Christmas falls on its current date of December 25 for a reason, and it may not be the reason you think. In December, in the most northern regions of the globe, daylight is a precious commodity. We do everything possible to replace our diminished sunlight with artificial light, fireplaces, and candles. There is something very depressing about the long, dark nights when we’re cooped up in our dwellings looking forward to return of light and warmth.
People in the north have always found comfort in the fact that after a certain date, the days begin to ration out more sunlight. That’s the time of the winter solstice. Officially, the solstice occurs on our calendars as the twenty-first day of December, when the sun hits its lowest noontime position of the year. By the twenty-fifth there is no doubt that the Sun is on the rise. That’s when the ancients knew the sun was being “reborn”.
The idea that the Earth is a sphere didn’t originate until the fifth century BC, but that wasn’t widely known or understandable. The ancients probably couldn’t even conceive of one planetary body orbiting around the other. Like the writers of the Old Testament, they believed in a firmament—a kind of roof on the sky. They must have feared that if the Sun continued to fall farther in the sky each day, it could possibly fall below the horizon and stay there. With the little they knew about natural science; they couldn’t be certain that it wouldn’t. They believed that the Sun would only rise in the sky if the Sun gods were satisfied with their worshippers.
Since present-day Christians have been celebrating December 25 as the birthday of Jesus for their entire lives, it’s natural that they would think that his birthday has always been celebrated on that day. That would be a wrong assumption. If they think that Christmas has always been about Santa Claus and Christmas trees, that would also be a mistake.
The true story of Christmas is very different. Until the time that Roman Emperor Constantine came to power in the fourth century AD, Jesus’s birth was not a significant celebration. If it was celebrated at all, the tradition of sheep and shepherds in the Nativity story indicated that Jesus was most likely born in the springtime.
Saturnalia was an ancient Roman holiday that celebrated the agricultural god Saturn. It was held from December 17-23 and was a popular time of revelry, feasting, and gift-giving. Saturnalia was derived from previous Greek traditions and was celebrated until the fourth century AD when Constantine overlaid it with the Christian celebration of Christmas.
Around AD 335 Constantine declared December 25, the traditional day to celebrate the births of the Roman gods Mithra and Sol Invictus, as the observance of the birthday of Jesus Christ. That date was the traditional birth date of Sun gods because of the reasons above—this was the day the Sun didn’t “die”—but instead began to rise after a few days of dormancy.
Pope Liberius affixed the celebration to the annual schedule of feasts in AD 354 and only after that did it become widely celebrated in the western empire.
The beginning of the Christian solstice celebration
In AD 361 Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus made the earliest mention of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, on January 6. Based on the Christmas date set by Constantine, this was the holiday commemorating the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus and the end of the winter season of festivity—the twelfth day of Christmas. January 6 had also been the end of the holiday season in pagan times. The number twelve was very symbolic in ancient cultures due to its association with the twelve lunar cycles, or months, each year. Those moonths inspired the twelve signs of the zodiac, twelve disciples, etc.
In AD 567 the Second Council of Tours proclaimed the sanctity of the twelve days from Christmas on December 25 to Epiphany on January 6. The bishops also declared that it was the duty of all Catholics to fast before Christmas, similar to the season of Lent.
In 1087, a group of merchants wanted to establish Bari, Italy, as a pilgrimage site, but in order to do so, they needed to obtain relics to lore pilgrims to the city. They stole the bones of Saint Nicholas, the former bishop of Myra, from their resting place in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Tradition tells that Nicholas was a gift-giver and on the anniversary of his death, December 6, (or December 19 in Eastern Christian churches) those who venerated him also exchanged gifts. This foreshadowed Saint Nicholas’s significant role in the celebration of our present-day Christmas.
The Saint Nicholas cult eventually spread to northern Europe where the Saint Nicholas legend was embellished and intertwined with Norse legends of their god Odin. Those included Odin flying on a horse while dressed in Scandinavian winter clothing, and that transformed into our modern version of Santa Claus.
Christmas evolves in the West
In 1466 Pope Paul II revived one of the most depraved customs of the Roman celebration of Saturnalia. To amuse the Christian crowds in Rome, the pope decided it would be fun to force Jewish men to stuff themselves with food and then race through the streets naked.
In 1510 the inhabitants of Riga, Latvia were reported to have exhibited the first community Christmas tree. Evergreen trees had long been a symbol of eternal life since they never dropped their leaves like the deciduous trees that seemed to die and return to life each year.
In 1647 the predominantly Puritan English Parliament ordered that Christmas, along with other pagan-derived holiday celebrations, cease to be observed. The Puritans of New England made celebrating Christmas a criminal offense.
In 1649 the English Parliament outlawed Christmas seasonal plays and, two years later, declared Christmas a day for penance instead of feasting and reveling. Until 1656, government and businesses remained open on Christmas Day.
In 1660, following the death of Oliver Cromwell, the English asked former king Charles II to return from a nine-year exile. When Charles returned to the throne, he ended the Puritan ban on Christmas.
In 1836 the Jewish community in Rome petitioned Pope Gregory XVI to end the annual Saturnalia (Christmastime) abuse of the Jews. The custom wasn’t abolished until 1848.
The US Congress continued to meet on Christmas Day until 1855, and Boston public schools were open on Christmas Day until 1870. These traditions were holdovers from the Puritan de-emphasis of Christmas two centuries earlier.
The emergence of modern Christmas
In 1843 English writer, Charles Dickens, wrote A Christmas Carol, which revived and reinterpreted Christmas in England and the United States as a special day for family gatherings and good will.
In 1848 Illustrated London News published an image of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children gathered around a decorated indoor tree on Christmas morning. Victoria and Albert, both of German descent, found it natural to celebrate this traditional pagan symbol of winter and eternal life. As a result, Christmas trees became very popular in British and English-speaking societies.
In 1914, on Christmas Eve in the trenches along one stretch of the Western Front, French, German, and British troops laid down their weapons in a spontaneous ceasefire. They exchanged holiday greetings and gifts, and sang Christmas hymns together. They conducted prisoner exchanges and allowed for the recovery and burial of their dead. Following that demonstration of good will, the commanders of those three armies made sure that such a fraternal event, known today as the Christmas Truce of World War I, would never happen again. The next day they went back to killing each other.
It wasn’t until 1923 that President Calvin Coolidge presided over the first national Christmas tree lighting on the White House grounds.
This brings us up to the present day. If you ask a Christian what the meaning of the Christmas season is, they will not hesitate to say it’s entirely about the birth of Jesus.
I recently read a blog post that stated that the only Christian traditions that seem to be part of Christmas are attending church, singing Christian hymns, and sending and receiving Jesus-themed greeting cards.
Beneath that veneer, at least in the US, we see Christmas trees, wreaths, mistletoe, candles, colored lights, carolers, gift-giving, feasting, partying, and even Saint Nick and his team of reindeer. All those traditions originated in pre-Christian pagan celebrations.
And I was shocked to realize that Christmas as we’ve known it since our childhoods has only been the norm since the days of Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim.