Five myths about Christmas

Dec 21, 2011

No matter your religious beliefs - whether you're devout, doubtful or downright atheist - you're probably familiar with the Christmas story. From carols streaming through shopper-clogged malls to families trimming their trees to pundits debating whether there's a "war on Christmas," the holiday is ever-present at this time of year. But its history, significance and traditions are sometimes misunderstood.

James Martin separated Christmas fact from Christmas fiction.

Read: Five myths about Christmas

Hey glad you guys are joining me today.   Ready for your questions.  

How could you write this piece without mentioning that the date December 25 has nothing at all to do with the actual "birthday" of Jesus. December 25 was the first day after the winter solstice that people figured out that the days were getting longer, not shorter. So, let's celebrate! Christians just took over the holiday from the pagans. (BTW, I'm Christian so don't blame this view on the non-believers.)

Well, funny enough, I didn't include that as a "myth" because I figured that there were few people who actually believed Jesus was born on that precise date.  So it's no longer a "myth,"  I would say.  However, the question of Saturnalia is an interesting one.  For there were other solstice celebrations besides that one.   It wasn't surprising that Christmas came around the solstice, given the image of Christ as the Light to the Nations.

What do you think of this cartoon? It's sad and ironic that a minority of Christians use Christmas as a xenophobic weapon. I've never met a non-Christian who was offended when others accidentally said Merry Christmas. But I've encountered quite a few Christians who get all huffy when a store clerk wishes Happy Holidays, apparently seeing this as a denial of their rights. Some even take the attitude that non-Christians should to go back where they came from, as if being a Christian and being an American were the same thing. One doesn't have to be a Christian or a non-Christian to see this attitude as against the spirit of the holiday. Christmas isn't about "peace, love, and we're better than you."

Well, given that I'm a fan of Linus, et al., and the show I'm not a fan of that cartoon.  I don' t see too many people getting upset about the "War on Christmas" outside of TV.  That is: You're right--not many people take offense if they're told "Merry Christmas. "  If someone wished me a Happy Hanukah today (I was told I "look Jewish" by a rabbi recently!) I wouldn't take offense! 

I know that the true meaning of Christmas always centered on Christ, but it seems that when I was growing up the public side of Christmas was Santa and presents under the Christmas tree. It seems to be only in the past decade that people have begun to fight that Christmas is only for Christians and that its celebration is somehow unfair to non-Christians. Is this something new or has it been going on for a long time?

Well, as I said in the piece, concerns about the secularization of Christmas go back for many decades--at least the 1950s when people worried about "Xmas."  But the "fight" over Christmas seems to have heated up with the rise of cable news.  They have to have something to talk about, after all. 

Aren't most of the Christmas traditions actually based on various midwinter celebrations of the pagan cultures that Christianity spread into? Despite all the "put the Christ in Christmas" slogans, I feel just as entitled to enjoy the celebrations as a secularist as Christians do to make it about the birth of their god. We're both co-opting European traditions that largely pre-date Christianity's arrival into those areas.

Not really.  The timing is, and perhaps the use of greenery.  But the real "traditions" of the Mass, and worship services are clearly not pagan, but Christian.  Those to me are the important traditions.

One of my friends, who I believe is fairly well versed in the Christmas traditions, was telling me that much of the current Christmas traditions related to Santa, flying reindeer, North Pole, etc. were created by the early immigrants to the United States. They adapted their traditions and made Santa their own special character. Is this true?

Well, St. Nicholas is St. Nicholas of Myra, a 5th century Turkish saint, if memory serves.  He was known as a bringer of gifts, and I think that morphed into the Dutch Sinterklaas.  So the Dutch I think brought it to the States. And I think "The Night Before Christmas" Poem by Clement Moore really revved things up.

What are some of the theories about what day Jesus was born?

Oh, well there are some that are based on calculations not only of the time of the Roman census, but also on the star, which some astronomers, from what I understand, have tried to calculate--variously, as a supernova, a confluence of large stars, etc.   

