“It’s the happiest time of the year” goes the song and one of the main contributions is the sweet sound of bells ringing joyously around the world.
From church tops, cathedrals, domes and palaces, their rousing rhapsodies and piercing resonance penetrate the soul.
How they jingle, how they jangle, when they roll, then they toll, as they ring and they sing:
“Merry Christmas to all and a Happy New Year.”
It is the celebration of the birth of baby Jesus.
With time all sorts of traditions grew around that happy day: billions of Christmas cards, millions of Christmas trees, and there’s holly and mistletoe and poinsettias everywhere, giving Christmas more than sights and sounds, but a fragrance as well that is unmistakable.
Merchants are gleeful as their sales mount. They make more at Christmas time than throughout the whole year.
The mood is joyous, the air is thick with laughter and chit-chat, the parties are endless and the spirit of peace and goodwill prevails.
It all happens a week before the New Year, doubling the merriment of the world at large.
There is only one question to ask. Is this the real date of Jesus’ birth?
For two centuries after the birth of Jesus there was no Christmas.
No one knew or even cared exactly when he was born. Birthdays were unimportant. Death days were.
In fact, the Church condemned it for his was a divine not a natural birth.
Theologians have tried to pinpoint the exact date of the Nativity and have come up with various dates: 1 January, 6 January, 25 March and 20 May. They are still working on it, although the general consensus is that May is probably more accurate, as the shepherds (who received the announcement) guarded their flocks day and night only at lambing time, in the spring.
During the winter, the animals were kept in corrals, unwatched.
So, why, when and how did 25 December become the day Christ was born?
During that time, there was another religion that presented a major competition to Christianity. The rival religion was Mithraism. The cult originated in Persia and somehow found its way to the Roman world in the first century BC. By 274 AD Mithraism had become so popular with the masses that emperor Aurelian proclaimed it as the state religion.
The followers of Mithraism worshipped the sun god, Mithras, god of light.
25 December was the “Birthday of the Invincible Sun God”.
The Roman Church felt seriously threatened and no one knew which religion would emerge victorious.
It was then, as it is now, Romans enjoyed hosting, toasting and feasting. It was an old tradition established as far back as 735 BC, when King Romulus founded the city of Rome.
Everyone, nobleman or plebian, went out in the streets to feast and carouse, sing and dance in honour of one god or another, and they had plenty of them. It was just an excuse to have a party, so to speak.
Northern Europe held festivals in mid-December to celebrate the harvest season, such as that other December feast to the harvest god, Saturn. Saturnalia was a wild pagan celebration that infuriated the Church elders.
They had no choice but to claim the divine birth of Jesus on the same day: 25 December. Now the Christian converts can be happy and join their brethren in feasting, but of course their form of celebration was different from the pagans.
It was characteristically prayerful. A mass was held to celebrate the holy day.
One theologian of the time wrote, “We hold this day holy, not like pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.”
The celebration of Christmas took permanent hold following the Church’s first Council at Nicaea, in 337 when the emperor Constantine was baptised.
Now the empire and the Church were united.
Christianity became the official state religion and in time has become the most popular religion in the world.
Does the exact date really matter? It is the idea that is above all else. Love is blind they say, you love regardless of age, colour or creed. Faith is blind too because faith is love, and justice is supposed to be blind, but sometimes it blinks.
Let the bells “ring out the thousand wars of old / ring in the thousand years of peace” as Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) wrote in his famous poem “In Memoriam”.
May the roll of the war drums be drowned by the ringing and the singing of the wild silver bells.
In Norway, at exactly 5pm on Christmas Eve all bells in the country adhere to the custom of “ring in the season” announcing the commencement of Christmas.
No feast is as widely celebrated as is Christmas, except perhaps the New Year.
“No one regarded the first of January with indifference. It is the nativity of our common Adam”, the feast we share with everyone on earth as those bells keep ringing.
More Christmases follow. Kwanza, the African-American holiday is on 26 December. Armenians celebrate on 6 January, Ethiopians and Copts (Egyptian Christians) on 7 January.
Bells originated in North Africa, they sing their song for solemn, national or joyful occasions.
What more joyous occasion than Christmas and the birth of a New Year?
What a glorious time awaits us.
Can we do without their ding-a-ling-ding.
“I heard the bells on Christmas day their old familiar carols play. And wild and sweet the words repeat/ Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow