Christopher Hitchens on the True Story of Christmas December 13, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on the True Story of Christmas

Christopher Hitchens would like to teach religious people the true story of Christmas:

None of the four gospels gives any notion of what time of year the supposed Nativity occurred. Only two gospels mention the virginity of Mary, and only one has any mention of a “manger.” Wise men and shepherds are likewise very unevenly distributed throughout the discrepant accounts. So that the placement of a crèche surrounded by a motley crew of humans and animals has no more scriptural warrant than does “The Life of Brian.” Moreover, the erection of this exhibit near the turn of the year is actually a placation of the old Norse gods of the winter solstice.

Is there any church in America that actually teaches the truth about this history?

(via William Lobdell)

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  • nonnamuss

    Yes, lots do. Many fundamentalists churches in the South (for example the Church of Christ) say that Christmas should be celebrated only in the home in a secular way (if at all), for the reasons you outline. Many fundamentalists recognize that Christmas is largely pagan in origin, and teach so from the pulpit.

  • FWIW, the minister at the fundy church I attended as a teenager pointed out that the Magi probably showed up months later, and after the Holy Family had presumably found other accomodations. But telling the story like it “really was” would be: most or all of it was invented to make one or another theological point — a version that gets whispered in the corridors of liberal seminaries, but probably only rarely makes it into the local pulpit, and down to the pews. (I can’t recall if John Spong ever covered the Nativity.)

  • gski

    When you define the truth, you can not do otherwise than to tell the truth.

  • Erp

    The Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas in Massachusetts back in the 1600s (the only time I think Christmas has been legally banned in the area of the modern USA).

    Many educated liberal Christians would interpret the nativity stories as myths/parables to be mined for deeper meaning but not for history. See Crossan and Borg.

  • Stephen P

    Not one of Hitchens’ strongest pieces actually. He says that only two gospels mention the virgin birth – in fact only two (of the canonical) gospels mention the birth of Jesus at all. And the virgin birth is one of only two points that the stories have in common, the other being that the birth took place in Bethlehem. Everything else is different. For a large number of reasons we can be very confident that the nativity stories are entirely fictional.

    Incidentally, Hitchens is wrong about there not being pine trees in Palestine. True, they are different species and don’t look a great deal like the ones in northern Europe, but they are there.

  • Trace

    Yeah right, Mr Hitchens. Just because you did not receive cool gifts from Balthasar on Epiphany as a child…

  • Revyloution

    gski, I love that line “When you define the truth, you can not do otherwise than to tell the truth.”

    It’s strikingly Orwellian, it reminds me of this one:
    “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”

    I think that’s what the ‘War on Christmas’ is all about. Speaking truth to power and not allowing the religious to write their fictions into history.

  • …has no more scriptural warrant than does “The Life of Brian.”

    The main difference between any particular storyline in any of the gospels and “Life of Brian” is that the story line in “Life of Brian” is at least plausible.

  • Is there any church in America that actually teaches the truth about this history?

    I don’t know if the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach the truth about the full history, but they don’t celebrate Christmas.

  • Miko

    I think that’s what the ‘War on Christmas’ is all about. Speaking truth to power and not allowing the religious to write their fictions into history.

    I always thought it was just something that ultra-right TV hosts came up with as a way to make non-Christians seem scary. “Oh no, those dirty secularists are coming for Christmas and then our way of life, and we good God-fearing Christian types are doomed unless you send all of your money to the Republican Party. And while you’ve got your wallet out, why don’t you buy a copy of my latest book.”

  • muggle

    Well, my mother was Dutch Reformed and, well, Santa was a false idol and so was the Virgin Mary. So, nope, no mangers. She barely allowed a tree, when she did (no, it was not every year), I suspect was giving into pressure from us kids and dad.

    My brother and big sister were so desperate in one of her non-giving-in years that they went out and got what they could get plant-wise and dragged a birdox into the house after stripping it of its burrs outside then proceeded to wrap it’s “branches” in strips of tin foil (in our early years — I can only figure Dad bought it — we had one of those aluminum trees) to resemble the tree we’d used before. The turkey for a family of 10 was the saved half of the Thanksgiving turkey, thawed and heated. Ah, good times.

    Dutch Reformed sucks. Everything is a freaking sin. Breathing the wrong fucking way is apparently a sin. Okay, I exaggerate. But not by much. It still amuses me that she actually poked fun of my aunt’s Wesleyan strictness. I can remember her laughing that my aunt (her sister, Dad’s family were Catholic) had to have her sleeves over her elbow and her skirts below her knees without regard to the fact that her skirts could be as high as the tops of her knees and her dresses sleeves, doing damned near anything was a sin, even dancing. LOL! I never saw her in pants until just before I left home then only pantsuits that were obviously feminine. I never saw my aunt in trousers! Wonder that they let their girl children wear dungarees as they called them and my aunt lived on a farm.

    Likewise though, we didn’t have pictures of Jesus or crosses in our home, same reason. No graven images. Only the church could have a cross and the pictures of Jesus belonged only in the Bible or our Sunday school books.

    There’s all kinds of funky out there.

  • Joyfulbaby

    Many Unitarian Universalist congregations will hold a Christmas service which will include the idea that, yes, the history is terrible, but we like the idea of Peace on Earth anyway.

  • I don’t know if this is one of those uniquely American things – but I’ve been brought up in the church and always known that Jesus was probably born in October or November.

    I don’t know that the taking over of a pagan festival is the deal breaker you atheists suggest it is.

  • Sue D. Nymme

    My late grandfather (a truly wonderful person, an intellectual and exceptional Christian) told me that the word that is translated as “inn” is used elsewhere in the Bible to mean “guest room”.
    So “there was no room at the inn”, invariably depicted in school plays as involving a grumpy and overworked innkeeper, actually meant “there was no room in the guest room”. Presumably Joseph and Mary were visiting relatives while they were in a city away from home.

    Now doesn’t that make more sense than the canonical legend?

  • Gary

    I was taught from a young age that the Church placed Christmas (and other holidays) to replace the (then current) pagan traditions. I don’t see what historical accuracy of a relatively arbitrary memorial date matters but anything goes when criticizing religion, I guess.

    The same applies for the adoption of current scholastic terms when one thinks of it.

  • ckitching

    I don’t know that the taking over of a pagan festival is the deal breaker you atheists suggest it is.

    We aren’t trying to destroy the celebration of Christmas (not all of us, anyway). Simply getting rid of this nonsense about a “War on Christmas” would be enough. Showing that December 25 was chosen for political reasons rather than historic ones helps make that case.

  • “Showing that December 25 was chosen for political reasons rather than historic ones helps make that case.”

    Does it really? The date seems fairly arbitrary to me – except for the whole taking over pagan rituals thing. Christians no doubt feel the need to commemorate the incarnation. It’s a pretty core part of Christian belief – without God made flesh there is no Christianity.

    Christmas in its cultural form is one of those things that only the nominal Christians seem to get really excited about. It’s the last bastion of their nominal faith.

    The Church of Scotland had Christmas celebrations banned in England at one point as part of a treaty.

  • I did actually run across the Christian justification for using December 25th as the date for Jesus’s birth, though it’s a bit strained. An early Christian philosopher (2nd or 3rd century, I believe) named Sextus figured that (get this) since Christ died on the Vernal Equinox, then he must have been conceived on the Vernal Equinox as well. Therefore he would have been born on the Winter Solstice (which isn’t quite right anyway, it would have been closer to Dec 6th).

    Looks to me like he have the 25th in mind already before he started that little mental exorcise.

  • I thought it was pretty much common knowledge — even in the fundamentalist circles I frequented as a teenager — that Jesus would not have been born in late December (carols like “In The Bleak Midwinter” notwithstanding), and that the date on which to celebrate the event was chosen for other reasons. Maybe I just hung with a smarter crowd of fundies, I dunno.

    So I have to agree with Nathan: “debunking” the date is pretty thin gruel, as critiques of religion go. That the whole frackin’ story, as told, is a clumsy harmonization of contradictory accounts, with no supporting evidence, and with historical problems surrounding the chronology (see Luke 2:1), is a far stronger argument that it’s entirely legendary.

  • Doreen

    Went to Catholic school for eight years. I can’t remember if I learned this from school or my mom, but I do remember being told that a lot of things about Christmas were actually pagan so as to help convert the Celts and Norse. It’s likely I heard it from both.

    So to answer your answer “Is there any church in America that actually teaches the truth about this history?”

    St. Andrews in Drexel Hill, Pa… at least 10 years ago, anyways.

  • duhsciple

    Please don’t be as literal as the fundamentalists.

    Read the “First Christmas” by Crossan and Borg

    It is even more radical than any atheist deconstruction of Christmas truth.

  • John

    Regarding the linked video, it should be clear there are no radical secrets here. Igniter Media is not a fundie production company. They are pretty mainstream.

    The ignorance of many Christians regarding which elements of Christmas are scriptural and which are cultural should not be shocking. Just watch Jay Leno quiz college students on American gov’t or current events. The levels of ignorance in our pop-culture obsessed society are astronomical. So don’t blame the church for something that’s true of society or Western civ as a whole. Western popular culture (Christian or not) has no appetite for history.

    And to the “duhsciple” above, Crossan and Borg *are* atheists. Well, Crossan is. For Borg, the question is debatable. There are many theologians (virtually all of Crossan’s cohorts in the “Jesus Seminar”) who deny the existence of anything supernatural. They may be theologians, they may call themselves “Christians,” but by any technical definition of atheism, they are atheists. They can be called Christian only if you define “Christian” in a way that allows one to be “Christian” and simulaneously deny the ontological existence of any deity. It’s more accurate to say they are anthropologists rather than theologians for the object of their study (god) is an empty set (in their minds).

    So their deconstruction of Christmas isn’t more radical than any atheist because theirs *is* an atheist deconstruction.

    Such are the problems we have when people feel free to redefine words in a way that has no relationship to the original meaning.

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