More Than Just the Birth of Jesus — The Historical Roots of Christmas
A beloved celebration stretching beyond Nativity and Anno Domini.
Every year, Christmas brings families together in a jolly good spirit to participate in a long-standing tradition — the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth. But what is the actual, “original” meaning of Christmas?
Has it always been just about this Jesus of Nazareth? Is December 25th the actual date of Jesus’ birth? Or is the date borrowed from another festivity?
Well, let’s first look at some *interesting* facts most people ignore about Christmas:
· December 25th marked the winter solstice in the Roman Calendar. The date was also an ancient Roman holiday (reportedly of Greek origins) named Brumalia, honoring gods Saturn, Ceres and Bacchus. It was characterized by merriment, drinking, and well-wishing. This date was usually preceded by a large public festival lasting nearly a week called the Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn, the chief deity in the Roman pantheon and equivalent to the Greek Zeus. Saturnalia was in turn derived from a Greek festival called Kronia, in honor of the titan Cronos.
· The winter solstice was also the date chosen by Roman emperor Aurelian to celebrate Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god. The festival was called the Dies Natalis Solis Invictis, and it was first held on December 25th, 274. In Romance languages, the word used for “Christmas” is derived from the Latin word Natalis, which literally means “birthday” or “anniversary.”
· Adherents of Roman Mithraism also celebrated the birthday of their god on the Dies Natalis, as the Roman Mithras was deeply associated with Sol.
· The first recorded celebration of the birth of Jesus was held in Rome on December 25th, 336, according to the Chronology of 354 A.D.
· Not all Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th — several branches of the Eastern Orthodox churches follow the old Julian calendar, instead of the contemporary Gregorian calendar. There is a 13-day difference between both calendars, meaning these Orthodox Christians will celebrate Christmas on January 7th. The Armenian Church holds that the date of Jesus’ birth and the date of his baptism are the same; thus they celebrate Christmas on January 6th according to the Gregorian calendar. In the more particular case of the Armenian Patriarchy of Jerusalem, the 13-day difference of the Julian calendar is applied to January 6th, meaning they will have to wait until January 19th!
Crazy stuff, right? So what to make of all this?
First of all, it is clear that December 25th was an important date long before the established celebration of Jesus’ birth. Being the winter solstice in Roman calendar, the date marked the end of a season in which the amount of daylight progressively declined — and the start of another season in which daylight would grow.
This natural phenomenon carried great symbolic significance. The end of withering sunlight marked the start of its recovery. Milder, brighter days were to come after so many cold and dark ones.
In the case of Sol Invictus, one could interpret the date as the end of a growing darkness that failed to utterly vanquish the “Unconquered Sun.” The sun god would now begin its gradual return to glory as the days began to broaden with sunlight, and a season more appropriate to go on a military campaign was fast approaching.
Likewise, the symbolism of the winter solstice in Christmas could be seen as the arrival of the Messiah bringing an end to a period of spiritual darkness for mankind, gradually renewing the world with his light.
Whether the day of December 25th is the actual birthday of Jesus, or whether Christmas as a festivity is borrowed from a pagan festival, is a mystery.
A popular theory is that Christmas is derived from Aurelian’s “Dies Natalis,” since the Roman feast was held at least fifty years before the first recorded Christmas celebration. It is possible that Christian emperors starting with Constantine sought to legitimize Christianity as the exclusive state religion by associating the birth of Christ with the “anniversary” of the “Unconquered Sun” — another public holiday that resulted from an emperor’s personal religious preferences.
Yet the antithesis to this theory — that it was the Christian observance that inspired the “Dies Natalis” — holds similar weight. This notion posits that it was Aurelian that attempted to undermine the rise of Christianity by establishing a public holiday dedicated to his sun god cult on the same day as that of the already existing celebration of Jesus’ birth.
But did Christians even celebrate the birth of Jesus at that point? Yes!
Well, sort of. It’s complicated, actually.
The early church father John Chrysostom noted towards the end of the 4th century that the celebration of Jesus’ birth was both an “old” and “new” festivity — “old” because the date was long held in reverence by peoples all across Europe, particularly in its western regions, and “new” because it had only recently become a somewhat standard observance among Christian churches of eastern Europe and Asia Minor.
In truth, the birth of Jesus had been observed in the Eastern churches since the 2nd century AD, although not as a standalone festivity. Remember what I told you earlier about not all Christians celebrating Christmas on the same day?
Well, a monk named John Cassian wrote in the early 5th century that in Egypt, both the birth and the baptism of Jesus were celebrated on the same day — January 6th, also known as the day of Epiphany — noting this was already an “ancient tradition” by the time he wrote his Conferences. Even though most Eastern churches soon adopted the western trend of celebrating Nativity separately on December 25th, the Armenian branch of Christianity still observes the birth of Jesus on January 6th to this day.
Whatever the actual date of the Jesus’ birth may be, the Winter Solstice of ancient times has remained the most popular pick. It is possible that the Nativity’s association with December 25th was further solidified by the conversion of pagan peoples who also held important observances around that date — the Anglo-Saxons and their Modranicht, or the various Germanic peoples and Yule, to name a few examples.
In turn, these pagan observances helped shape how Christmas came to be celebrated throughout the world, despite fierce Christian opposition to adopting pagan customs and practices. Cognates to the word Yule, for instance, are used in Scandinavian countries in reference to Christmas. Likewise, the traditions of the Yule log (also known as Christmas block) and Yule singing are still present to a degree in the way most people observe Christmas today.
While certainly influenced by the Gospel’s account of the Magi bearing gifts, even the more capitalist aspects of modern-day Christmas can be traced back to pre-Christian traditions: the Romans used to exchange wax figurines in the likeness of deities on the Sigillaria, the last day of the wider Saturnalia festival. They also exchanged gifts called strenae on New Year’s Day; from this Latin word the French derived their term to designate Christmas presents — “les etrénnes.”
It is clear that the way people celebrated Christmas changed with time. Far from always having been a family-oriented festivity, the observance was at different points in time unpopular and even outlawed in Christian regions governed by anti-clerical factions (or “anti-catholic,” as was the case with English Puritans). In the 20th century, totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union either supplanted the Christian elements of Christmas with state ideology or outright banned the observance.
Interestingly enough, Christmas has been growing in popularity in the last century among irreligious circles and countries where Christians are a small minority. Traditions such as gift-giving and decorating the Christmas tree are present in religious and secular households alike on Christmas day.
Yes, the original meaning of the Christian celebration — the actual Nativity of Jesus — may be “lost” in the secular observance. But the traditions that grew around Christmas, some of which the Christian celebration borrowed from other religions and cultures, have survived — and so it is as if this holiday was coming full circle, since “Christmas” as the celebration of Jesus’ birth now sees its traditions being borrowed by non-Christians all over the world.
Regardless of how each one of us celebrates Christmas, it is important to understand how this season of giving and joy evolved throughout millennia — how the winter solstice holiday became the anniversary of a god and the birthday of the Christ, and how it continues to bring people together after so many bygone eras. There is just a new sense of appreciation for the festivity once you realize there’s much more to Christmas than just the birth of Jesus.