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For Christians all over the world, the Christmas is celebrated on December 25th. It's the day we celebrate the Nativity, the Incarnation of the divine in Jesus, born to the Virgin Mary in a modest stable in Bethlehem. In a society that hunts down religious symbols in the name of secularism, the meaning of Christmas has largely been lost in favor of a secular rite maintained by economic interests. This is why it is perhaps useful to recall the primary meaning of Christmas by looking back on the founding event of birth of Jesus of Nazareth (with the historical problems that this can pose), then by looking at the appearance and evolution of this holiday in the community of believers, from the first celebrations to the cribs and the stars at the top of the pines.
On Christmas Day, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus of nazareth. The latter being for them the son of God and God (begotten not created, of the same nature as the Father), his birth appears as the Incarnation of God in a human body. It all begins with the Annunciation, when an angel would have announced to the young Mary, still a virgin, that she was going to give birth to the Son of God. Her husband Joseph, a carpenter, is initially tempted to repudiate her, but an angel appears to her in a dream to reveal the situation to her. According to the Gospels, then comes the day when in the kingdom of Herod I the Great (73 BC - 4 BC) the Roman power organized a large census, forcing men to go register in their city of origin. In the company of Mary, Joseph therefore left Nazareth to go to Bethlehem. It is there that Mary would have given birth, as the Gospel of Saint Luke reports (Luke, 2. 4-20).
A few days later, according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, three wise men from the East following a star that appeared above Bethlehem came to pay homage to the newborn baby. They allegedly offered him gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This is what Christians celebrate on Epiphany Day, January 6.
With the birth of Jesus coinciding with a prophecy announcing the birth of a descendant of David who would become king, King Herod fearing for his power reportedly announced the slaughter of infants in the city of Bethlehem. This is commonly referred to as the Massacre of the Innocents. But Joseph, once again warned in a dream, fled in time with his family to Egypt. At the present time, this massacre, this epi-event (because it concerns only one night and a small town) is only attested by the Gospels, which makes some people say that it could be a biblical invention aiming to parallel the story of Jesus and that of Moses.
On the other hand, the census evoked by the Gospels seems to relate to the census organized by Governor Quirinus that the Roman historian Flavius Josephus places in 6/7 AD. However, this dating poses a problem since the reign of Herod will end in 4 BC. The census of Quirinus therefore did not take place during the reign of Herod. In addition, the census of Quirinus would only concern Judea (where Bethlehem is located) and not Galilee (where Nazareth is located).
From a purely historical point of view, therefore, the census is problematic and some historians believe it to be a literary pretext to give birth to Jesus in the city of David. However, taking into account the margin of error of the gospel of Luke (the latter is an apostle of Saint Paul who himself did not know Jesus during his lifetime, although he was contemporary), the Biblical account may coincide with historical chronology.
Indeed, if we consider that Joseph did indeed go to Bethlehem to be listed under Governor Quirinus, then there may have been an amalgamation between King Herod I the Great (73 BC. J.-C. ) and King Herod Archelaus (4 BC - 6 AD) who succeeded him. In other words, two currents are opposed to date the birth of Jesus: those who consider that the census did not take place and that the event must take place just a little before the death of Herod I before 4 BC. AD, and those who consider that Joseph was well recorded, but under Herod Archelaus, thus placing the birth in 6/7 AD. J.-C ..
The year that Dionysius the Little chose in the 6th century to determine the year of Jesus' birth is, we remember, erroneously. No one anymore supports a historic birth on this date, but it nevertheless remains the basis of our Julian calendar, which is not without comic effect when we talk about the birth of Jesus "av. ".
December 25: from pagan festival to Christian holiday
The Nativity is therefore celebrated by Christians during the Christmas feast, a name which would come (with phonetic modifications) from the Latin Natalis (“relating to birth”). This feast dates back at least to the third century, the date is not then common to all of Christendom because the Gospels do not specify anything about the exact day celebrating the birth of Jesus. In the 4th century, in Rome, Pope Liberates celebrated the Incarnation of Jesus on December 25, the choice of the date is most symbolic. It is sometimes said that the Christmas party is just a recuperation of pagan holidays, which is totally wrong. The holiday of Christmas preexists the date of December 25, and by fixing it there it only uses an astronomical symbol, not leaving the monopoly to the pagans. Indeed, December 25 then corresponds to the winter solstice, the moment from which the days lengthen.
