Setting a Date
Scholars don’t just disagree on the year of Jesus’ birth, they also disagree on the time of year in which he was born. While there is one record of Christmas being celebrated in Antioch (Turkey) on December 25 in the middle of the second century, there is no record of its being observed on that date in Rome until the year 336. It wasn’t until 350 that Pope Julius I declared December 25 the official date.
In fact, various dates have been proposed for Jesus’ birth — including March and September — based on a number of different theories. And for many of the early years of Christianity, it was January 6 that was celebrated to commemorate a number of events, including both the birth and the baptism of Jesus and the visit of the wise men to the holy infant.
The Winter Solstice
As Christianity established itself, church leaders wanted to move the general population away from their celebrations of other gods and religions, including the winter solstice festivals that were important to the cultures of pre-Christian Europe and Asia.
The Gospels don't provide specific details about the date, so historians have tried to use clues from them instead: for example, the fact that shepherds were watching their flocks by night. Some say that the sheep would not have been exposed during the winter; others say that the mild Mediterranean nights of December would have been fine for the animals.
Ancient peoples believed that the days grew shorter in December because the sun was leaving them, perhaps even dying. Festivals held right before December 21, the winter solstice, featured rituals designed to appease the sun and make it return. After the solstice, the shortest day of the year, the days became longer again, and grand celebrations were held in honor of the sun’s return. Along with the idea of the physical presence of the sun were underlying themes of harvest, rebirth, and light.
December 25 was, in the Roman calendar, the day after the solstice, which was why the solar feast, also known as Natalis inviciti solis, or “birth of the unconquered sun,” was one of the celebrations associated with the winter solstice. In fact, in the third century (that is, in the century before Constantine began the Empire’s conversion to Christianity), Emperor Aurelian declared December 25 Dies Invicti Solis (the Day of the Invincible Sun).
Based on Mithra, the god of light and wisdom, the Mithraic religion was a major religion of the Roman era, with close similarities to Christianity. Mithra, born from a rock on December 25, symbolizes the sun. Naturally, his birth was celebrated as a major holiday by believers.
The Roman Saturnalia
Although the basic concept of the solstice festival was common to all lands, each area had its unique variations. But the tradition that left its mark most indelibly on Christmas was the Roman Saturnalia. The Saturnalia was observed in December and was a nominal celebration of a number of different events, among them Saturn’s triumph over Jupiter. According to belief, Saturn’s reign had heralded the Golden Age in Rome. Although the god later lost out to Jupiter, during the Saturnalia he was believed to return, allowing Rome to relive the Golden Age for a brief time. It is not surprising that the Romans, who associated Saturn closely with the sun, would celebrate this festival near the solstice.
During the festivities, no one worked except those who provided food, drink, or entertainment. Masters and slaves became equals and there was much feasting, dancing, gambling, and general revelry. Candles were used as decoration to scare away the darkness and celebrate the sun and light.
Another recognizable ritual was the giving of gifts, which was done in honor of the goddess of vegetation, Strenia. The people felt that in time of darkness and winter, it was important to honor someone who had a hand in the harvest. At first, produce and baked goods were exchanged, but as time went on, inedible gifts became fashionable.
The Saturnalia was followed by the calends of January (the calends marked the first day of the month). Observed on January 1–3, this period meant still more parties.
Many early Christian leaders, including Gregory of Nazainzus, spoke out against combining pagan and Christian ways. This isn’t hard to understand: The celebrations, after all, could take on orgiastic proportions. After years of mostly futile attempts to abolish these pagan festivals and rituals, however, the church realized it would be better served by allowing them—revised so that their focus was to honor Christ.
Incorporating Mithraic or solstice rites into the celebration of Christmas was easy to justify: Christ represents life, triumph over death and darkness, and restored hope and light. Rather than celebrating the sun as before, people would be celebrating the Son of God. Simply put, the birth of Christ replaced the birth of the sun as a cause for celebration.
Both church and popular interests were thus satisfied: The people were able to keep their time of fun, while the church ensured that the birth of Christ would be celebrated with all due decorum and festivity. In this way, many parts of the old festivals remained, while others were reformed to honor Christ’s birth. Some of the retained elements that have remained popular to this day are greenery, candles, singing, tree decorating, Yule logs, and feasting.
Emperor Justinian declared Christmas a civic holiday in 529. Further legislation by the Council of Tours in 567 officially made the pre-Christmas Advent period a season of fasting and preparation. The time from Christmas to Epiphany (the twelve days of Christmas) was also declared part of the festive season.
Today, Christmas is celebrated on December 25 by Roman Catholics and Protestants, but not by many Orthodox churches, which continue to combine Epiphany and Nativity celebrations on January 6. A small portion of English believers also observed the January 6 tradition until about 1950—not because of any connection with the rites of Eastern churches, but because some of their own observances followed the old Julian calendar rather than the current Gregorian version.
The Yule Connection
The so-called “barbarian invasions” of the Roman Empire that began in the fifth century brought the Nordic and Germanic peoples into direct contact with Christianity, and therefore with Christmas. In northern and western Europe, the Germanic and Celtic peoples had their own solstice rituals, which were later incorporated into Christmas.
The December Julmond festival, for example (Jul later became Yule), was a celebration of harvest and rebirth, with wheat representing life triumphing over death. Anything made of wheat, such as bread or liquor, was consumed heartily, and also given as gifts. Evergreens were used as a symbol of life, and what we would later call the Yule log was lit to symbolize the eventual triumph of light over dark. The festive meal was boar’s head. These traditions have been presented in centuries-old carols, including wassail songs, holly carols, and boar’s-head carols still sung today.