by John F. Di Leo
December 25, 2018 A.D.
Reflections on December 25 and our celebration of holidays…
In recent years, there has been a good deal of exposition – particularly on social media – taking issue with the date on which we celebrate Christmas. The claim is that Christmas itself is a borrowed date, that the church fathers selected December 25 to co-opt the pagan holiday of the saturnalia, or perhaps some other pagan holiday, much as the Romans used to co-opt the native religions of regions they themselves conquered.
That theory has been disproven, primarily by a fascinating revelation about the early church fathers. Since nobody knows exactly when Christ was born – even the bureaucratic Romans didn’t keep calendars the way we do today – the church fathers used an ancient Hebrew approach to get there.
In ancient theology, there was an idea that the great prophets died on the anniversary of their conception. Using this guide, they reverse-engineered to get to the date of His birth, as follows: We know that Christ was executed in the days before the Passover, so that puts His death date in late March, depending on the year of the Crucifixion. From the estimates available at the time, they went with March 25 in our current western calendar. The church fathers – in keeping with the old theory – therefore set March 25 as the Annunciation (the date of His conception), and to that we can add nine months, and we have a birth date of December 25.
So in fact, it never had anything to do with existing holidays or celebrations in late December, it was always about the other key dates of His physical life on earth – His conception and His crucifixion.
Now, Illinois Review is a news site, not a theological publication (and this author is an op-ed writer and trade compliance trainer, not a theologian!), so we won’t go any deeper into these weeds.
But it may be a worth a moment of examination to consider why we care about the day, and why we sometimes care about the date… and perhaps what that says about us and our priorities.
The Founding Generation
Our nation was founded by “the Revolutionary generation,” a truly spectacular concentration of both practical and philosophical minds that appeared just once on earth, just once in history. Their writings, their dedication, their thoughtfulness, in both respecting the accomplishments of the past and planning for a greater future, are simply unequalled in human history.
They deserve to be celebrated, and so we do: on Independence Day.
The Founders’ accomplishments date back to the mid 1760s, when the Stamp Act caused the political leaders of the several colonies to start working together, first on a Stamp Act Congress, then in joint and several retaliations (such as the coastwide boycott of British trade) in reaction to continued British tyrannies, and finally a War of Independence and new Constitutional government.
When should we celebrate such a generation, and such accomplishments as theirs? Something of importance in that history happened on virtually every date of the year, from valiant service in land and naval battles, to courageous oratory and persuasive documents.
We settled on the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Not the day the Declaration Committee assigned the task to Thomas Jefferson, not the day he finished it, not even the day that Congress voted to authorize it, on July 2, 1776. We settled on the date it came back from the printer and got its first signatures: July 4.
And that’s fine… because the date itself isn’t the important thing; what matters is what we’re celebrating. On Independence Day, we celebrate the courage, commitment and brilliance of a generation, and of that generation’s actions over more than a quarter of a century.
On July 4, we celebrate the Sons of Liberty, the Continental Army and Navy, the statesmen of the era, the Framers of the Constitution, and the first elected politicians of our new nation. We had to pick a date for the parades and the fanfare, but we mustn’t limit our celebration of those patriots to a single day. We should think of them, and give thanks to Divine Providence for placing them here, together at that time, every day.
The American Military
Similarly, we have two key dates on which we give special thanks to our servicemen and women. We chose November 11 as our Veterans Day, our celebration of all who served honorably in our armed forces, because it had first been celebrated as Armistice Day, the day when World War I came to an end…. and we chose the last Monday in May as Memorial Day, the day of gratitude for the servicemen who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country on the battlefield.
Our soldiers and sailors work every day, and risk their lives every day. We could have chosen the anniversary of the signing of any of our many peace treaties, or the anniversary dates of hundreds of battles from Lexington and Concord to D-Day.
The important thing here isn’t which day was chosen – what counts is the reason behind these holidays: the fact that Americans have collectively recognized that all those who have served their nation in the armed forces, and especially those died in battle, deserve to be celebrated in an annual day of remembrance. We celebrate with red, white and blue decorations on our houses and clothing; we celebrate with parades and town festivals.
One day isn’t enough; we should think of them every day, and hopefully we do. But society shows its appreciation with a dedicated holiday, and that fact – the fact, not the specific date – is what shows our servicemen how much we appreciate them.
George Washington’s Birthday
General Washington was known as the Father of his Country for good reason. Long before the War of Independence, he was tied with Benjamin Franklin as the most famous American across the world… Franklin was known for his writing, his scientific contributions, and his diplomacy; Washington was primarily known for his military service in the French and Indian War.
But more importantly, they were the first two people identified – both worldwide and here at home – not by their colonies, as a Pennsylvanian and a Virginian, but as Americans. In those days, people thought of “their countries” as being the colonies they lived in and represented. The concept of being “an American” was still unknown back then. Washington and Franklin changed that.
Then, when Washington’s leadership was applied to the coastwide boycott from his vantage point as a Virginia legislator, and then to War of Independence as our Commander in Chief, and then finally to the national government as President of the Constitutional Convention and then our nation’s first elected President, well, there was no question: George Washington was the image of an American, the visual aid both at home and abroad as the representative figure of this new country.