You didn't address what are, to me, the two biggest myths: - That Jesus was born on December 25th (or anywhere near that date) - That our modern celebrations of the tree, gifts, wreaths, Santa, candy canes, etc have anything to do with Christ's birth (people try very hard: candy canes represent the shepherds' staffs, the gifts represent the gifts from the wise men, etc).

Well, as I said, I didn't address that first one since I don't think it's a "myth" any longer, since many people don't believe that.  As for the second one, I don't think that too many Christians believe that those have a direct line back to Bethlehem.  But remember some of those traditions do have Christian overlays.


Is it fair to argue that since the Christmas tree has nothing to do with religion and little to do with Christmas, that erecting one on the Ellipse behind the White House is not an issue of church and state, while the Chanukah Menorah is clearly a religious symbol and should not be allowed?

Well, I think the Christmas tree, by name, has a lot to do with Christmas.  It's a pretty clear modern religious symbol to me.  Both to me are religious, though the Menorah has more direct ties to the event it marks.  

The Macy's "Believe" Ads are a reference to the movie "A Miracle on 34th street." You seemed generally confused as to what they were going for there, I just wanted to clear that up for you.

Well, that's the official line, or so I hear.  But I think it's a pretty clever way of tapping into the religious aspect of the holiday without mentioning the "C" word.  To me, it's a bit of "We want to glom onto the religious aspect--belief--without religion."

Father: While it's certainly not a "myth" (which, by definition, would be a widely held view that's untrue), it is certainly accurate to describe the Dec. 25 "date" of Jesus' birth as a manufactured one, right? Is this at all problematic when talking about Christian faith and theology with nonbelievers?

Not manufactured, but overlayed onto an earlier solstice celebration.  I think most intelligent believers know that it probably wasn't that date.  Although: Who knows?

I just wanted to chime in that when I was a little kid (okay, even as an adult) I was always bummed when it was a non-Christmas story year in the Gospel cycle.

Me too. 

Are there any other "myths" about Christmas that you've left out, simply because they weren't important enough the break into you top five?

Hmm...As I said, I wanted to include the "Dec. 25 is Jesus's birthday" but I don't think many people believe that any longer.  Also, I could have added the whole controversy over whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem or Nazareth (or another town named Bethlehem) but I will leave that up to the Scripture scholars.

Do you also take the position that Mary was a virgin from her birth to her ascension, but that Joseph had previously been married and fathered other children? I realize that you include this contention as one of your five myths but you also describe it as a belief held by "many Catholic scholars" instead of taking ownership of it yourself.

No, I say in the piece very clearly--Catholics (including myself).  I believe that Mary was always a virgin and that Jesus's brothers and sisters were probably from a prior marriage of Joseph. I don't know how I could have been any clearer.

To the person who was wondering if the emphasis on Jesus was a recent phenomenon, I was raised a Jehovah's Witness in the 1960s. The reason we didn't celebrate Christmas was exactly because the holiday was not solely about Jesus. The Santa and tree, et. al. were considered iconography or graven images, likened to the golden calf. The Witnesses only acknowledge the one "holiday" that you mention, the last supper. So this isn't new at all.

Yes, I know that there are plenty of Christian denominations that downplay what are seen as the extraneous parts of the marking of the Nativity.  Also, earlier, the Puritans frowned on any public festivities, seeing them as suspiciously "Catholic."

I believe the book of Mark got the Christmas story correct.

I believe Mark got it correct, but only told part of it.  Remember we're dealing with four different writers writing for four different communities.  As today, when you're addressing different audiences, you'll stress different things and leave out different things.  The Gospels don't agree on everything not because they're "false" but because they are four writers telling the same story to four different communities.

With roots that include der belsnickle of the Pennsylvania Dutch and the Black Peter tradition of Holland, how did we wind up with a jolly elf instead of one who whips the bad children rather than simply leaving them coal in their stockings?

Beats me.  (No pun intended there.)  I'm glad we have a happy Santa, though.  My new book "Between Heaven and Mirth" is about joy, humor and laughter in religion, and if any celebration should be joyful it's Christmas.  (Even more so for Easter.)  If you can't celebrate the birth of  a child, you're in a very strange religion.  So put me down as pro-Happy Santa.

