The Reason for the Season?


By Albert Bell

A historian can make himself unpopular by disagreeing with the oft-expressed sentiment that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” We don’t know the year of Jesus’ birth. It was probably between 4 and 6 BC. Yes, Jesus was born Before Christ.

As for the month and day, there is no historical evidence that Jesus was born on Dec. 25, not in the New Testament and not in any Christian document of the first couple of centuries AD. The earliest Christian writer to say anything about the date of Jesus’ birth is Clement of Alexandria, ca. 200 AD. He says that different churches, if they observed the birth at all, placed it anywhere from April to September. An anonymous calendar from about 250 AD says the birth of Jesus should be celebrated “on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month.”

By the fourth century the growing church was in competition with pagan cults that focused on the winter solstice, usually around Dec. 22. The Persian god Mithra, whose cult became very popular in the early Christian era, was supposedly born on Dec. 25. Shepherds attended his birth. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia in mid- to late December. They placed greenery and candles in their homes, exchanged presents, and went to parties. Lucian of Samosata, in the late second century, says of those mid-winter celebrations, “Let no one conduct business, personal or public, during the festival, except what pertains to sports, luxurious living, and entertainment.”

Some Christians were attracted to these celebrations, so the church wanted a festival to draw them away. Easter came in the spring; everyone knew that. No one knew when Jesus was born, though, so about 350 AD the bishop of Rome decided that the church would celebrate his birth on Dec. 25. The rest, as they say, is history.

reason for the season

But it’s a very muddled history, as the church picked up traditions from the pagan beliefs of people who were brought into Christianity without entirely giving up their old practices. The Germans gave us trees with lights (“O, Tannenbaum”). Saint Nicholas gradually evolved from stories about a kindly bishop in modern-day Turkey. The Magi became a trio because early Christian artists needed one man to carry the gold, another to carry the frankincense, and one more to carry the myrrh. We have no idea how many there actually were—only that there were two or more. And we certainly don’t know their names, which were attached to them only several centuries later.

All of this is not to say that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth are unreliable. It’s just to remind us that a lot of what we think we know about Christmas doesn’t come from the Bible at all. The “season” had lots of reasons long before Jesus’ birth.

Alumni Feature: Barbara VanHeest

Young adulthood may be the most exciting time in life.  It is also the only time in your life when it seems acceptable for everyone, including complete strangers to ask “What do plan to do after graduation?”

When I arrived at Hope in the fall of 1983, the question was the same, and my answer was very vague.  I had no particular career in mind, and pictured a future where I would wear nice clothes, carry a briefcase, and go to an office every day to do “important” work.  So, with that plan in mind, a Business Major seemed like a good idea.

Turns out that was a popular choice of major with incoming freshman that fall.  My schedule filled up with many core classes and no business classes, and one of those was Modern European History.  That class changed everything for me.  I quickly left my intended Business Major behind and pursued a degree in History instead, which included a May term abroad, and working as a teaching assistant to Dr. Baer in his freshman level courses.

Fast forward 4 years to spring of 1987.  As a graduating senior I was trying to figure out how my History Major skills – which included filling endless blue books to overflowing, long research hours at the library,  piles of notecards with original source citations, and lots and lots of reading – were going to translate into a real job.

What I know now, that I did not know then, was that the skills and preparation I’d received as a History Major translated very well into the business field I’d originally imagined.  I took an entry level management position at a bank, and quickly learned that the ability to sort through a tremendous amount of information quickly and isolate what was relevant to the matter at hand was a skill that most of my peers did not have.  As I moved into different positions, again the experiences as a History Major proved valuable as it was often necessary to make a decision based on thoughtful review of relevant facts, draw conclusions, and write persuasively to an audience I may or may not meet.

My time as a History Major at Hope shaped the way I see and approach the world around me with tools that I put to use daily to further my career in my chosen field.  I learned perspective, thoroughness, curiosity, decision-making, effective communication.  As the years go by I realize how important these things are not only in my professional life, but also in preparing me for all the other important roles I play…student, graduate, wife, mom, mentor, encourager, activist, leader, and teacher all come to mind.

I’m celebrating my 30th year in the banking industry this year.  If you had told me this when I arrived at Hope in the fall of 1983, it would have seemed as unlikely as a car that drives itself, or having a digital assistant named Siri.  But that is just the point.   Here we are in a future that we may not have ever imagined 30 years ago, but the preparation  received as a History Major at Hope has proven timeless.