It marks that great occasion when the Daily Mail exercises its xenophobia by defending Christmas against the politically correct brigade who would do away with puppies and tinsel. It is of no concern, it seems, that the Daily Mail is more Leviticus than New Testament. Yet what about Jesus in all of this? And more to the point, would we all get presents if the three wise men had not turned up with that year’s eau de cologne?
The birth of Jesus on December 25 is told in the gospel of … No, it would seem, the date of Jesus’ birth is not marked in the gospels. A splinter group of Christians in Egypt celebrated his birth on January 6. That is until it was established in 375 AD at Antioch that the birth of Christ occurred on December 25. 375 AD? Antioch? It was through the Church of Antioch that Christianity was organised as a religion. The Roman Emperor Caesar Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus, or Constantine for short, inaugurated this change by adopting Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
The synods established in the wake of Constantine’s conversion discovered, usefully, that the Bible was only a starting point. The message was there, but it needed more structure, something that would make it speak to the people. It also needed more bureaucracy, a thing at which the Empire excelled. The synods were in effect run by advertising executives who would raise Christianity from the status of cult to that of Organised Religion.
The establishment of the Christian religion throughout the Empire was the great marketing challenge of the fourth century. What could be done with a heathen people stepped in the traditions of Mithra, Adonis, Attis, and a whole host of deities who were, it was eventually decided, Satan in disguise? Jesus may be the junior deity, the Church conceded, but that is only because Satan had been hard at work inverting the Truth that Christianity revealed. This argument was not sufficient to quell the heathen superstitions. What could be done?
It was the venerable Bede who noted in The History of the English Church and People that miracles were an absolute necessity when bringing a religion to the masses. Once the message was established, he continued, there would be no need for miracles. In other words, it is not faith but a subtle combination of superstition and fear that are key factors in establishing a major religion. The age of Bede was thus one of hands-on marketing, and persuading the pastoral folk that their ways were not The Way. This involved a certain amount of creative thinking and the hijacking of key dates in the calendar.
The winter solstice celebrated on December 25 was a key date in the pagan calendar. It was understood to be the Nativity of the Sun, the turning point of the year that saw the power of the Sun on the rise again. The new Christians therefore appropriated it for their purposes. “Thus it was,” notes JG Frazer in his magisterial study of magic and religion, The Golden Bough, “that the Christian Church chose to celebrate the birth of its Founder on the twenty-fifth of December in order to transfer the devotion of the heathen from the Sun to him who was called the Sun of Righteousness.”
“What did the Fathers do except seek and present the clear and open testimonies of Scripture?” asked one of Christianity’s key apologists, Martin Luther, more than a thousand years later. The question is meant to be rhetorical but the answer is of course more complex. Following the fourth century synods, Christianity was organised in a way that it had not been before. This required an order that would integrate it into the Roman cultural landscape. The synods were an exercise in creative thinking that searched the original texts for ideas from which doctrine could be formed. Once that doctrine was established the great work of replacing one way of thinking with another led to the hijacking of the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
The great age of spin, it would seem, did not begin with the election campaign of John F Kennedy. The Greatest Story Ever Told is the extraordinary instance of spin in Western culture. This is not to say that Christianity is an orchestrated fiction but merely that its progress through the Western World was secured through the appropriation of traditions that preceded it. Of course, that does bring the whole enterprise into question. That is however for another occasion.
Happy gift-buying season all!