Editor’s note: Elizabeth Hunter is director at Theos, the religion and society think tank.
By Elizabeth Hunter, Special to CNN
It has become a truism that the Victorians invented Christmas. We all know, through the yearly cycle of feature articles, that without Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens we’d all be much less merry at this time of year.
We owe to them the tradition of decorating a tree, eating turkey, and the sense that Christmas is a time to retreat to a domestic idyll with family and bolt the door on whatever turbulent political or economic changes are raging outside.
This Victorian invention is probably responsible for the results of a recent poll on the meaning of Christmas. Conducted for Theos, a think tank working in the area of religion and society, the poll found that 83% of British people think that "Christmas is about spending time with family and friends.”
Three fifths of those surveyed thought it’s also a season “when we should be generous to people less fortunate than ourselves.”
These twin themes, familial domesticity with a little bit of charity on the side, perfectly summarize how we conceive of Christmas in the 21st century.
A Gallup Poll conducted just before last Christmas, meanwhile, shows that the most popular American Christmas traditions are exchanging gifts, putting up a tree, and spending time with family and friends.
But the holiday was not always this cozy. Christmas was for many centuries a very politically charged season, defined by inversions of the normal social order.
Clement Clarke Moore’s famous 1822 Christmas poem “The night before Christmas” includes the line “out on the lawn there arose such a clatter/I sprang from bed to see what was the matter.”
At the time the poem was written, disturbance on the lawn on Christmas Eve would have been not magical, but threatening, likely caused by drunken youths roaming the neighborhood, demanding gifts from respectable householders.
This was an echo of older traditions, also subversive, which saw tenants and serfs demanding gifts and being given law-like powers in this “season of misrule.”
Some regiments of the British Army still maintain the practice of officers serving men in the mess on Christmas Day. Stephen Nissenbaum’s book "The Battle for Christmas" tells the story of this transformation of Christmas from an “unruly carnival season” to the quintessential, apolitical family holiday.
Christmas then, before being domesticated by the Victorians, was a profoundly political time.
Steve Holmes, a theologian at the University of St Andrews, argues that this political edge is entirely congruent with the biblical stories of the nativity.
While only a third of people recently polled thought "Christmas is a time when we should challenge poverty and economic injustice" and less than one in five agreed that "Christmas is a time when we should challenge political oppression around the world," Holmes believes that these are closer to the kind of Christmas message we see in the gospels.
The Gospel of Matthew includes an opening genealogy which mentions four foreign women with far from virtuous reputations. Matthew's story of the Magi and the escape to Egypt, taking place around the murderous paranoia of Herod, the supposed king of the Jews, continues the theme. God is not on the side of the powerful in palaces, Matthew is saying, but rather is found among foreigners and refugees.
Luke’s gospel makes this even more explicit, repeatedly juxtaposing the poor and powerless with the imperial might of the Roman empire. The birth of Jesus takes place in Bethlehem so that Caesar can get his tax records sorted.
While the elites are worrying about economic crises and indifferent to the plight of the people, the news of the coming “Savior” is given directly to the lowest of the low in the social pecking order, the shepherds.
God is at work not among the rulers, Luke implies, but out there on the hills, in the grubby manger, far from the center of earthly power.
The most starkly political moment of the story is Mary’s Magnificat, the song of praise she sings after she is told she will bear a child: "[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."
Our contemporary, cozy, domestic vision of Christmas has its value; goodness knows we all need some time with our families.
However, we should not allow us to be totally seduced by this Victorian version of the season, and recall that in the biblical stories, and in centuries past, this was a time when the world turned upside down.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Elizabeth Hunter.
Hey ! What is the difference between a Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son post and a bag of crap?
The bag of crap has more taste?
Oooh, my fan club!
The bag of crap could be used for something, fertilizer.
I love you.
You go to tom tom's door, light the bag and ring the bell
Sweet wet dreams, darling.
I'm not gay, cannot help you out. Good luck trying to find your talent.
I'm not gay, either. Sorry to disappoint you. Maybe you should contact Uncouth Swain. Or Keith. Or perhaps herbie. I'm sure one of them could service you.
Just out of curiosity, guess, what did I do to pizz you off?
I always like to know what finally got people's goats. What got yours?
Or are you just a big crybaby?
Dodney and wild guess, don't know if you intended to help me but if so thank you for your kindness. God bless you both.
You lie like a rug, offer those options and claim you are not gay? I don't believe you. You are definitely gay.
It was a decent article, until she referred to theology.
Is it just me or does Elizabeth Hunter have that look. You know....the mmmm look. Oh....oh I'm sorry dude I 'm just talking out of my as.s man....
Interesting that one season of misrule would fall right after another (that is if we restore misrule to Christmas). Mardi Gras season begins on Epiphany (January 6). Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Carnal-val seems to take more than a few liberties with getting the sin out before lent, though depends on the celebrant. King cakes are nice.
