The History of Christmas

By Nomadic Matt | Published December 22nd, 2008

Christmas nativity scene
Ahhh Christmas. That special time of year when Santa Claus drops off presents, egg nog makes you do bad things under the mistletoe, we get ugly gifts, we put up a tree, and… oh yea… we celebrate the birth of Jesus. On December 25th, Christians around the world will honor and celebrate the birth of Jesus and the spirit of the Lord.

Yet Christmas has turned into a mass consumer holiday where everyone has to give and receive expensive gifts and everyone wants to know “what you got.” But never mind that. This isn’t about the commercialization of the holiday. Let’s talk about Christmas itself.

(Warning: If you are religious, stop reading. This post will probably offend you.)

Christmas is a time of year when Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus. But the holiday’s origins have only very little to do with Jesus. For starters, no one is really sure when he was born. New research using computers and star maps suggests that he might have been born in June, which would make him the second coolest Gemini after yours truly. But no one is really sure. The Bible doesn’t go into much detail. So why do we celebrate it in December then?

Well, back in the beginning, Christianity was viewed as just another type of Judaism. Yet over the centuries, the religion got popular (for a number of reasons) but it still needed to convert a majority of the Roman population. One way to do that was make it easy for Romans by aligning all the Christian holidays with Pagan holidays.

In ancient pagan times, the last day of winter was celebrated as the night the Great Mother Goddess gives birth to the baby Sun God. In Roman times, it became the celebrations honoring Saturnus (the harvest god) and Mithras (the ancient god of light). The holiday symbolized that winter was not forever and life continued. The Romans called this Saturnalia and celebrated it between December 17 and 24. Originally, it began with a celebration on December 17th (birthday of Saturn) but was extended to end with a feast on December 25th (Sol Invictus). Many Christian writers connected the rebirth of the sun to the birth of Jesus.

To avoid persecution, early Christians decked their homes with Saturnalia holly. However, the early church actually did not celebrate the birth of Christ in December until Telesphorus, the second Bishop of Rome, declared that Church services should be held during this time to celebrate “The Nativity of our Lord and Savior.” However, since no one was quite sure in which month Christ was born, for more than 300 years people observed the birth of Jesus on various dates in the month.

Christmas TreeThen in the year 274 AD, the solstice fell on December 25th and Roman Emperor Aurelian proclaimed the date as “Natalis Solis Invicti,” the festival of the birth of the invincible sun. Piggy backing on this, in 320 AD, Pope Julius I specified the 25th of December as the official date of the birth of Jesus Christ. In 354 AD, Bishop Liberius of Rome officially ordered his members to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th.

And what about the tree?

The tradition of decorating trees occurs among many different people. The first recorded Christmas tree (as we know it) dates back to Riga in Latvia, in 1510. In the last quarter of the 16th century, Martin Luther is said to have decorated a small Christmas tree with candles to show his children how the stars twinkled through the dark night.

Christmas may be a day of symbols and co-opted Pagan symbols, but, for the most part, it’s a time we get together with our friends and family and celebrate the end of the year and the start of a new one. And, if you’re Christian, Jesus too. No matter what, there is something festive about this time of year. No matter what the origins may be, this is a fun time of year. I don’t celebrate the holiday but I enjoy going to Christmas parties. After you take away the gifts, the holiday is really about being with friends and family and eating great food. It’s indeed a wonderful time of year.

Happy Holidays!

comments 11 Comments

I like how whether it’s pagan traditions or Jesus, we still end up with rampant consumerism :). It’s so interesting to go around the world and see the different ways people celebrate holidays — even in each of our own traditions, there are so many different ways… Good overview, thanks for writing it up!

That is partially true.

There is an alternative version:

The early church didn’t celebrate the birth of Christ. We have no clue what day Christ was born.

The primary celebrations in the early church were Easter and the Annunciation. The Annunciation was traditionally celebrated on the Spring Equinox because of the connections with new life (ie. the conception of Jesus). The feast of the Annunciation came well before celebration of Christmas. Today, after changes in the calendar made by Pope Gregory the Great, it is celebrated on March 25.

When people wanted to celebrate the birth of Christ, the date was pretty much set for them by the placement of the feast of the Annunciation. The birth would have to be 9 months after conception/annunciation.

So, yes, there was a pagan holiday on the winter solstice which got wrapped into things, but the choice of celebrating the birth of Christ on the winter solstice wasn’t made because of the pagan holiday (there were many pagan festivals), it was made because that happened to be 9 months after the spring equinox and the Feast of the Annunciation.

The distinction between the two is subtle but important.

You are such a bad Jew. Post about the history of Hannukah! Mmm…Latkas!

Debo Hobo

Oh bummer I had to stop reading…..because I am religious…

Bah Humbug.
And Happy Holidays of course.

I have no idea why this is meant to be offensive. Popular history is offensive? Not to any religious people I know.

Ive been reading a bit about Christmas too..and its interesting..however the festive spirit I guess is what makes it special ..

C K

Great one there. Stumbled!

Oh, before I forget, merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Cheers!

I love history and am fascinated by various holiday customs. I’m most definitely not offended by this post. I do find it interesting how ‘the church’ has adapted over time. Very interesting, in fact. Personally I enjoy celebrating the winter solstice and sharing the overall festiveness and ‘community’ of the season. The idea of a celebration of light during the dark days of winter is quite appealing, too, now that I live in northern Europe ;-)
May you enjoy a blessed season and a new year full of safe and exciting travels!

Patrick Smith

Thanks for the history lesson! So many of our traditions are built on previous traditions, often with changes in meaning (I think to keep up with the times). For me, the history doesn;t change the current meaning- which in this case, as you well said, is about being together with friends and family, enjoying life, and sharing. Merry Christmas and Happy Hannuka!

Audrey

Ok. I am religous but i am not offended. I enjoy a good history lesson. A lot of that stuff i knew already. There are many christians that don’t follow those practices. It really doesn’t matter when Jesus was born. Christmas can be with us all year around.

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