Crushing Christmas fallacies


Beatriz Moscoso, news editor

Oh, Christmastime. The baby Jesus lies in His manger. Little kids sip hot cocoa with their cheeks all red from playing outside in the cold snow. Milk and cookies go under the tree for Santa Claus. That one house in the neighborhood seems to have bought every Christmas light and decoration possible for their porch. But even Christmas is not immune to misbeliefs being spread around about the holiday.

Dr. Angie Gumm, who has a History PhD from Iowa State University and a Master’s degree in Theology from Newman, is currently a religion teacher at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Derby. In the past she has also taught U.S. History to undergraduate students at Friends University.

Gumm debunks the myth that Christmas came from a pagan holiday.

“That is a very common thing to hear, but I don’t think it is believed by most scholars anymore,” Gumm said. “I remember in college we were taught that Christmas was on December 25 because it was trying to take over the pagan Saturnalia Festival. I don’t see how it would take away anything from Christmas if that were the case, but it does not seem to be true. The pagans had lots of festivals, so Christmas any time of year would have likely landed close to a pagan holiday. Researching this I found some interesting things: Some in the ancient world believed that Creation started on the Vernal Equinox, which Julius Caesar had put on his calendar as March 25, which is neat, because that is when we celebrate the Annunciation, of course. There was also an ancient belief that you would die on your date of conception, and the early Christians all held the date of March 25 as the day Jesus died on the cross, so if that were his conception date then nine months later would be Christmas.”

It turns out the belief that having a Christmas tree comes from a pagan tradition is not entirely true either.

“It is true the Romans used evergreens for their Saturnalia festival, and for that reason the early Christians seem to have rejected using evergreens,” Gumm said. “Things changed in the Middle Ages, about a thousand years later, when missionaries were going to places like Germany which had a tradition of celebrating with evergreens. When you go to a new culture to evangelize, you don’t want to take away the good in the culture and sometimes you even adopt it yourself. It is easy to see that the trees celebrate eternal life since they are green when all the other flora is dormant. That might have been what happened. Another idea is that in the 1500s, Christians in these Germanic countries were putting on plays at Christmas time, which included Adam and Eve and the only tree available to represent the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil would have been an evergreen, or a Paradise Tree as they called them.”
There’s also this idea floating around that Coca-Cola invented or popularized Santa Claus as we know him today due to their Christmastime advertisements featuring the rosy-cheeked toy maker. Santa actually goes back further than that, though.

“Two great pieces of writing influenced Santa Claus as we think about him today in the United States, both from the 1800s,” Gumm said. “One was “A Visit From St. Nicholas” by Clement Moore published in 1823; here we get Santa’s reindeer and all their names–except for Rudolph, who doesn’t come for over a century in 1939. We get Santa with dimples, rosy cheeks, twinkling eyes, and a stomach like a “bowl full of jelly.” That would likely not describe the real St. Nicholas who sold everything he had to give to the poor and probably wouldn’t have eaten enough extra food to get chubby. The other is “Yes, Virginia There is a Santa Claus,” a newspaper editorial written in 1897 by Francis P. Church, answering 8-year-old Virginia who asks him if Santa is real. I think this one ties into our protectiveness over preserving the “innocence” of children by keeping up a belief in Santa, although there are a lot of other areas we could be more vigilant about preserving children’s innocence. Church’s response is considered one of the greatest pieces of editorial writing. He strongly affirms that there is a Santa Claus. This was something important to a world, influenced by the Enlightenment, that had grown weary and skeptical of just about everything. What he says about belief in Santa, I think can better be applied to belief in God in a world dominated by empiricism, ‘Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world. You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart.”’

And finally, the question that has been asked for ages: was Jesus really born in a stable?

“Well, Jesus was probably born in a cave, not a stable, because there just wasn’t a lot of wood around for people to be building stables like we think of them,” Gumm said. “Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that no animals are mentioned in the nativity stories in the Bible. That doesn’t mean they weren’t there, though. If Mary would have had to ride to Bethlehem, which she likely would have being so pregnant, it seems she would have had to ride a donkey at least. And if Jesus was placed in a manger, it would make sense to me that animals would have been near, because that is where they ate. There is a great symbolism for us Christians, of course, in Jesus being laid in a manger and becoming food for us. I know St. Francis was the one who popularized the Nativity scene with all the animals. I personally like to think there were animals there when Jesus was born, celebrating along with Mary and Joseph and the shepherds!”