Do you like eating the baby jesus, Chrism-ji zm?
Christians plagiarized Christmas – they stole it from the pagans. It is the Winter Solstice festival, also know as Saturnalia. It was celebrated for thousands of years before the nutjob Christians stole it. They talk about putting "Christ" back in Christmas – how arrogant of them because "Christ" has never belonged there in the first place. Of course, most of the Holy Bible is plagiarism from other belief systems – everything from the story of creation to the great flood was taken from other cultures and religions.
The author speaks of "Christmas was for many centuries a very politically charged season, defined by inversions of the normal social order" – and that's what Saturnalia was! Slaves and masters traded places for the festivities!
It's all good MikeG. We stole the pagans along with their holidays.
"We stole the pagans along with their holidays."
Or killed them if they wouldn't convert...
Amen Real America, just inviting everyone to the real party. :). Oh HellBent, you have your history backwards. It was the Romans throwing the Christians to the lions.
@Chrism – does your history book not go past ~320AD? I guess the Christians had effective teachers.
@Think my history books are just fine. They show a history of human violence that obviously stems from people, not from the teachings of Jesus Christ. God bless.
Oh, Jesus is just fine. His asinine followers are the ones that suck hind t it.
Wow, Tommy, you've got some splainin' to do to Jesus then cause He wanted us to be followers but you're not, and He said however you treat the least of His brothers you treat Him. So every time you insult me you insult Him. God bless you!!!
Right, Einstein. Get back to me when you figure out how "it's" and "its" work.
Oh Tommy you can't answer me so you just hypocritically talk about my one spelling mistake? With all the ones you make? You so hypo crit crit. Not good stuff Tommy.
"You so"? Umm, yeah? Point out my errors, for my own benefit, genius.
Oh Tommy you don't even know to put a comma inside quotation marks. It's inside, Tommy Tom. Don't put them outside next time, k?
Nope, wrong again, Copernicus. You should really pay more attention to your 5th grade teacher, dear.
Sorry to jump in there, Tom Tom, but you're incorrect on punctuation. grammarbook.com/punctuation/quotes.asp Also for what it is worth, someone coming in to just read this page, you're posts are disgusting. Do you think insults are a form of intelligence? I assure you when I see someone just spewing insults like you did here, it's painfully obvious that you're not coming from a place of superior reason.
"You're posts are disgusting." Did you really mean to say "You are posts are disgusting"? Because that's what you said, dimwit. Grow a brain, get an education, and then figure out that you're too stupid to argue with anyone but a guinea pig.
Christmas, the embellished story of the birth of a simple, preacher man named Jesus.
As per most contemporary NT exegetes, his parents were Mary and Joseph although some say Jesus was a mamzer, the result of a pre-marital relationship between Mary and a Roman soldier.
Jesus was not born in Bethlehem at least the one we are familiar with and there were no pretty wingie thingies singing from on high, no slaughter of the innocents by Herod, no visiting wise men and no escape to Egypt.
Conclusion: the holyday of Christmas is historically a non-event. Ditto for the Feast of the Magi and the solemnity of Mary aka New Years day.
"Kwanzaa, which will be celebrated for the 44th time in 2009, was established by Dr. Maulana Karenga. The seven-day festival (December 26 – January 1) is secular, not religious, and aims to strengthen African cultural ident-ity and community values while providing a spiritual alternative to the commercialism of Christmas."
"Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is one of the most joyous times of the Jewish year. The reason for the celebration is twofold (both dating back to c. 165 BCE): the miraculous military victory of the small, ill-equipped Jewish army over the ruling Greek Syrians, who had banned the Jewish religion and desecrated the Temple; and the miracle of the small cruse of consecrated oil, which burned for eight days in the Temple's menorah instead of just one."
"Originally a minor holiday, it has become more lavishly celebrated as a result of its proximity to Christmas."
Some candles burn for weeks so the menorah "miracle" is hardly miraculous.
Rabbi Wolpe can probably give us his take on the historical validity of Hanukkah.
So after thorough analyses of the NT Christmas passages, what are a few of the conclusions of some of the top contemporary NT scholars?
Matt 1:18-25: From Professor Gerd Ludemann in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 123-124, "The fathering of Jesus from the Holy Spirit and his birth from the virgin Mary are unhistorical". Ludemann gives a very detailed analysis to support his conclusions. One part being the lack of attestations to these events and the late time strata of said story.
