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The Origins of Christmas and Its Traditions

Christmas is a well-known and widely celebrated Christian holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. While this is certainly common knowledge, the origins of Christmas are not as well-known and therefore, in the run-up to the Christmas period, we thought it would be interesting to consider these complexities. We shall explore when and why the date of the 25th of December was chosen by the Church and how the holiday is inextricably linked with the traditions of other ancient cultures and winter solstice festivities.



Figure 1. The Adoration of the Magi, Giovanni di Paolo. Ca. AD 1460. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 1982.60.4. Credit Line: The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982

 

Origins of The Celebration

 

It might be surprising to learn that the birth of Jesus was not celebrated by the early Church. There are references to the event itself in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul but a date or a festival to commemorate the birth is seldom mentioned. Similarly, the early Christian scholar Tertullian (Ca. 2nd Century AD) does not recognise Christmas in his list of important Christian feasts. [1] A speech by the early Christian father Origen even suggests that celebrating the birth was actively avoided by some members of the Christian church, he states:

 

"Not one from all the saints is found to have celebrated a festive day or a great feast on the day of his birth. No one is found to have had joy on the day of the birth of his son or daughter…the saints not only do not celebrate a festival on their birthdays, but filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse the day." [2]

 

We only hear of the Nativity as something that is celebrated at the end of the 4th Century AD, when John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nazianzus both mention a feast for the birth of Christ in their respective canons. [3] 


Why might this be? Perhaps it is because the early Church struggled to agree on actual the date of Jesus’ birth. Clement of Alexandria in AD 192 put forward November 18th and January 6th as possible candidates, together with mentions of other scholar's arguments for dates in April and March. Epiphanius, the Bishop of Salamis, continued to argue for the January 6th birthday well unto the 4th Century AD! [4] By this time, however, there is considerable evidence of Jesus’ birth being celebrated on December 25th across much of the Christian world.




 

Why The 25th of December?

 

How did the early Church decide on the 25th of December? This is a question that has plagued scholars for hundreds of years and one which even today does not have a definitive answer. We will therefore put forward a few theories that might explain this choice, delving into the complex ritual calendar of the Roman world in the process.

 

Many believe that the decision to celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December was an example of the incorporation of existing Roman religion into the developing liturgical calendar of the Church. [5] This theory is supported by the fact that the date is also associated with a few important Roman festivals. We know that the 25th of December was the date of the winter solstice for the Julian calendar, known to the Romans as Bruma. [6] Saturnalia, the raucous Roman festival in honour of the god Saturn, also took place during the time of the solstice (between the 17th-23rd of December). [7] The most detailed account of this festival comes from the Late Roman author Macrobius, but as no single piece of evidence provides a clear picture, the festival has been pieced together from a variety of sources. [8] Saturnalia consists of a sacrifice and public feast, followed by continual partying and an overturning of social norms. One ritual of Saturnalia that does marry well with our modern Christmas celebrations is the day of Sigillaria, a celebration occurring on the 23rd of December during which it was common for families to give gifts to each other. [9]

 



The birthday of the Roman god Sol Invictus was also celebrated on the 25th of December. Although the eastern cult of Sol had existed in the Roman world since the Archaic Period, the cult and festival were brought to the forefront of Roman religion by Emperor Aurelian in AD 274. Aurelian dubbed Sol Invictus the premier deity of Rome following a vision of a "divine form" in the Battle of Emesa against Zenobia in AD 272. [10] Given his association with light and the “Son-Sun” conflation in some Christian hymns, it might be reasonable to assume that the Christians were influenced by this relatively new cult in their construction of Christmas.

 

The other popular theory for the choice of the 25th of December as the birth of Jesus is commonly known as “Calculation Theory”. In 1856 Ferdinand Piper suggested that the 25th of December was chosen simply because of its corollary with the 25th of March, the established date of the crucifixion. This would mean that Jesus’ time on earth, from his conception in the womb to his death, comprised a perfect number of years. [11] 




There are, of course, numerous theories beyond the two detailed here. Förster suggests, for example, that Christmas was not consciously conceived by the Church Fathers at all but was rather a result of 4th-century AD Holy Land tourism. He argues that as pilgrims converged on Bethlehem, they began to celebrate a midwinter festival and then exported these celebrations back to their home countries, thus spreading the tradition. [12]




 

The Ancient Origins of Modern Christmas Traditions

 

Many modern-day Christmas traditions have their roots in ancient winter solstice festivals from other cultures. This is especially true of Yule, an ancient festival that was celebrated by many Germanic and Norse communities in Northern Europe. Yule featured the feasting and drinking elements also common to the Christian festival, including the Yule log that would be lit for warmth and feasting long into the night, and a Yule ham that would be eaten and was considered sacred to the Norse god Freyr. Celebrations also included a Yule tree that was decorated with fruits and candles, a possible forefather of the modern-day Christmas tree! [13]

 

The ancient Persians celebrated the winter solstice as “Yalda Night”. A Zoroastrian festival with a slightly darker twist, Yalda night was an evening during which evil spirits threatened bad luck, so it was advised that communities and families gather to feast and stay awake together as a protection against them. This tradition is still celebrated in modern Iran. [14] Finally, the Sami people of ancient Scandinavia celebrated a festival of the sun goddess Beiwe around the time of the winter solstice. She was said to ride on a sleigh made of reindeer bones that were pulled by a white reindeer, perhaps this might have been an early conception of Father Christmas?




Written by Ella Wakefield


 

Bibliography

 

Barone, F. 2018, Winter Solstice Celebrations Around the World. Yale


Conybeare, F. C., 1899, “The History of Christmas.” The American Journal of Theology3(1), 1–21.

 

Dhar, R., 2023, "The Pagan Origins of Christmas: Saturnalia, Yule, and Other Pre-Christian Traditions", History Cooperative, https://historycooperative.org/pagan-origins-of-christmas/. Accessed December 13, 2023.

 

Dolansky, F., 2011, "Celebrating the Saturnalia: Religious Ritual and Roman Domestic Life", in Rawson, B., (ed.), A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds, New Jersey.

 

Förster, H., 2000, Die Feier der Geburt Christi in der Alten Kirche: Beiträge zur Erforschung der Anfänge des Epiphanie- und Weihnachtsfestes. Tübingen.

 

Miller, J. F., 2010, "Roman Festivals," in Gagarin, M., (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford

 

Nothaft, P., 2013, “Early Christian Chronology and the Origins of the Christmas Date: In Defence of the ‘Calculation Theory’.” Questions Liturgiques 94, 247-65.

Piper, F., 1856, “Der Ursprung des Weihnachtsfestes und das Datum der GeburtChristi,” Evangelischer Kalender: Siebenter Jahrgang, 41-56.


Notes


[1] Tertullian, On Baptism, XIX.

[2] Origen, Homilies on Leviticus, VIII.3.2

[3]  Migne, Pairologia Greca, XLIX, 35; Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration, XXXVIII.3; Conybeare 1899, 1.

[4] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, I.21; Panarion, Refutation of All the Heresies, IV.22.5-6.

[5] Nothaft 2013, 248.

[6] Vitruvius, On Architecture, 9.3.3.

[7] Miller 2010, 172.

[8] Dolanksy 2011.

[9] Conybeare 1899, 3.

[10] Historia Augusta, XXV.3.5; XXV.6; Nothaft 2013, 249; The first evidence for the date of the 25th of December comes 80 years later in the so-called Chronography of AD 354.

[11] Piper 1856, 41-56; Nothaft 2013, 248.

[12] Förster 2000, 306-9.

[13] Dhar 2023.

[14] Barone 2018, 1.


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