If you’re celebrating the birth of Christ this December the 25th, you might want to know that Jesus wasn’t born on that day at all. That is, if you don’t know this already.
Jesus’ birthday has been placed on March the 28th, November the 18th, and September the 11th, the latter being the most likely, based on historical records.
In fact, December 25th was appropriated as the birth of the Christ in the 4th century CE.
Christianity - and by “christianity”, we mean Catholicism - imported the Saturnalia festival hoping to take the pagan masses in with it. Roman Catholic leaders succeeded in converting to Catholicism large numbers of pagans by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Roman Catholic “christians”. However, as there was nothing vaguely “christian” about Saturnalia, they decided to make its concluding day, the 25th, Jesus’ birthday.
It turns out the term “christian” in the early Roman church was a far cry from “peace on earth and goodwill to all men” however…
The church of Rome had little success refining the practices of Saturnalia. As Stephen Nissenbaum, Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, writes, “In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Saviour’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.” The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets (a precursor of modern carolling), etc.
In fact, some of the more depraved customs of the Saturnalia carnival were intentionally revived by the Catholic Church in 1466 when Pope Paul II, for the amusement of his Roman citizens, forced Jews to race naked through the streets of the city. An eyewitness account reports, “Before they were to run, the Jews were richly fed, so as to make the race more difficult for them, and at the same time more amusing for spectators. They ran… amid Rome’s taunting shrieks and peals of laughter, while the Holy Father stood upon a richly ornamented balcony and laughed heartily.”
This practice of parading the Jews of Rome shamefully continued into the 18th and 19th centuries.
So what about Christmas trees, mistletoe, and the like?
Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.
In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 or December 22 and is called the winter solstice. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped a god called Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from the illness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes which symbolised for them the triumph of life over death.
Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs.
In Northern Europe the mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder.
Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.
Mistletoe is relevant to several cultures. It is associated with Western Christmas as a decoration, under which lovers are expected to kiss. The reasons for this aren’t very clear. It IS clear, however, that Mistletoe has played an important role in Druidic mythology. Most interesting is the Ritual of Oak and Mistletoe.
In Norse Mythology, Loki tricked the blind god Hodur into murdering Balder with an arrow made of Mistletoe, being the only plant to which Balder was vulnerable. Some versions of the story have mistletoe becoming a symbol of peace and friendship to compensate for its part in the murder.
Mistletoe continued to be associated with fertility and vitality through the Middle Ages, and by the 18th century it had also become incorporated into Christmas celebrations around the world. The serving class of Victorian England is credited with first recording the tradition of kissing underneath the mistletoe. The tradition dictated that a man was allowed to kiss any woman standing underneath mistletoe, and that bad luck would befall any woman who refused the kiss. One variation on the tradition stated that with each kiss a berry was to be plucked from the mistletoe, and the kissing must stop after all the berries had been removed.
While gift-giving may seem inextricably tied to Christmas, it used to be that people looked forward to opening presents on New Year's Day.
"They were a blessing for people to make them feel good as the year ends," says Ronald Hutton, a historian at Bristol University. It wasn't until the Victorian era of the 1800s that gift-giving shifted to Christmas. According to the Royal Collection, Queen Victoria's children got Christmas Eve gifts in 1850, including a sword and armour. In 1841, Victoria gave her husband, Prince Albert, a miniature portrait of her as a 7-year-old; in 1859, she gave him a book of poetry by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
All of this gift-giving, along with the secular embrace of Christmas, now has some religious groups steamed, says Nissenbaum. The consumerism of Christmas shopping seems, to some, to contradict the religious goal of celebrating Jesus Christ's birth. In some ways, Nissenbaum said, excessive spending is the modern equivalent of the revelry and drunkenness that made the Puritans frown.
"There's always been a push and pull, and it's taken different forms," he said. "It might have been alcohol then, and now it's these glittering toys."
Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Santy, or simply Santa is a figure with historical origins who, in many Western cultures, brings gifts to the homes of good children on 24 December, the night before Christmas Day. The modern Santa Claus is derived from the British figure of Father Christmas, the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, and Saint Nicholas, the historical Greek bishop and gift-giver of Myra. During the Christianisation of Germanic Europe, this figure may also have absorbed elements of the god Odin, who was associated with the Germanic pagan midwinter event of Yule and led the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky.
Santa Claus is generally depicted as a portly, joyous, white-bearded man—sometimes with spectacles—wearing a red coat with white collar and cuffs, white-cuffed red trousers, and black leather belt and boots and who carries a bag full of gifts for children. Images of him rarely have a beard with no moustache. This image became popular in the United States and Canada in the 19th century due to the significant influence of the 1823 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" and of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. This image has been maintained and reinforced through song, radio, television, children's books and films.
Santa Claus has partial Christian roots in Saint Nicholas, particularly in the high church denominations that practice the veneration of him, in addition to other saints. In addition, he has also become a secular representation of Christmas.
Nicholas was born in Parara, Turkey in 270 CE and later became Bishop of Myra. He died in 345 CE on December 6th. He was only named a saint in the 19th century.
Nicholas was among the most senior bishops who convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and created the New Testament. The text they produced portrayed Jews as “the children of the devil” who sentenced Jesus to death.
In 1087, a group of sailors who idolised Nicholas moved his bones from Turkey to a sanctuary in Bari, Italy. There Nicholas supplanted a female boon-giving deity called The Grandmother, or Pasqua Epiphania, who used to fill the children's stockings with her gifts. The Grandmother was ousted from her shrine at Bari, which became the centre of the Nicholas cult. Members of this group gave each other gifts during a pageant they conducted annually on the anniversary of Nicholas’ death, December 6.
The Nicholas cult spread north until it was adopted by German and Celtic pagans. These groups worshipped a pantheon led by Woden –their chief god and the father of Thor, Balder, and Tiw. Woden had a long, white beard and rode a horse through the heavens one evening each Autumn. When Nicholas merged with Woden, he shed his Mediterranean appearance, grew a beard, mounted a flying horse, rescheduled his flight for December, and donned heavy winter clothing.
In a bid for pagan adherents in Northern Europe, the Catholic Church adopted the Nicholas cult and taught that he did (and they should) distribute gifts on December 25th instead of December 6th.