One of the earliest historical records of Christmas being on December 25th is from a list compiled in 354 by Roman bishops. It describes December 25th as the day “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea”, according to the book “The Christian Calendar,” by Cowie & Gummer.
As the Bible gives no exact date for the birth of Jesus, it is open for interpretation, and old texts vary as to the actual date. March 28th and November 18th are two exact dates given, though speculation of the actual date exists from June through October (and beyond). Because of the many Pagan origins of elements of the Christian celebration, some religous groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to recognize the traditional Christmas date and customs. In fact, December 25th is close to the festivals that many cultures observed near the winter solstice.
Most people, however, believe that regardless of the origin of today’s Christmas traditions, the intent behind today’s celebration is enough. Still, a look into the history of our modern Christmas customs is fascinating from a human perspective:
Christmas Traditions from Roman Pagans
As many know, the date was most likely chosen by the church to help persuade practicing pagans to observe significant Christian events. December 25th was the date of the feast of the Birth of the “Unconquered Sun,” also known as “Sol Invictus,” in ancient Rome. Sol Invictus was the sun god of the later Roman Empire, and the patron of soldiers. Emperor Aurelian declared the cult an offical cult of the Empire in 274.
It is believed that the observance of Christmas became widespread in the late 300’s, and the last inscription on Roman coins referring to the cult of Sol Invictus dates to 387. There were still enough practicing members of the cult in the 400’s, however, that Saint Augustine, one of the most important writers and theologians in Western Christianity, was compelled to preach against them.
Saturnalia was a Roman festival that honored the god Saturn, the god of wealth, agriculture and time (among other things), and it ran from December 17th to the 23rd. It is suggested that many of today’s Christmas traditions originated from Satunalia. It was a time of celebration, great feasts, and the exchanging of gifts. Places of worship were decorated with flowers and greenery, and businesses, courts, and schools were closed.
Other elemensts of Saturnalia were discontinued, such as a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn and the permitting of gambling. Saturnalia, however, was considered a festifal of light before the winter solstice, and was characterized by an abundance of candles. This particular characteristic is true of Christmas today, but symbolizes instead that Christ is the Light of the World, and the Sun of Righteousness.
Norse Contributions to Christmas Traditions
When Christianity spread amongst the Norsemen, other customs were introduced to Christmas celebrations. Some recognize “The 12 Days of Christmas”, which mirrors the Norse tradition of the Yule festival, which lasted 12 days.
Here again, many animals were sacrificed and their blood was smeared on the walls both inside and outside of the temple, and on the men attending the sacrifice. Afterward a great feast ensued, as did toasting to Odin, the gods and the departed. Much ale was consumed. Undead beings were also thought to have the power to reanimate their bodies and walk the earth.
The idea of fasting on Christmas Eve likely stems from Yule Eve, where men were forbidden to eat before the day of feasting. The traditions of the Christmas ham, the Yule log, and the singing of carols are also attributed to the Norsemen.
Germanic Tribes, Oak Trees & the Christmas Tree
The Oak Tree was sacred to many ancient tribes, and it was a place of sacrifice for many old German tribes. It was eventually replaced by the Christians with the fir tree, now decorated out of reverence for baby Jesus. A legend originating in the 18th century said that St. Boniface, responsible for much of the original organized Christianity in Germany, convinced the Pagan Teutons to stop sacrificing children at the oak tree. According to the legend, he instead told them to cut down fir trees, take them home, and celebrate around them.
The modern day Christmas tree came about in Germany as early as the 1400’s, and gained widespread popularity in the world after the 1850’s.
Cowie and Gummer attribute the lighting of candles on the Christmas tree to Martin Luther. With the invention of elecricity, the candles were replaced with safer and more convenient electric lights. The Christmas tree was traditionally adorned with apples, nuts and other edibles.
The Origin of the Mistletoe and Evergreen Traditions
The Oak tree was sacred to the Druids as well, who practiced a “Ritual of Oak & Mistletoe. Druids would climb a sacred oak tree and obtain mistletoe growing on it. They then sacrificed two white bulls, and made a cure for poison and infertility in the form of an elixer from the mistletoe. This is one of the earliest aassociations with mistletoe and fertility, and could be a reason that we still have the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe, though that is speculatory.
The Celts and Teutonic tribes honored holly, ivy and mistletoe at their festivals near solstice, and considered them symbols of life.
Legend states that Christ’s thorns were of holly, which was once white. When the thorns pierced Jesus’ flesh, the drops of blood stained the berries of the holly forever more.
Origin of Santa Claus
As many know, the idea of Santa Claus comes from the legends of Saint Nicholas, or Nikolaos of Myra. He was a saint and Greek Bishop who lived from 270 to 343 A.D.
There is a plethora of folklore and legends concerning St. Nicholas and his good works, including the legend that he filled the wooden shoes of Dutch children with gifts on December 6th of every year, which was his feast day.
Since the efforts of the Protestand Reformation to do away with the Saint’s popularity were fruitless (St. Nicholas was far too beloved by the Dutch people), the result was to secularize him instead.
When the Dutch settled in Pennsylvania in early America, they brought St. Nick with them.