Christmas and its origins aren't always what they seem. The first time I visited Bethlehem I thought I was going to die. Departing from the town where Jesus was born, where Christmas is supposed to have begun, I stood at the security checkpoint waiting to leave the West Bank for Israel.

Ahead of me was an elderly Palestinian man with his grandson. His papers were out of date and he was trying to convince the young soldier to allow him through. He then told the child at his side to lift up his shirt, revealing a package duct-taped to his stomach. Suicide bombings were common in the summer of 2002 and I stood there, strangely calm, waiting for the explosion.

The package turned out to be a colostomy bag, the boy had an appointment at a Jerusalem hospital, and two hours later I wept. As I say, Christmas and its origins aren't always what they seem.

Mind you, Bethlehem has seldom been as calm as the Christmas cards make out, and 2000 years ago the Romans and their collaborating friends in the Jewish population thought nothing of the occasional bit of slaughter. But was there a birth in, was it in winter?  Were shepherds involved? And what has the modern Christmas got to do with it all?

Inventing Christmas

To answer the last question: not much. There is a delightful new movie currently doing the rounds entitled The Man Who Invented Christmas, where Christopher Plummer as Ebenezer Scrooge and Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens show how the season of goodwill was moribund until A Christmas Carol appeared. Not quite.

The book was published in 1843, when Britain was being transformed from a rural to an urban society, with increased working hours, strain on families and wavering of traditions. Dickens wanted to emphasize the charitable nature of it all, to use it as a metaphor for social justice. The phrase "Merry Christmas" already existed, but Dickens was responsible for making it habitual, and the linking of Christmas with snow is also quintessentially Dickensian – perhaps the idea of a new purity, a washing away of dark, mid-Victorian inequality.

But Dickens was merely giving a reboot to a festival that had existed for centuries. Santa Claus or Father Christmas is a development of Saint Nicholas, a Greek bishop from the fourth century, possibly with a few hints of the Germanic god Wodan thrown in. The way he is depicted today is more Coca-Cola and Hollywood than the early church, but then most good stories are collections of earlier legends. Decorating trees, kissing under mistletoe, carol singing, puddings and the like have various origins – some ancient, others modern, all delightful.

Then we have the story that started it all — the one that it's so fashionable to be cynical about. The early Christians didn't celebrate Christmas, and Easter was the central event in the church calendar. Actually, it still is.

In the fourth century, it was agreed to treat the birth of Christ as a holiday, but as scripture doesn't give any dates for the event — it had to be made up. Winter is doubtful because sheep herding takes place in the spring, but nevertheless Pope Julius I opted for December 25, probably so as to appeal to pagan converts who observed the festival of Saturnalia in December.

Winter solstice

There were other factors however. Many pre-Christian societies had long-established celebrations in December, and the winter solstice was important to northern Europeans who commemorated it with what they called the Yule, where logs would be put on the fire and those sitting around the flames would feast and drink.

It was also one of the few times when meat was readily available because animals were slaughtered due to the difficulty of feeding them in the winter. Add to all this the Roman elite's affection for Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, whose birthday was celebrated on December 25, and we have a Christian holiday just waiting to happen.

But it's too glib, too convenient, to argue that the contrived nature of the Christmas holiday somehow means that there was no nativity and thus that the entire Christian story is – well – humbug. In my opinion, the only arguments as annoyingly facile as those of fundamentalist Christians are those of fundamentalist atheists. There is a middle way. The intelligent doubter will at least consider the ancient non-Christian writings that speak of the Galilean preacher whose followers called the Christ, and the intelligent Christian couldn't give a snow globe exactly when it happened but that it did happen.

Belief in Jesus as the Messiah and acceptance of His teachings is something different of course, something more, than the acknowledgement that He lived. The former is an act of faith, the latter an act of logic. And faith has to be given voluntarily and never demanded. It's taken Christianity far too long to accept that fact alas, which is something to remember this secular, pluralistic Christmas. To quote Dickens' Tiny Tim, "God bless us, every one."   

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.