In fact, this symbol of the victory of life (/ light) over death (/ darkness) is used by many religions: in Rome the pagans celebrated the Saturnalia (feast of the god Saturn), for the followers of Mithra the Mithragan (day of Mithra's birth) also falls on that day, it is of course also the day on which we celebrate the birth of Sol Invictus (the "Undefeated Sun", solar deity taking up aspects of Apollo and of Mithras), the Jewish holiday of Hannukah (commemorating the re-inauguration of the Temple in Jerusalem) also falls at a close date. December 25 is therefore not a pagan holiday "taken over" by Christians, it is a date with strong symbolism, in fact used by many religions including Christianity which does not intend to leave the monopoly of symbols. astronomical to the pagans. This date was finally codified in 425 by Emperor Theodosius II. Little by little the feast grew: at the end of the 5th century Clovis was baptized on Christmas day, in 506 the Council of Agde made it a feast of obligation, in 529 the Emperor Justinian made it a nonworking day.
The traditions of Christmas
There are several Christian traditions that surround the holiday of Christmas. First, Advent, the liturgical period of the four Sundays preceding Christmas. Every Advent Sunday it is the custom of Christians to light a candle, a symbol of the light that will be reborn at Christmas. The evening of December 24 takes place the Midnight Mass (which today is rarely done at this time) where the faithful celebrate the birth of Christ, it is one of the biggest Christian holidays after Easter. . The Midnight Mass cuts off the Christmas Eve, usually spent with the family.
The crib and the santons are also a key tradition of the Christmas period, Christians have at home a reduced model of a cave and / or stable where they have santons representing at least Mary, Joseph, and the child. Jesus who is not placed in the manger until Christmas night. Shepherds and their sheep are also usually found in the crib, representing the shepherds who came to see the newborn after the announcement of the angel (angels sometimes also present around the crib). The donkey and the ox, which warm the infant with their breath, are not explicitly described in the canonical gospels. Their presence is based on a late apocryphal (possibly from the 6th century), the pseudo-gospel of Matthew.
In this text, in fact, it is said that Mary, after giving birth in a cave, went to a stable where a donkey and an ox bowed their knees to greet him, thus taking up a passage from the book of Isaiah "The ox knew its owner, and the donkey, the manger of its master"(Is 1.3). Rejected by the Council of Trent in the 16th century, the donkey and the ox remained in popular tradition and today form an integral part of any crib. It must be said that the presence of a crib in the canonical gospels suggest the presence of domestic animals ... In itself the crib seems to be a tradition that dates back to the 13th century, Saint Francis of Assisi having organized a living crib (with faithful playing the characters) in 1223 in Greccio in Italy: The crèches in reduced models, such as those commonly seen today, date back to the 16th century when they spread under the leadership of the Jesuits.
When is the log and the Christmas tree? The bûche is a mainly French culinary tradition (transmitted in French-speaking countries) where the cake is reminiscent of the log that was placed in the hearth and which was to be consumed slowly throughout Christmas Eve. This log was generally blessed with a branch of boxwood preserved from the Palm Festival. The Christmas tree is not a Christian innovation. However, it also takes on a Christian tradition, firstly by the star at its apex, the star of Bethlehem which guided the wise men, and secondly by its symbolism of life triumphing over death which is found through the tree that stays green in the dead of winter.
Christmas party: more than gifts
Finally and to finish, the habit of offering gifts around the Christmas period is made for Christians in reference to Saint-Nicolas (patron saint of children) on December 6, or in reference to the gifts brought by the three wise men. to the baby Jesus. The date for offering the gifts therefore fluctuates between regions and times. Today, they are generally offered on the 25th. However, Christmas presents appear as a very secondary event of the Christian holiday, without any measure with the primary meaning of Christmas: to celebrate the Incarnation of God who chooses to take flesh in what is most fragile, a child, and in the most modest conditions. We are a long way from the overpriced profane and commercial festival these days where the primary goal seems to boost household consumption.
Would the Christmas party lose its values of humility, joy and hope for Humanity to become the outlet for greedy commercials and zealous secularists? We sometimes try to remove Santa Claus from school in the name of secularism and respect for Muslim worship ... It is to forget a little quickly that Santa Claus has nothing Christian or religious, and that the birth of Jesus is not sacrilegious for Muslims. Indeed these latter, although they do not give of divine origin to Jesus and consider him as a simple prophet among others, believe in the Annunciation made to Maryam (name of Mary in the Koran) who although a virgin sâ gave birth (name of Jesus in the Koran).
- COTHENET Edouard & PELLISTRANDI Christine, Discovering the Christian Apocrypha: Art and Popular Religion, DDB, 2009.
- Christmas. A paradoxical celebration, by Martyne Perrot.
- KELLY Joseph-F, The origins of Christmas, Editions de Solesmes, 2007.