Actually, I'm kind of stunned at the number of - seemingly bright - people who think I'm some sort of cult-ist when I say that Christ really wasn't born on 12/25 but I just don't think it matters.

I know.  It's a surprise sometimes.   But frankly, before I entered the Jesuits, I didn't know much about religion or Scripture at all.  And even when people do know about the Bible (especially Catholics) it's often just parts of it.  That's why I put that "myth" in there about all the Gospels agreeing on the Nativity story.  Even I was surprised when I realized that there was zero in Mark and John.

People forget that Linus was New Testament quoter ("Gospel According to Peanuts") which was bowdlerized by Schultz for mass consumption.

I'm not sure that it was bowdlerized in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" all that much. From what I remember Linus quotes the infancy narrative of Luke close to verbatim.  But if you mean that Linus often quoted the Gospels in the regular comic strip, I agree entirely. David Michaelis' s biography of Shulz, one of my favorite humorists, is terrific.  And the book you mention is also superb.

Your second myth raises a question I've always wondered about. Why is the Gospel of Mark included as one of the Synoptic Gospels? I can see the similarities between Matthew and Luke that would justify such a pairing but Mark seems to me to be sufficiently distinct from the other two (the omission of the Nativity being one large reason) that he really doesn't fit, if you ask me. Your thoughts?

Well, actually Luke and Matthew both draw from Mark (as well as the "Q source," a collection of sayings that are posited) so it fits quite well.  Many episodes from Luke and Matthew find their origin, it would seem, in shorter versions in Mark.   Check out the footnotes in Luke and Matthew for corroboration of this: they often refer to Mark. )  John is the big outlier (and so is not a "Synoptic Gospel.")

What's your position on the Assumption of Mary? Was she dead when she went to her heavenly glory? The Church has never been clear on this.

Yes, funny enough, we were just speaking about this at my Jesuit community last night over dinner.   The tradition is that she "fell asleep," thus the Church of the Dormition of Mary in Jerusalem.  But I'm not sure exactly what the tradition or teaching of this is; of course it's not in Scripture, as far as I know. 

I really get annoyed at people who claim my "Happy Holidays" is a war on Christmas - talk about being grinches! To each their own, and if some celebrate religiously significant events at this time of year, great. That doesn't mean non-religious people aren't allowed to be happy and thankful now, too, or wish the same for their religious friends. So I can genuinely say Merry Christmas to you, and Happy Hannukah to my Jewish friends, and a more general Happy Holidays to people whose faith I don't know.

I agree with you.  There's nothing wrong with saying "Happy Holidays!"   

Who wrote them? You said the first gospel was written 30 years after the crucifixion and were written for different communities, can you explain? I once heard a Harvard Divinity school prof suggest that the gospels are meant more as allegories and later were treated as fact which is why there are discrepancies between them.

They are not allegories at all.   In short, there are two stages.  First the oral stage, when people who knew Jesus were simply telling the story orally, in the first few years after his earthly life had ended.  Then the stage, beginning with Mark (AD 60 or so) when they started writing things down, aware that some of the eyewitnesses were dying off.   (Remember there may have been an aversion to writing things down since many thought Jesus would return again--soon.)  So the Gospels were "edited," in that the writers collected stories from the oral tradition and gave them a form.  My New Testament professor used to say to think of the Gospel writers as sitting with scraps of paper before them (or papyrus!) and putting them in order.  This is another reason why the Gospels don't always agree-four writers writing for different audiences at different times.  

Thought I'd give you a bit of interesting trivia I learned from the book Christmas's Most Wanted: Next time you watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, note what happens with Linus's security blanket when he does his speech at the end from the Bible. He drops it. When he has the Word of God, he has no need for a security blanket.

Quite lovely.  Thanks for that.  And in keeping with Charles Shulz religiosity.

How did this time of year, then, come to be associated with Christmas, as opposed to summer? One might even think that an even six months apart from Easter (say in October) would make some sense given that the two major liturgical holidays are bunched rather close together.

Ah, because the connection with Christ as the "Light to the Nations" was an obvious one to the solstice.   

Fr. Martin, what scripture passages do you like to pray with during advent?