"Lüdemann [Jesus], (pp. 261-63) discounts Luke's account as a legend deriving from Jewish Hellenistic circles that were concerned to hold together the procreation of the Spirit, the authentic sonship of the Messiah and the virginal conception. "
Then there are these additional conclusions:
"In [Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography] (2000), Chilton develops the idea of Jesus as a mamzer; someone whose irregular birth circu-mstances result in their exclusion from full participation in the life of the community. He argues for the natural pa-ternity of Joseph and finds no need for a miraculous conception. In his subsequent reconstruction of Jesus' life, Chilton suggests that this sustained personal experience of exclusion played a major role in Jesus' self-ident-ity, his concept of God and his spiritual quest.
John Dominic Crossan
"In [Historical Jesus] (p. 371) Crossan treats this cluster, like 007 Of Davids Lineage, as an example of the interplay of prophecy and history in the development of the Jesus traditions.
"In [Birth of Christianity] (pp. 26-29) Crossan uses Luke's account of Jesus' conception and birth to explore ethical issues concerning the public interpretation of the past. He notes the tendency of Christian scholars to disregard "pagan" birth legends while investing great effort in the defence of biblical birth narratives. He concludes:
I do not accept the divine conception of either Jesus or Augustus as factual history, but I believe that God is incarnate in the Jewish peasant poverty of Jesus and not in the Roman imperial power of Augustus. "
"The following ancient parallels to Jesus' miraculous conception should be noted:
Birth of Moses (Exod 2:1-10)
Birth of Plato (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 3.45) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 507]
Birth of Alexander the Great (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, 2.1-3.5) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 502f]
Birth of Apollonius (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, I.4) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 505]"
And some final words from Thomas Jefferson, not a contemporary NT scholar, but indeed a very learned man:
"And the day will come,
when the mystical generation of Jesus,
by the Supreme Being as His Father,
in the womb of a virgin,
will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva
in the brain of Jupiter.
- Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
Letter to John Adams, from Monticello, April 11, 1823.
Hi Reality! Your post is as bad as the article, I see. Good idea. I should have thought of that myself.
hit report abuse on all reality bs
So you're going to quote Crosson and Thomas Jefferson? Claim Bethlehem could not have been the place? What does Kwanza have to do with anything? You mention Hannukah? Would the real events celebrated in Hannukah support or detract from the reality of Christmas? I would say they support since the gospels are clearly saturated with interconnections to Old Testament prophecy, people and real places (including Bethlehem). I'm curious, was there a point to having this particular selection of quotes or was it more to just pretend / look like you had a lot of "evidence" against? End result is simply long and unconvincing.
Christmas, another part of the infamous angel cons:
Jesus and his family had Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day dem-on of the de-mented. (e.g. pretty, wingie thing and thingies talking to Mary and also Joseph plus singing on a Luke-high- priceless :)
Joe Smith had his Moroni.
Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God;
Mohammed had his Gabriel (this "tin-kerbell" got around).
The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other "no-namers" to do their dirty work or other assorted duties.
Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these "pretty wingie thingies" to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.
1. The article is badly written and uses too much religious distortion including a biased and historically inaccurate point of view.
2. The notion of a religious "think tank" is ridiculous, unless a person wanted to violate the law to promote religion and needed help in thinking of ways to distort the truth in self-serving ways.
3. The disjointed rambling of the author underscores the disjointed thinking of many religious people. Delusions are not a stable base from which to reason things out.
4. She isn't bad looking, but her article is.
Conclusion: This is another article chosen by CNN for it's "trolling" potential. Good content is not required by CNN for such articles, as we have seen in the past.
Do you often come to well written opinion pieces, and offer up a poorly written, distorted complaint? What was historically inaccurate? I notice you like asserted complaints. Better when you don't have to provide evidence or reasoning eh? ;).
What are "asserted complaints", Chris?
Tommy Tom, they're ones without reasoning or evidence.
Well, then, that would be yours, Chis.
No Tommy Tom you – you the one complaining Tommy.
Sweetie, learn to use punctuation. Your posts are completely idiotic.
Do explain, if only to amuse me, honey: what makes complaints "asserted"? How does that word relate to complaints being "without reason"? Do you even have a clue as the meaning of the word "asserted"? I doubt it.
It's guffaw-inducing to watch Chrism call someone else's posts "poorly written". Comedy gold.
Chrism Ji sm sounds suspi ciously like Higgy.
"you You the one complaining."
Oh poor Tommy you sweet on me? Is that right I'm honey to you? Lol you tiger ;). No I already explained assertion to you. People say "historically inaccurate" or "badly written" but they give no support they just assert their false false complaint. It's ok anyone honest can see what I say. I don't expect you to since you're here to insult and argue. You're not here to be honest and I got no more time to waste on my dishonest argumentative Tommy Tom. Bye Tommy Tom.
Thanks for conceding. I knew you didn't understand what "asserted" meant.
Bye, little Chrism. Come back when you get your GED.
That "god bless" kind of sounds familiar. Was it herbie that did that? Evan? That Chrism is a child seems clear. How sad.
