Only a handful of ethnic groups, the Hungarians, the eastern Slovakians, and a few dialects of Ruthenes use the „Karácsony” expression when referring to the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth. Some theories claim that the word originates from incarnation, others say that the slavic „korcun” meaning „to turn, step” (winter solstice) is the root of the expression. Whichever theory holds true, it is surely a holiday that is the closest to our hearts.
What happened then?
The exact birthtime of Jesus is quite unclear. It’s mostly based on a mutual agreement, but it’s a fact that the early church had already been celebrating the birth of Jesus on the day of Epiphany, January 6th starting around the 2nd century AD. The greek origin of the word, Epiphany, roughly means „appearance” or „revelation”. In 350 AD, the former Sol Invictus (victorious day) celebrated by the now officially Christian-believing Roman Empire was turned into the celebration of the birth of Christ – the winter solstice.
The date and duration of the census issued by the emperor Augustus did not produce accurate enough results to come to statistically trustworthy conclusions. If we say these assumptions are indeed true, then the comet Halley that appeared in 6 BC was supposedly the Star of Bethlehem, concluding that Jesus was born during that year’s summer. This claim is also supported by the biblical literacy which describes the pastors resting below a clear night sky. Then again, in 7 BC, Jupiter and Saturn met in conjunction three times, which prompted the astrologers of the times to think that something great was about to happen. The Gospels never mentioned how old Jesus was when the pastors and the wise men had appeared. The constellation Pisces, which included the two aforementioned planets, was also the constellation of Judea – this could have led the Babylonian astrologers to the court of the king of Jerusalem. According to Jewish beliefs, Jesus must have been even older at this point, since by tradition, a teacher must be at least fourty years old to be able to gather disciples and followers around themselves.
Based on current information, Jesus was born around 6 or 7 BC, but as to what day he was born, is unknown. Origen Adamantius (c. 184-254) was an Alexandrian Christian writer – he claimed that the intensive search for the exact date of the birthday in question isn’t relevant, but also harmful.
Did Jesus actually exist?
Many doubt that Jesus of Nazareth was an actual, living person. Several hundred years of time passed between the creation of the texts found in The Old Testament and New Testament of The Holy Bible. From this time period, very few sacred texts or writings remain. Flavius Josephus’ writings fall the closest to these times, who described the story of the Jewish people – he was born c. 37 AD. It’s important to note that he maintained a great relationship with the higher ranks of the roman leaders, therefore, his writings may not be the most objective source of text on the topic of the Jewish wars, favouring the history of the Roman peoples instead. His writings include a controversial part about Jesus, the flavian origin of which is debated by historians to this day.
There is no definite evidence of Jesus’ life from that time period – except for the existence of the Gospels, of course, Mark’s being the most ancient one among them (although it doesn’t contain the birth of Jesus). Even the letters of Paul the Apostle were written around 20-25 years after the supposed death and rebirth of Jesus, and the apostle himself only met Jesus in a vision on the Road to Damascus.
Luke the Evangelist describes the happenstances of Jesus’ birth with great detail, although we don’t know the exact birthdate of Luke himself. However, from the letter of Paul addressed to the Church in Colossae, we know that Luke was the physician of Paul, therefore being one of the closest people to have researched into the life and the stories associated with Jesus. Matthew the Apostle also describes elements of Jesus’ life, although it’s more likely that his disciples put his stories into text later, c. 80-90 AD.
But the man made God also presented serious challenges to the theologists throughout the centuries. How could Jesus Christ be god and man?
Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria ( c. 298-373 AD) was the first to describe how this was possible. Although he doesn’t mention the human soul element of Christ, but he claims him to be a real, existing person and differentiates between the acting subject (the godly individual) and the instrument of these acts, which was his human appearance. In Christ, therefore, there is a doer, but his functions are both godly and mortal. Since then, this phenomenon hasn’t been defined so clearly.
Traditions associated with the Christmas holidays
In Hungary, the reenacting of the Bethlehem events in the form of a play and chanting (reciting the happenings of Jesus’ birth around the village homes) are both ancient Christmas traditions. The „small Christmas” (kiskarácsony) is the day of the New Year, and the short week between the two holidays was traditionally a time for resting.
An Advent wreath is a relatively new tradition in Transylvanian and Hungarian cultures. The wreath is made from the twigs of willow trees, twined together in a cross-like pattern, decorating the middle with rose hips to signify the incarnation of Christ. The entire creation symbolises the fact that the holiday of Christmas would be meaningless without the cross of Easter, therefore the death and rebirth of Christ, or redemption.
Most of our Christmas traditions are rooted in German evangelic ones.
The tradition of the Christmas tree most likely originates from 16th century Germany, first depicted in the biblical pictures involving the Garden of Eden tree, and even the Catholic lexicon mentioned Martin Luther as the first to erect a Christmas tree.
The Advent candle lighting is also a german tradition. In 19th century Germany, everyone anticipated Christmas very differently: the most common way was to draw twenty-four lines of chalk on the door to a house, and wiping off one each day. Other places had candles with twenty-four markings, burning a bit off of them every day. Some places had built wooden cribs, putting one piece of straw as the days grew closer to Christmas, while others hung twenty-four paintings or pictures to count down from December 1st to the big night.
A Priest from Hamburg, Johann Hinrich Wichern produced az Advent wreath that’s most similar to today’s wreaths in 1839. Similarly to the previous ones, he placed 24 candles onto a car wheel (four of those were larger, for the purpose of the four „advent” Sundays leading up to Christmas), using it to teach the nearby children the methods of counting in the orphanage founded by him.
The spread of Advent calendars started in the 1850s in the circles of German Lutheran communities, most often decorated by meringues for the kids. The start of the 1900s saw the first printed Advent calendar with 24 Christmas pictures, later on in the 50s, the first chocolate filled calendar was made, whose variations are found on the shelves of stores nowadays.
The lights seen in the windows also come from a German origin: the less well-off families built Christmas pyramids instead of trees, often elegantly carved and decorated, even with variations of the Bethlehem events existing. In many places, like German mining villages, the entrance to the mineshafts were lit with similar Christmas lights, not unlike miner’s lanterns, albeit a lot more ornamentally fashioned. The simpler versions of these in our days are the triangle shaped lights adorning the windows, or the curved lights with seven bulbs.s
The holidays are indeed special, since the winter solstice indicates nature turning its attention to the springtime, as well as us. Although Jesus’ incarnation cannot be proven either historically or scientifically when it comes to the hows and whens, still millions of believers pray on these holy days and nights. This date is important to all of us: it connected with our lives and strengthens the love in our families. Christmas can be very difficult for the lonely so if we can take extra care of them and support them, it’s a most holy thing to do!
translated by Mara Várhelyi