HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS: CAESAR AUGUSTUS
Perhaps it is fitting that our last historical character on the History of Christmas should be about the first person mentioned in St. Luke’s story of the first Christmas. He was neither Palestinian, nor Jew, nor shepherd, nor wise man. He was in fact, 1500 miles away, the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, after whom is named the month of August. Were it not for his imperial decision, Jesus would not have been born in Bethlehem, but in Nazareth, the home of Mary (and this would have messed up all the Old Testament prophesies.) But because of Augustus’ decree Mary and Joseph, descendants of the often married King David, returned to Bethlehem, the city of David. It was here that Mary’s first born child was born, according to Luke, in a manger as there was no room at the inn. Certainly they had not called ahead, and there were a lot of travelers at the time, it being the Christmas season and all.
Some sixty years earlier, the Roman general Pompey had conquered Palestine and it was at this time a “client kingdom” ruled by a local king, Herod the Great, who was directly responsible to the Roman emperor. Augustus himself, grand nephew and adopted heir to Julius Caesar, in addition to being emperor was a religious reformer, for he tried to revive the drooping interest in Rome’s state religion. By his day, the average Roman had abandoned his beliefs in the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon and philosophical skepticism was growing, while the more credulous joined the foreign eastern mystery cults. Feeling that this neglect of the gods was demoralizing Roman society, he set about his religious revival with enthusiasm bestowing temples and shrines on the Empire, restoring eighty-two temples in the city of Rome alone. He became “pontifex maximus” (highest priest) in the state cult and tried to spark a moral renewal in society.
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