Christmas, Continued

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To the Editor:
Although it would be easy to think of Malachy McCourt’s belated rant on (“’Tis Not the Season,” Jan. 21) as mean-spirited, he is actually mostly correct.

He says, “The so-called Christians… converted the feast of the sun god into a celebration of the birth of Jesus…” Actually, “Christmas” was created in the third century when Constantine (who ironically had become a Christian by then) refused to allow the celebration of Jesus’ birth as a separate holiday, but instead required it to be “subsumed” into the late-year pagan celebration of Saturnalia, which celebrated Saturn, the god of agriculture and the harvest (not the sun). N.B. There is an alternative claim that the Christians wanted their celebration to coincide with Saturnalia, but this is less likely.

Mr. McCourt also says, “Nobody seems to know how St. Nicholas rose to such popularity.” St. Nicholas was a wealthy do-gooder in Turkey in the early third century. According to one source, “Many stories are told of his generosity, as he gave his wealth away in the form of gifts to those in need, especially children. Legends tell of him dropping bags of gold down chimneys or throwing the bags through the windows where they landed in stockings hung near the fireplace to dry… Some years later, Nicholas became a bishop; hence the long-flowing gown, white beard and red cape… Eventually [after his death], the Catholic Church started celebrating Christmas, and St. Nicholas was incorporated into the season… When the Reformation took place, the new Protestants no longer desired St. Nicholas as their ‘gift-giver,’ as he was too closely associated with the Catholic Church…. [E]ach country… developed its own gift-giver. In France, he was known as Pere Noel. In England, he was Father Christmas… To the Dutch, he was Sinterklass, which eventually… became ‘Santa Claus.’”

Finally, Mr. McCourt says, “The 25th of December is an arbitrary date of birth.” It is. That date was actually chosen in 350 A.D. by Julius I, then Bishop of Rome. Mr. McCourt then suggests a late March birth date for Jesus. Here he is probably incorrect. We know from Luke that John the Baptist was exactly six months older than Jesus. And there is evidence from historical sources that John was born in the spring, likely March or April. If so, this would mean that Jesus was most likely born in September or October—which is likely why Constantine chose Saturnalia to include the Christian celebration, since it was the closest major holiday.

Rev. Ian Alterman
Upper West Side

Letters have been edited for clarity, style and brevity.

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