The Ancient Origins of Christmas

Jesus is the reason for the season—or is he? Although Christians center Christmas around the birth of Christ, it’s a holiday whose origins and traditions are undeniably pre-Christian.

Sol Invictus became the official Roman deity in 274 CE.

Many accepted aspects of Christianity aren’t actually stated anywhere in the Bible, but are instead the result of historical tradition, papal decree, and other later revisions. We take for granted many basic aspects of the holiday, such as the fact that it is celebrated on December 25, but it was actually long after the time of Jesus before Christians would come to agree on the date of his birth. The earliest references to Jesus date to around the year 48 CE. These, the writings of Paul of Tarsus—that’s Saint Paul—mentioned Jesus’s teachings and life, but made no reference to his birth. It wasn’t until the year 70 or 80, which would have been around 40 or 50 years after Jesus’s death, that the gospels of Matthew and Luke mention the virgin birth. Matthew dates from around 70—100, but Luke may not have been written until the year 150, making these hardly first-hand accounts, and still without mention of a date. In these early days of Christianity, Rome already had an extremely popular winter holiday that coincided with the winter solstice. Saturnalia was a time of raucous festivals, marked by feasts and public drunkenness, lasting for several days. Gifts were exchanged, and the roles of master and slave were reversed, albeit only superficially. Efforts by the government to scale back the celebrations were met with fierce resistance and revolt. Religious views began to shift after the time of Julius Caesar. Rome, now an empire, began its march toward monotheism. The emperor was considered to be divinely chosen, and although the traditional Roman pagan deities were not abandoned, they were becoming less important. In the late third century, Aurelian instituted the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or, “the birthday of the unconquered Sun,” in honor of the sun god, Sol. Sol soon became the primary deity in Rome. The festival was celebrated in October, but there is evidence that other events were held in honor of Sol at the time of the winter solstice, recognized at that time on December 25. This also roughly coincided with Saturnalia, already the most popular Roman holiday.

Third century Christian writings gave conflicting dates for the Nativity, including March 28, May 20, and even late December. A messiah’s birth was prophesied in the Old Testament, but belief in Jesus’s death and resurrection were always considered the central tenet of Christianity. There was clearly an early interest among Christians in determining the date of Jesus’s birth, but some third and fourth century writings ridiculed the idea of celebrating it, saying that only sinners such as Pharaoh and Herod celebrated their birthdays. The first recorded reference to Christmas as a time of celebration on December 25 was in the Chronography of 354, an illuminated manuscript produced for a wealthy Christian. Christianity had begun growing in popularity in the late first century thanks in part to Paul’s conversion of many Hellenistic Jews. Early Christianity was often considered to be just an offshoot or form of Judaism, which was generally tolerated within Rome. Periods of intense persecution would occur depending on who was in power, but the nascent religion continued to spread in spite of this.

We may know Christmas as the celebration of Christ’s birth, but its origins predate Christianity, and in many ways, has grown beyond its limits.

Christmas received a boost when Christianity became officially legal in 313 under Constantine I, who picked up the religion from his mother. Although he supposedly didn’t convert until just before his death, he aligned himself closely with Christians, and welcomed them into his government and daily life within the empire. In 380, Theodosius I declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, effectively doing away with the popular pagan holidays, including Saturnalia. There was suddenly a huge void ready to be filled by Christmas. As the official religion of Rome, Christianity’s spread across Europe quickened its pace. As populations converted and abandoned (or were forced to give up) their pagan deities, Christmas took the place of traditional celebrations. As is often the case, old habits die hard, and Christmas never fully replaced the pagan winter festivities. Modern Christmas actually owes much to the celebrations it replaced. Scandinavian Jul, or Yule, which may itself have origins in Saturnalia, is the source of many modern Christmas traditions. Some of these, such as the Yule Goat and Yule Boar may be more well-known in northern Europe, but we’ve all heard the Christmas season referred to as the “Yuletide.” And what would Christmas be without a Yule log burning on the fire (or maybe just on the television in high definition)? Even as Christianity became entrenched as the main religion in Europe, views on Christmas remained in flux. Various schisms and splits resulted in different customs and observances. These are still evident today in the way different churches and countries celebrate the holiday. Orthodox churches often don’t even celebrate Christmas on December 25. Instead, they observe the holiday on January 6 or 7. Protestants in Germany thought the holiday was worth celebrating, while those in England thought it was an abomination, and went so far as to order shops to stay open. Christmas is a holiday with a complicated pedigree. With roots in so many different cultures and religions, and it would be difficult to claim that it has a single true meaning. We may know it today as the celebration of Christ’s birth, but its origins predate Christianity, and in many ways, has grown beyond its limits. It is a celebration of different things to every individual, including those who practice no religion. So raise a glass to your deity of choice—Jesus, Odin, Saturn, or no deity at all—and enjoy warm feelings at this cold time of year with your family and friends. Christmas is what you make of it, so make the most of it.