December 7, 2007 / 5:31 PM / 13 years ago

Debunking Christmas - bright stars, donkeys and all

LOS ANGELES, (Reuters Life!) - Christmas just isn’t Christmas without the twinkling tree, the bright star, the donkey and jolly old Santa Claus. Or is it?

In this file photo a nativity scene is displayed outside the U.S. Capitol building as some lawmakers sought to encourage people to apply for permits to display nativity scenes at public buildings across the nation during the Christmas season at a news conference in Washington, December 7, 2006. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Not only do the above have little or no mention in gospel accounts but a book on the history of Christmas reveals that early Christians did not start celebrating the birth of Jesus for 300 years.

And, by the way, that birthday wasn’t on December 25. Historians have been unable to establish when Jesus was born.

College professor Bruce David Forbes says he wrote “Christmas: A Candid History” for everyone who loves Christmas but is also driven crazy by the way it is today.

The book shatters plenty of illusions as it tells the story of Christmas and its customs from its pre-Christian roots as a Pagan festival designed to brighten up long, dark winters to its transformation into a spending blitz.

But Forbes, a Christian who says he loves Christmas, also offers plenty of ideas for reclaiming the spiritual joy of the biggest cultural and religious holiday in the world.

“I think a number of people don’t want a beautiful story ruined. But there are others who have the strong feeling that everything is sugar-coated and romanticized and they are curious to know what really happened,” said Forbes, a professor of religious studies at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa.

Among the surprising findings in the book is the fact that Puritans in England and the early New England colonies made the celebration of Christmas illegal in the 1600s.

The focus on gifts did not develop until the late 19th and early 20th centuries and as for Santa — his transformation from Saint Nicholas into a plump man in a red suit and white beard was cemented through Coca-Cola advertisements in the 1940s and 1950s.

The modern Christmas tree was introduced by Germany and popularized by Britain’s Queen Victoria in the 19th century.

Forbes has little time for those who sentimentalize the Christmas of past centuries, which he describes as both a boisterous seasonal party and a religious observance.

But that is not to say that he does not have his own misgivings about today’s hectic, big spending holiday.

“Many people simply let Christmas happen to them. I would like to make some choices so that at the end of the season I feel renewed, rather than exhausted,” he said.

But after reading his book many, especially non-church goers, feel less guilty about enjoying the holiday.

Does it is matter if the two gospels that relate the birth of Jesus make no mention of a bright shining star, Mary riding to Bethlehem on a donkey, or of oxen or sheep in the manger?

“Because this isn’t in the Bible, does that really ruin it?” said Forbes.

“I don’t see why that is so threatening. Religions of many kind are filled with stories that we know are creative, but they express truths that are powerful for us.”

Editing by Belinda Goldsmith

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