Christmas, which falls on December 25th, is a popular holiday in the Western world and its symbolism dominates shopping centers, radio stations and entertainment venues throughout the autumn and early winter.
In the US, and perhaps elsewhere, Christmas an excuse for perennial minor holy wars of words over the “real” meaning of Christmas witch Christians declaring that a politically correct “War on Christmas” infringes their rights to celebrate as they wish while Pagans roar that Christians “stole” the holiday in the first place and point out that the iconic symbols of Christmas that the Christians are so concerned about, the evergreen tree, the star, Santa Clause and even the traditional red and green colors are clearly Pagan in origin. Meanwhile, another bunch of folks are pointing out that Christmas has become so commercial, that all of its spiritual significance has been lost anyway.
So, is Christmas a Pagan holiday or a Christian holiday or a secular commercial holiday? In truth, it is all of these and there is no reason we can’t all celebrate together.
In pre-Christian Europe, winter was a dark, and scary time. Many people didn’t survive it, especially among the peasantry. The earth was barren, no crops would grow and hungry predators were a constant danger to livestock and humans alike if they ventured forth in search of a bit of grazing land or game. Tree worship was very common among these tribes, and this time of year, few were around to be revered. Evergreen plants, however, remained green throughout the cold months reminding the people that life did indeed go on. Many people sought their blessings to help ensure their own survival throughout the winter. Offerings were placed at the base of these trees and hung upon their limbs to ensure their goodwill. Sprigs of holly and evergreen branches were brought into the house in hopes that their power of survival would be transferred to the family, or perhaps to offer hospitality to the spirits.
Midwinter day, or the Winter Solstice, (around December 21st) was and is the shortest day and the longest night of the year, and in the northernmost corners of Europe, the sun only made a very brief appearance. Northern areas named this day Yule and its significance was clear. After the longest night, subsequent nights would be short and by extension, the days will begin to grow longer. The sun was returning, it was a promise for the future. In many traditions, a Sun God was reborn on this day. Everyone’s winter stores were running low by now, so they gathered together to share what they had left, slaughter some of their animals and celebrate the fact that they were still alive. Those people who had helped to bring in the harvest and prepare for winter were especially welcome in any household and were often presented with gifts. Whatever the spiritual significance, it was a time to gather with the people who were important; the people on whom survival depended.
In Rome, where state holidays were more organized and driven by fashion than they were among the peasantry, Saturnalia was celebrated at this time. It ran from about December 17 to December 23 and celebrated the dedication of a temple to Saturn, the God of sowing. Saturnalia was what is known as a “rite of reversal”. Slaves were freed from duties and could not be punished for being disrespectful, and enjoyed a feast served by their masters. Gambling was permitted and children were freed from scholarly duties. Small gifts were also often exchanged during this festival.
Also in Rome, imported from Persia where it is still celebrated today under the name Yalda or Shab-e Chelah, the winter solstice was the birth date of the Sun God Mithra. Fires were kept lit all this longest night to ensure the defeat of malign forces and the next day was said to belong to the Lord of Wisdom. Prayers and offerings were presented to Mithra and feasts were held in his honor. It was thought that prayers were especially likely to be granted on this day, especially for those hoping to conceive. This festival was also a “rite of reversal”.
In Rome, the festival celebrated on December 25 as Sol Invictus or Natalis Invecti may have been related to either or both of these festivals. It was the “birthday of the unconquered Sun” and celebrated Deus Sol Invictus, the God of the Unconquered Sun. At least than three Gods in Rome have been given this title: Elagabalus, Mithras, and Sol
According to Bishop Jacob Bar-Salabi of the 12th Century:
It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day.
In about 336 CE, Pope Julius I declared that Christ’s birthday would be celebrated on December 25th. Although no one was really sure when Christ was born, it fit in quite well with the celebrations that were already going on at the time to welcome the light back into the world that were still often celebrated, even among the converted.
And while this can be pointed to as a sort of cultural appropriation by Christians, what it really was was a political move on the part of Rome to unify the people. Rome had a long and ancient history of national religion. This was a Roman thing, not a Christian thing, though the two things were soon so deeply intertwined it was hard to tell the difference.
In part because of the inaccuracy of the date and also because of the Pagan roots of many Christmas traditions, those Christians who rejected Rome, the Protestants, most specifically the Puritans, did not celebrate Christmas and so it didn’t enjoy much favor in America right away. (Though Captain John Smith of Jamestown reported that Christmas was celebrated there.) After the American Revolution, British customs became somewhat taboo in America, and Christmas celebrations became even less popular as a result. In fact, Congress was in session the first Christmas Day under the new Constitution. It wasn’t until 1870 that Christmas was declared an American holiday.
Christmas clearly has roots in ancient Pagan festivals, though it is certainly not synonymous with them. And, it’s true, that the December 25th date is highly unlikely to match the true date of the birth of Jesus, assuming you believe he was born at all. However, the Christian and the Pagan celebrations that have historically taken place on this date, and indeed the secular commercial offering, have one thing in common – Celebrating the people who are important to you by gathering together to share a meal and giving each other gifts.