So it was that he received a day of celebration too. We could have assigned him the anniversary date of his inauguration as president, or the anniversary of his victory at Yorktown, or even December 23, the anniversary of his resignation at the end of the war, the culmination of his successful military leadership.
Long ago, the American people organically decided to celebrate Washington’s Birthday, on the anniversary of his birth, on February 22, 1732.
Only… it really wasn’t.
When George Washington was born, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the British Empire had not yet made the switch to the Gregorian Calendar… that came later. Washington was actually born on February 11.
We celebrate his day on February 22, because the calendar changed.
That doesn’t mean that either date is right or wrong; it just reminds us that the date isn’t the important thing, the event is.
Seeing The Big Picture
We see the same thing in our daily lives, both at work and in our personal lives.
At work, the date of an invoice may determine when revenue recognition occurs (depending on the contract’s title transfer clause)… the date of importation may determine which duty rates apply to an import… the date of your purchase at a store may determine when the returns-or-exchanges period ends, or when the warranty period runs out.
In our personal lives, we celebrate our children’s baptism, confirmation, bris, bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah… we celebrate their graduations from grammar school, high school, and college… we celebrate our wedding anniversaries.
But in all these things, we use the dates only as an anchor to remember whento celebrate them. The dates themselves aren’t the important thing – the event is.
In the office, it’s the fact that we completed a purchase or a sale that matters. At home, it’s the fact that our kids were baptized, confirmed, and married that counts.
The dates certainly have some legal significance; we should pay attention to them, and do our best to get them right. The date of a child’s birth will affect his ability to vote, to buy alcohol, and to serve in elected office, 16, 18, 25 years hence. Whether a marriage occurred a week before New Year’s Day or a week after will determine whether or not the couple can file their taxes jointly. And whether that importation took place before or after a new 25% duty rate went into effect will certainly affect the importer’s profit margin on the goods he buys and sells.
So yes, the dates matter.
But the dates should never outrank the events themselves in our minds. When we get overly obsessed with all these details, we may forget the big picture of the event we’re commemorating.
We now have more resources at our disposal than ever before… for research, for pondering, for consideration and re-consideration of matters long since resolved or dismissed. We can analyze every subject to death if we want to, because we have computers and libraries and an internet with thousands of hits for every search request.
But there is an old saying – one quoted by Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic, “The Lord of the Rings:”
“He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
We run that risk today, when our obsession with minutia causes us to lose the big picture… and nowhere more so than in our religious observance.
What is the Christmas celebration about? It is a celebration – by all denominations of Christians, Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant alike – of the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy: that a Savior would arrive to bring salvation to his people.
We celebrate Christmas as we do, to remember that the tale of His physical time on earth began, not with a triumphant arrival at the head of an army, or some glorious appearance on a mountaintop, or an election result, or some thrilling introduction at a convention filled with throngs of followers.
We celebrate Christmas to remember that He had the most humble of beginnings, a normal human birth to a normal human mother, in the humble surroundings of a little barn, in those days before hotel chains, back when travelers stayed wherever someone with a building had a little spare room to let.
Now, for us, in the northern half of the northern hemisphere, we happen to associate Christmas with wintertime, because December 25 falls in our (usually) snowy season, and we think of Frosty and Santa and Rudolph as harmless fun and pop culture images to anchor the holiday in our consciousness. But in the south, and especially in the southern hemisphere where December falls in their midsummer, there’s a completely different seasonal feel to Christmas… and that’s fine too.
Why? Because in the end, the date isn’t what matters. The time of year is irrelevant. It’s the substance of the event that counts.
On Christmas, we celebrate His birth – the beginning of the story of His 33 or so years on earth as one of us (the Hypostatic Union, in theological terms). We celebrate the lessons He left us, as recounted for posterity in the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Acts.
We can research the date, out of curiosity… but we shouldn’t get caught up in defending or opposing the date itself.
What matters is the Truth behind the holiday: the fact that the Son truly became one of us, and walked among us, and showed us the Way.
And anything that distracts us from that message – from that Way – is unhelpful, to say the least.
What really matters to us today – particularly to Americans, in this City on a Hill, this culmination of Western Civilization, to which the rest of the world looks for leadership and role model behavior – is the fact that Christmas happened.
Sometime around 2 or 3 or 4 B.C., in a quiet barn in a busy town during a bureaucratic nightmare (the first formal census that Rome took of the Holy Land), a baby was born in a humble manger, and despite all appearances, He was no ordinary baby.
“The Word became flesh,” and from that, the world was changed.
That’s what counts, no matter what actual calendar date it was.
We celebrate Christmas on December 25, but we could celebrate it any day, and really should be celebrating it every day.
That’s the big picture, for which we thank Divine Providence, now and forever.
Copyright 2018 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based Customs broker and trade compliance trainer, writer and actor. His columns are regularly found in Illinois Review.
This column was originally published in Illinois Review, here.