The origins of Christmas

icon of Emperor Constantine with Nicene Creed

icon of Emperor Constantine with Nicene Creed

The Visitation in the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry; the Magnificat in Latin

The Visitation in the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry; the Magnificat in Latin

Statue of the Visitation at the Ein Karem Church of the Visitation

Statue of the Visitation at the Ein Karem Church of the Visitation

If you had spoken to early Christians of the celebration of Christmas they would have looked at you perplexed, worse still in horror, the celebration of the birthday of a God was something Pagans did.

There was not even a date in the Christian calendar!

The Gospels are silent on the date of the Birth of Jesus, though there are hints. The shepherds were tending their flocks at night, would place it sometime in the spring.

Christmas was invented by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 312 AD when he converted to Christianity.

Constantine saw a fiery cross in the sky. Were he to convert, it would lead him to military victory.

Constantine adopted an existing Pagan festival, that of the Winter Solstice, which then was 25 December.

It is easier to get people to celebrate an existing festival with a new name, than to create a new festival.

Rome was being torn apart by warring factions. One such faction was Christians.

Christianity was adopted as the official religion of Rome with Constantine as head of the church. Christianity went from being oppressed to being the oppressor. The might of the state which was used against Christians was now deployed against their enemies.

Christianity became the religion of Empire, a military empire.

But that was not all, Constantine reinvented Christianity, the focus changed.

Giles Fraser:

By marginalising Christ’s teachings about poverty, humility, and above all peace, Constantine was able to take a religion founded in pacifism and use it for his military machine in pursuit of a ‘just war’ – something political leaders have been doing ever since.

Christianity under Constantine changed from the religion of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and powerful, from the oppressed to the oppressors, it became the religion of the ruling class.

Religion the tool to control the people.

One God, one powerful ruler who represents God on Earth.

During the reign of Constantine Christianity becomes very visible. It emerges from the Catacombs to erect great churches.

Constantine dispatched his mother Helen to locate the place of Birth and Death of Jesus and ordered that churches be built richly decorated to mark the locations.

The First Council of Nicea (325 AD), under the patronage of Constantine, draw up the Nicene Creed. A gathering of Bishops to draw up a declaration they could all sign up to.

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
By whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth;
Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;
He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.

It was thought the First Council of Nicea had setted matters. It had not.

The First Council of Constantinople 381 AD was called under Emperor Theodosius. It was this Council which defined what we regard as the Nicene Creed today.

The Nicene Creed, official statement of what it is to be a Christian. Still read in Churches today. It was read when I went to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Canon Andrew White cites it in Faith under Fire.

Midnight Mass at St John’s

The Nicene Creed jumps from birth to death, no mention of radical teachings. Christianity adapted to suit Empire.

Contrast with Mary’s Magnificat (Book of Common Prayer):

My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

Several Councils were held. There were four main centres of Christianity: Rome, Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople. All vied as centres as power, much blood was shed, as to what form Christianity would take.

Jesus welcomed all: the rich the poor, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, of whatever race and creed. Christians did not serve in the Roman Empire. All changed with the conversion of Constantine.

On Christmas Day, former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral Giles Fraser presented a very moving documentary on earlier Christianity and the impact of Emperor Constantine. BBC as usual shoots itself in the foot and it is only available on-line for seven days.

Constantine: The Man Who Invented Christmas

What we think of as the traditional Nativity scene, draws upon but is not of the Gospels, was invented by St Francis of Assisi in 1223, when he created a tableau in a cave of Jesus in a manger, animals looking on. In the Old Testament we can find prophecy of this scene.

As a descendent of the Royal House of David, Jesus could have been born in a royal palace, he was not, he was born in a stable. A man of humble birth, born a stable with the animals looking on.

St Paul’s had a steep learning curve when the camp arrived. St Paul’s was closed for a week under bogus health and safety grounds. The clergy, with the noticeable exception of the Registrar who prefers to act for power, has been forced to re-examine what they are here for. They are now working closely with the camp, to go back to the origins of Christianity, to act on the teachings of Jesus, to act for the poor, the dispossessed.

Those who can, have long fled Iraq. Those left are the poor and dispossessed. When all is lost, faith is all that is left.

Lord Hylton on a visit to Baghdad described St George’s as a church of the future. A church that welcomes everyone and everyone is made welcome, be they Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox, be they Christian or Muslim, where everyone is loved and shares their love. A place where angels appear. A place of peace and tranquillity in a war-torn country.

Top story News For and About Emerging Artists (Monday 26 December 2011)

– Jesus Wars
The Mary We Never Knew
Occupy London presents a reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – 6pm Friday 30 December at the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral

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5 Responses to “The origins of Christmas”

  1. Elizabeth Ann Norrish Says:

    For anyone whose interested, this might be noteworthy – the origins of Christmas. x

  2. keithpp Says:

    Bethlehem’s modern-day nativity characters
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16321543

  3. jim.coen@gmail.com Says:

    Dear Keith
    Thanks for this post. I wanted to listen to the broadcast again but just missed the cutoff point. With your post I can recall most things that were discussed. Do you happen to remember the name of the Religion Adviser to 4 American Presidents and/or his organization. This would help with a course I am doing on Theology.

    Thanks
    Jim

    • keithpp Says:

      Sorry, no, he was not someone who was familiar to me. But I suggest you check OccupyLSX as I think they had someone there who was a presidential adviser who came and talked to the camp outside St Paul’s. Also try Giles Fraser.

      Giles Fraser is on BBC Newsnight tonight!

      Please complain to BBC as I am getting sick of good programmes only being held on-line for a few days.

  4. Amanda Says:

    Will you please send me links to where you did your research from? I am doing a study of my own and I would love to read it from your source. Thanks

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