Oh, I love the readings from Isaiah, which are just lovely.  And of course the daily readings for Advent are perfect.  But if I had to pick a favorite two it would be Isaiah 35 (the blind will see, lame will leap like a deer, the tongue of the mute person is loosed...the dry land exults, the wilderness blooms) and Luke 1: 26-38, the story of the Annunciation.  I could pray with both of those for the rest of my life.  

Based on the Santa commercials, I just assumed the good children drink Coke, and the bad children get Pepsi.

And the worst children drink Dr. Pepper.  

Fr. Martin, I have to say that I really enjoyed your piece. Thanks for your scholarship. I've always loved the etymology of Santa Claus- Saint Nicholas to Sint Nikolaus to Santa Nicolas to the current permutation. In a way, it's funny b/c Santa Claus is essentially a "de-fanged" religious symbol that has been mainstreamed; if anything, he's an even MORE religious cipher, given his origins.

Thanks!  Santa is now almost completely separated from religion, I think.  Although lately I've been seeing statues of Santa kneeling at the crib of the Infant Jesus, which I find rather creepy, since Jesus is real and Santa isn't.

I am reading the amazing Scripture Tome "The Birth of the Messiah" by Ryamond Brown, and am somewhat amazed by what was taight as historical in my Catholic upbringing, Mark and Matt have glaring discrepancies, why is this not more widely talked about?

Wow!  Then you're reading the granddaddy of all Scripture commentaries on the Infancy Narratives.  Why aren't those talked about?  They are in Scripture classes and occasionally in homilies, but it's hard to fit all that into one homily, and if you say "There are great discrepancies" people think you're saying, "This is false." As I said, and as Fr. Brown says, it's simply four ways of telling the story.  Happy Reading!  You might also try "The Death of the Messiah" and his "Introduction to the New Testament."  He's just tops.


I just returned from Southeast Asia. I can tell you that the Buddhist Thais LOVE Christmas. At least in Bangkok there are Christmas trees everywhere. But they also seem to call it "the festive season" and then "Happy New Year" (in contrast to the "real" Thai New Year later in the year). They just love a good party and reason to have fun. So they have co-opted Christmas and its secular imagery.

Hmm....I've always wondered how they would feel about all the Buddha statues in Asian restaurants in New York!  

There are definitely persecuted Christians in the world, but in the U.S.? At least some Fox News commentators feel Christians are a persecuted majority. I feel quite free to celebrate Christmas as I always have. Maybe there are fewer government-sponsored, taxpayer-financed celebrations, but so what? Chrisitanity is still the dominant religion in he country. And it's been secularized for decades. What about holiday sales? Sports events on Christmas? Where is the outrage about those?

There is clearly Christian persecution in the world--for example, in Iraq and in China.  But I don't think Christians are "persecuted" in the States.  On the other hand, I think that they are often belittled in some media outlets as unthinking.  I do think that there is sometimes in the part of the intelligentsia the belief that if you're a Christian you have to check your brain at the door.  Which would have surprised, say, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dorothy Day, Rabbi Heschel and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hi. Many people have been commenting on the origins of Dec 25th for a holiday. I'd like to add that after the Christians made it an important holy day, the some Christians, or maybe non-Christians made it a holiday. Then some Jews, or maybe non-Jews, made their nearby holy day a holiday. Then some African-Americans, or maybe non-African-Americans, put Kwanzaa there and made that a holiday and something of a holy-day. I'd say this concentration of holy and holi- days in late December is a good thing. It demonstrates that we all want to be in the party. Also, since all of these holidays have family activities associated with them, this confluence enables multi-cultural families to get together - and expand their appreciation for traditions.

Yes, it's good to have them around the same time--but tiring!  I wish New Years was a little later!

Hi Father James! Thanks for clarifying about the brothers and sisters from prior marriages. I remembered that Joseph was an inspiration to chaste men and was surprised by the idea of other children fathered by him.

