General · 25th December 2015
Care2, Judy Molland
A little Christmas 101....
What’s the significance of December 25th? Was Jesus really born on that day? The short answer seems to be no. Christianity co-opted a much older celebration of the winter solstice and transformed it into what we know now as Christmas.
The early Christians were adept at absorbing ancient beliefs and practices into their own rituals and ceremonies: thus Ostara, the spring equinox, became Easter, and Imbolc, the February 2 festival of lights, became Candlemas, to commemorate the purification of Mary after the birth of Christ.
When Christianity was just taking hold, its most significant dates were Epiphany on January 6, which marked the arrival of the Magi following the birth of Christ, and Easter, which celebrated his miraculous resurrection from the dead.
But it was the Pope who decided on Christ’s birthday some 300 years after his death.
In the fourth century the church decided that the day of Jesus Christ’s birth should also be celebrated. Then they had to come up with a date. The Bible’s New Testament gives no indication of what this date might be, so in the year 350, Pope Julius 1 declared December 25 as the official day to honour Christ’s birth day.
It was a calculated choice: winter solstice festivals were extremely important throughout pre-Christian Europe, so it would have been a really bad idea to abolish these festivals in favour of strictly Christian forms of celebration. Instead, early Christian leaders chose to incorporate ancient traditions into Christian worship.
Winter solstice is the longest night and shortest day of the year and varies between December 20 and December 23. Also known as Yule, this date marks when the dark half of the year relinquishes to the light half. On this longest night of the year, the sun’s “rebirth” was celebrated with much joy. From this day forward, the days would become longer.
So those clever early Christians took over the deep-rooted notion of the rebirth of the sun, and turned it into the birth of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, the winter solstice has long been viewed as a time of divine births: the goddess Isis, a virgin, bore the holy child Horus on December 25, and the birth of the Greek god Dionysus was celebrated in December.
Specifically in Rome, church officials probably wanted the date to coincide with existing pagan festivals honoring Saturn (the Roman god of agriculture) and Mithra (the Persian god of light).
Once that December 25 date had been selected, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
Centuries later, the celebration of Christmas came to be banned – temporarily.
The celebration of Christmas was slowly adopted and spread in the Western world over the next several centuries, although many Christians continued to view Epiphany and Easter as more important, and some still do.
But in 1647, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan-led English Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas, considering it to be a Catholic festival, with no justification in the Bible, and also a time of immoral behavior. The Puritans of colonial New England followed the lead of the old country, and also prohibited the observance of Christmas.
Even after that, Christmas was generally only celebrated by Catholics and Protestants in the US, and it wasn’t until 1870 that it became a federal holiday.
Editor's note: The Christmas story, historical details notwithstanding, is meant to be celebrated and seems to be here to stay! No matter how you mark the December narrative, the season carries us all from the darkness of winter toward the light of a new season. May it be a good one for all.