Monday, August 17, 2009

On holiday dates

I have long been somewhat cynical about the date to which Christmas has been assigned. After all, no one knows the time of year in which Jesus was born. A date near the winter solstice was chosen, not based on historical accounts, but to aid in the conversion of pagans who also had major festivals at that time.

I suppose I'd made the assumption that since modern Judaism doesn't actively recruit converts, such considerations were not part of the dates of Jewish holidays. Well, except for Hanuka, which as the "Festival of Lights" has rather obvious midwinter symbolism. But, I rationalized, that's a minor holiday: the book of Maccabees with the Hanuka story isn't even part of the Hebrew Bible.

Learning that the High Holy Days—the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur—were suspiciously similar to certain Babylonian holidays didn't phase me, either. Celebrating the passing of a year and pondering the ways in which we have gone wrong over the past year are not time-dependent activities. They could be just as meaningful on any date; that the date used by the Jews is the same as that used by the Babylonians doesn't affect the significance of the holidays. Similarly, the way that Easter evolved from Passover has never been something I thought negatively about.

But speaking of Passover, the Bible study I attend is currently studying the Exodus text relating to this holiday. Regarding Passover, the commentaries we use say it used to be two or three separate holidays, none of which was related to freedom from slavery. A date near the spring solstice was chosen, not based on historical accounts, but to institutionalize the telling of the Exodus story by setting it near the date of unrelated pagan festivals.

One of the group members protested, "But Passover has to mean more than that." I come to Bible stories with the belief that they have some basis in truth, but that few details are historically factual. Even so, it bothered me to learn that the date so explicitly spelled out in the text (Exodus 12:18 and 13:4) was chosen for reasons completely unrelated to the story.

I'm not sure if my feelings are rational, or if they are caused by an irrational anti-Christmas, "my husband's holidays are better than your holidays" prejudice. (I specify "my husband's holidays" since I have not converted to Judiasm.) I am very glad, however, to have access to a Bible study group that causes me to think about myself and my assumptions in such interesting ways.


Christian H said...

It's not only a case of supplanting pagan holidays (though that's certainly an element), but also that particular times of year are better for particular stories. Take Christmas. It's winter, the harvest is long over, but spring is far away. People are worried. Many religions place a hope-inspiring festival mid-winter, and so celebrating the birth of Christ makes sense here. Take Easter. It's spring. There is renewal, growth, and new life. It makes sense that a resurrection holiday is placed here. Ditto Thanksgiving, Hallowe'en, etc. I don't know enough about Passover to work out specifics, but I'll guess seasonality had something to do with it.

PS. I found you through Conversion Diary.

lyrl said...

That's an excellent and interesting point.

Even having studied and celebrated passover for several years, though, it's not immediately obvious to me what the connection is.

I'll have to think on it some more. Thanks for your comment!