Yes, "her most chaste spouse," as the Mass says somewhere.  And he's often pictured with a lily.  But no where in the New Testament does it say that he was celibate his whole life.  And those multiple references to Jesus's brothers and sisters are clear.  By the way, that also is an argument for Jesus being unmarried--despite what The Da Vinci Code suggests.  That is, if the Gospels talk about his brothers, his sisters and his mother and father, it's strange not to mention his wife if he had one. But I guess that's for another article!  

It's from a book(one of my mom's favorite actually). I don't remember much of it; but, in the end, Santa's last stop is at a church and he gives Jesus a present. If I'm remebering correctly, the gift is the list of names of a good girls and boys.

A nice story, I guess, and one that I guess reminds kids of the meaning of Christmas.  It's the statue that creeps me out.  But chacun a son gout!

According to Merriam-Websters on-line, the X in Xmas does indeed come from chi and the abbreviation first appeared in writing about 1000 years ago (it appeared in English a few centuries later). the shorthand was most likely created by transcribers. Perhaps ink was at a premium back then.

Yes, and that's why it's odd when people object.  They think it's a nefarious "X" when it's really the chi.  Which many Catholics know from the Chi-Rho (which looks like a "PX") that serves as an abbreviation for Christ. 

I don't know if you're a comics fan, but over the years I've noticed a great deal of Jesus iconography attached to Superman, particularly the Christmas and Easter stories. The depictions of his Kryptonian parents putting him in his rocket, and the Kents finding him there after his crash, often strongly resemble Nativity scenes. The Superman Returns movie has plenty of allegories relating to Jesus. Any thoughts?

Oh yes, tons of the same imagery.  I think it was done purposely to lend him a powerful "mythology," the same way that George Lucas used a lot of Joseph Campbell stuff (that is, stuff from other myths) to beef up "Star Wars," and especially Luke Skywalker.  The "Superman Returns" scene that was the most blatant was where his bed is empty (the cast-aside sheets, like a shroud) and when he is hovering over the earth in a cruciform pose.  A friend I was seeing it with (a Christian writer) shouted out "Oh, Brother!"

Charles M. Schulz (with a c, no t) -- sorry, but Sparky and I were ol' pals

I'm a huge fan of "Sparky," and read his comics, saw the movies and read "The Gospel of Peanuts" and pretty much anything I could lay my hands on when I was younger.  He's eminently quotable, too.  My favorite line is when Charlie Brown asks Linus, who is running away, "What would happen if we all ran away?"  And Linus says, "Well, at least we'd all be running in the same direction!"

Father, this interesting conversation has inspired to me to go to 12:15 Mass in the neighborhood. Thanks for sharing this time with us and Merry Christmas.

That's the best thing that this conversation could have inspired!  Pray for me!

Happy Holidays has as much flavor as rice cakes. I find it very weak. I would rather hear Happy Festivus or anything that shows the greeter has a backbone.

It is rather tepid, but it's not offensive.  And frankly in a multi-culti environment, it's sometimes prudent.  Though with Christians I always say "Merry Christmas!"

Assume you had a time machine ticket good for 1 trip. I assume your first choice would be to go back and meet Jesus. If that wasn't allowed, what would be your second choice?

Oh, yes, I'd love to see what his life was like.  That's one reason I went to the Holy Land this summer.  But of course I believe he is risen and alive in the Spirit. for Number Two, I would say that I'd love to see the lif e of St. Francis of Assisi.  

Thanks to everyone for the great questions! It's been fun chatting with you. I apologize if my off-the-cuff answers had any inaccuracies. A lot of what I said was from memory. For more information on the Scriptures a good Bible commentary is a great place to start. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanzaa and Happy New Year to everyone!

In This Chat
James Martin
James Martin, S.J., is a Jesuit priest, author and culture editor of America, the national Catholic magazine.Besides his articles in America and other Catholic publications like Commonweal, U.S. Catholic and The (London) Tablet, Father Martin has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other national newspapers and websites, and writes regularly for The Huffington Post.

Father Martin is the author of numerous books including, most recently, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life (HarperOne), which was named a "Best Book of the Year" by Publishers Weekly and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, a New York Times bestseller, and winner of a Christopher Award. His bestselling book My Life with the Saints, also the recipient of a Christopher Award, has sold over 120,000 copies and is used in parishes and schools around the country.
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