I guess he keeps getting kicked off his usual haunts and then comes here and takes it out on you, Tom.
You can bet that with your clever wit and his lack of one, somewhere along the line you really zinged him good.
He'll probably turn up in the news after shooting up his high school.
Then he won't be allowed to stalk people on the internet. Just a matter of time, now...
[face palm] whats the point of writing this drivel.. historically inaccurate, void of information, rambling, pointless and nothing to grasp the imagination of the reader..
You describe you own post very well. Too bad it's on the same page as the well written, historically accurate, well researched, intelligent piece that Elizabeth Hunter wrote.
I agree, Oh really. This is truly a badly written article. There at least should have been a recognizable point.
It's an interesting article particularly when one does consider the pagan roots. The Romans celebrated the Saturnalia around Christmastime, which – like Hunter says of pre-Victorian Christmas – was a time to at least play at reversing the social order. I'm wondering whether this was another older custom that got adopted into Christmas, or whether there's just something about those long December nights that makes people want to upset the usual way of things.
What a worthless article
Worthless only to those like you who come here with closed minds and arrogance. I found the parts about historical parts including the British army interesting, and the turning the world upside down thought provoking.
That's because you're stupid.
I agree. It was rambling and poorly written.
This whole article is historically inaccurate. Christmas is an adaptation of the Winter Solstice celebration, with Jeebus and Capitalism added later... research!!!
Matt, she did her research you weren't paying attention, this was a history of Christ's birth and it's celebration, not a history of what things happened on the day Dec 25th.
Somehow I find it hard to look to you for an interpretation of any literature, including the Bible, if you're so stupid that you don't know "it's" is a contraction for "it is", you drip.
Oh Tommy Tom, I'd rather make an occasional spelling error than be a hypocrite correcting it.
It's not a "spelling error", you moron. You haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about, and it shows in every word you puke up.
Yah, Tommy, my iPad has autocorrect and it puts the apostrophe in so it's a spelling correction. Why must you be such a huge huge hypocrite? You know you make spelling errors.
Then you should be able to find them and post them. I can find yours. They're hard to miss, since they're in every sentence you write.
*tappy foot* Still waiting for you to post my errors, ChrismJi zm.
I WANT the five minutes I wasted on this article back, Dang it! What a crock of .... Christmas is a stolen holiday, stolen from the Pagans by the Christians who were desperate to at least have something to offer. The Victorian Christmas plays a heck of a lot better than the story of Jesus.... Come on, does anyone in today's world actually buy that crap? It amazes me when it shouldn't really..
Oh and this just goes to show that CNN and the Christian Right are getting desperate to be taken seriously, as their world view of what Christmas should be is going down the drain... wave bye bye!
The holiday is a celebration of Christ's birth. Putting it on Dec 25th was just Just welcoming more people to the real party.
Sure it was. We know it must be so, because you proclaim it, oh nimrod.
Oh Tommy, who makes smarter insults than you? You're so clever. Oh, and yes Christmas is about Christ's birth.
Prove it. If he wasn't born in December, why celebrate his birth then?
Oh Tommy, everybody knows the bible doesn't say when Jesus was born. Of course the church picked the date to welcome more to the party. Of course it's still about Christ's birth! Who's birth did you think it was about?
"Who's birth"? Who is birth? I don't know, Chrism-jiz um. Who IS birth?
Hi Kamal,are you sure? I send the list to myself as well to dbluoe check, and I received the correct list. Can you dbluoe check? If it was the wrong email then I'll look into it for you.T
yeah reclaim the politics of Christmas it time the pagan got proper billion and I mean Pagan not the Christians term but the actual religion Pagan this is there new years the day the earth get one year older the celebrated by spending time with family eating a feast and decorating a tree with silver, gold and various personal items
The celebration just got much deeper and more meaningful, by welcoming the celebration of the Creator to the celebration of the created.
How does a celebration just become "much deeper", pray tell?
Tommy, you weren't listening. It's right there in my post!
No, darling. What's in your post is nothing but drivel. Not meaning.
Oh Tommy lol! Darling that's so clever! You so funny! It's ok, you call it drivel. I know you say Jesus is fine but when someone says celebrating the author of creation is deeper then just celebrating creation to you that's drivel. It's ok you explain that to Jesus. I'm good with my post. :)
I'm quite sure you are. Pigs are good with their sh!t, too.
tom tom the pipers son
stole a pig and
now there are two perverts
a piece of pipe
a pig and
you just know this is not
going to end well
Isn't that sweet? I have my own little stalker! Hee!
No, she's right. That was a bunch of drivel. You idiot! Can't you see she's being polite? Drivel is the nice word for it!
We have the rest of the year to "turn things upside down." I, for one, welcome the respite.
The writer looks good.
Did you just commit the sin of lust? Just kidding...
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.