Holidays and history

Posted: December 22, 2010 in Christmas, Holidays, Science, The Bible

If it’s true that “History is boring unless you find it to be relevant to you”, here are some historical facts that could very much be of relevance to you as they are for me.

In 1868, Union General John A. Logan designated a specific day in which the graves of Civil War soldiers would be decorated. Originally known as Decoration Day, within 20 years, the holiday was changed to Memorial Day, becoming a holiday dedicated to the memory of all those who died in war.

A few years earlier, both houses of United States Congress had gathered for a memorial address in a tribute to the assassinated President Lincoln, and thus, along with celebrating President Washington’s Birthday, President’s Day had its origin.

Other important events in American and world history are brought back to mind across the seas of time. We can track down the beginnings of Thanksgiving back to 1863; Labor Day, which is today observed all around the world, back to 1856; Independence Day is traced back to the day of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and even further back, Columbus Day, which commemorates America’s discovery in 1492.

Of course, this week’s talking point an holiday at hand is Christmas day. Christmas day was instituted officially as a holiday by the congress in 1870.

It is commonly accepted that the Christmas season is the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth. However, scholars and historians agree that Jesus was actually born more likely in September. The reason why we celebrate it in December comes from a combination of pre-Christian era traditions and political influences in the first centuries. Nevertheless, off-season celebration and honor is better than no celebration at all.

Since the title of this entry is Holidays and History, here are some old historical documents from the first centuries, written by non-Christians,  that give us an idea of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Most of these documents are available in museums and University libraries.

–  Tacitus (ad.56 – ad.117), writing in his Annals mentions Christianity and “Christus”, the Latinized Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah”. In describing Nero’s persecution of this group following the Great Fire of Rome c. 64, he wrote:

“Nero fastened the guilt of starting the blaze and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus [Jesus], from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.

– Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (ad. 69 – ad.140) wrote the following in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars about riots which broke out in the Jewish community in Rome under the emperor Claudius:

“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [Jesus], he [Claudius] expelled the Jews from Rome”

– Flavius Josephus (ad. 37– ad. 100), a Jew and Roman citizen and historian who worked under the patronage of the Flavians, wrote the Antiquities of the Jews in 93 AD:

“About this time came Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it is appropriate to call him a man. For he was a performer of paradoxical feats, a teacher of people who accept the unusual with pleasure, and he won over many of the Jews and also many Greeks. He was the Christ. When Pilate, upon the accusation of the first men amongst us, condemned him to be crucified, those who had formerly loved him did not cease to follow him, for he appeared to them on the third day, living again, as the divine prophets foretold, along with a myriad of other marvellous things concerning him. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day”

– Mara Bar Serapion, (~3rd century). Syrian Stoic who wrote a letter to his son that includes the following text:

“For what benefit did the Athenians obtain by putting Socrates to death, seeing that they received as retribution for it famine and pestilence? Or the people of Samos by the burning of Pythagoras, seeing that in one hour the whole of their country was covered with sand? Or the Jews by the murder of their Wise King, seeing that from that very time their kingdom was driven away from them? For with justice did God grant a recompense to the wisdom of all three of them. For the Athenians died by famine; and the people of Samos were covered by the sea without remedy; and the Jews, brought to desolation and expelled from their kingdom, are driven away into every land. Nay, Socrates did “not” die, because of Plato; nor yet Pythagoras, because of the statue of Hera; nor yet the Wise King, because of the new laws which he enacted”

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