A book group I'm part of through my church, Second Presbyterian, recently read and discussed a book by one of our members, Ann Parr, Grit and Grace: Gordon Parks. A terrific, poetic tribute to -- and life of -- the great photographer who was so much more than that.
In our discussion, we also mentioned Gordon Parks Elementary School here in Kansas City. Someone -- it may have been Ann Parr herself -- said that she discovered at one point that a lot of students there didn't know who Parks was.
In much the same way, a lot of people seem not to know much about St. Nicholas, whom we've come to call Santa Claus. Well, if you didn't already know this, there really was a living human being called, eventually, St. Nicholas, and you can read about him at the link I just gave you. In fact, he participated in the famed Council of Nicea (or Nicaea) in the year 325.
American children, no matter whether they're attached to a faith tradition, know about Santa Claus. But, like their parents and grandparents, there are a lot of gaps in what they think they know.
And maybe Christmas this year is a good time to help them fill in some of those gaps.
The History Channel has put together this list of 10 things we may not know about Christmas. The first one is that Christmas isn't really the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. As the article notes, "There is no mention of December 25th anywhere in the Bible; in fact, there is no mention of when Jesus was born at all."
Well, the old author Alfred Edersheim begs to differ. In his book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, he argues in a footnote that "there is no adequate reason for questioning the historical accuracy of this date. The objections generally made rest on grounds, which seem to me historically untenable." And then he goes into a long explanation to make his point -- a point most biblical scholars nowadays reject.
In this article from History.com, for instance, you can read this about Dec. 25 as the birth date of Christ: "Although most Christians celebrate December 25 as the birthday of Jesus Christ, few in the first two Christian centuries claimed any knowledge of the exact day or year in which he was born. The oldest existing record of a Christmas celebration is found in a Roman almanac that tells of a Christ’s Nativity festival led by the church of Rome in 336 A.D. The precise reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25 remains obscure, but most researchers believe that Christmas originated as a Christian substitute for pagan celebrations of the winter solstice."
There are even scholars, including Ernest Renan, who dispute that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Renan may or may not be right about that, but he also draws some conclusions that are, well, not widely accepted today.
Anyway, if the History.com piece doesn't give you enough to chew on, this Shari's Berries blog post has 45 alleged facts about Christmas that may surprise you.
Consider it my gift to you this year. You're not, after all, getting anything from me in a box that needs unwrapping. Merry Christmas.
Oh, and the English word Christmas? That unimpeachable source Wikipedia assures us that it's a shortened form of "Christ's Mass."
(I took the photo here today several years ago in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It is supposed to mark the exact spot where Jesus was born. I bet Ernest Renan wonders why it's not in Nazareth. And just FYI, here's an article from the Smithsonian about how the tradition of manger scenes "has changed over time, taking on new meanings as Christianity itself has evolved." Also: Last Christmas here on the blog, I reprinted an old Star Magazine piece I once wrote about the manger scene that my family of origin set up each Christmas season. Have a look if you have time.)
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MOST INTRIGUING FAITH BOOKS OF 2022?
I reviewed, quoted or wrote about a fairly crowdy pile of new books on the blog this year, but in this RNS list of what RNS editors call the "most intriguing" books of the year, I see only one that I reviewed. If you can name it, you may win a few leftover Christmas cookies.
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P.S.: In many ways, every budget adopted by a government, every piece of legislation and every act performed by any government official has a moral dimension to it. Among the questions to be answered to determine whether a budget, a law or a behavior by such officials is moral are these: Does it promote the common good? Is it legal? Does it honor the universal moral principles of truth and justice that lie at the heart of a government of, by and for the people? So I was pleased to note that in her foreword to the just-released report from the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, Rep. Liz Cheney, the committee's vice-chair, reviewed the actions of former President Donald Trump on the afternoon of Jan. 6 and declared them to amount to "an utter moral failure." It is a harsh judgment but one justified by what we know of his intentions and his actions on that day and in the days leading up to the insurrection. We should be cautious about making moral judgments like this because it is easy to describe some actions as immoral when they are simply unwise or debatable. But when we are staring at clear moral failures, we are obligated to name them and to do what we can to prevent anything similar from ever happening again. That's what Cheney has done. Good for her. And, by extension, good for us for having someone with such core moral fiber in a position to say what she said.
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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about Kansas City area funding of the national "He Gets Us" campaign to introduce people to Jesus -- now is online here.