In ancient pagan times, the last day of winter in the Northern
Hemisphere was celebrated as the night that the Great Mother Goddess
gives birth to the baby Sun God. It is also called Yule, the day
a huge log is added to a bonfire, around which everyone would dance
and sing to awaken the sun from its long winter sleep.
In Roman times, it became the celebrations honoring Saturnus (the
harvest god) and Mithras (the ancient god of light), a form of sun
worship that had come to Rome from Syria a century before with the
cult of Sol Invictus. It announced that winter is not forever, that
life continues, and an invitation to stay in good spirit.
The last day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere occurs between
the 20th and 22 December. The Roman celebrated Saturnalia between
17 and 24 December.
The early Christians
To avoid persecution during the Roman pagan festival, early Christians
decked their homes with Saturnalia holly. As the numbers of Christians
increased and their customs prevailed, the celebrations took on
a Christian observance. But the early church actually did not celebrate
the birth of Christ in December until Telesphorus, who was the second
Bishop of Rome from 125 to 136AD, declared that Church services
should be held during this time to celebrate "The Nativity
of our Lord and Saviour." However, since no one was quite sure
in which month Christ was born, the Nativity was often held in September,
which was during the Jewish Feast of Trumpets (modern-day Rosh Hashanah).
In fact for more than 300 years, people observed the birth of Jesus
on various dates.
In the year 274AD, solstice fell on 25th December. Roman Emperor Aurelian
proclaimed the date as "Natalis Solis Invicti," the festival
of the birth of the invincible sun. In 320 AD, Pope Julius I specified
the 25th of December as the official date of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Christmas is official, but not generally observed
In 325 AD, Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor,
introduced Christmas as an immovable feast on 25 December. He also
introduced Sunday as a holy day in a new 7-day week, and introduced
movable feasts (Easter). In 354 AD, Bishop Liberius of Rome officially
ordered his members to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December
However, even though Constantine officiated the 25th of December
as the birthday of Christ, Christians, recognizing the date as a
pagan festival, did not share in the emperor's good intentions.
Christmas failed to gain universal recognition among Christians
until quite recently. In England, Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas
festivities between 1649 and 1660 through the so-called Blue Laws,
believing that Christmas should be a solemn day.
Christmas becomes popular
When many Protestants escaped persecution by fleeing to the colonies
all over the world, interest in joyous Christmas celebrations was
rekindled there. Still, Christmas was not even a legal holiday until
the 1800s. And, keep in mind; there was no Father Christmas (Santa
Claus) figure at that time.
The popularity of Christmas was spurred on in 1820 by Washington Irving's
book The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall. In 1834, Britain's
Queen Victoria brought her German husband, Prince Albert, into Windsor
Castle, introducing the tradition of the Christmas tree and carols
that were held in Europe to the British Empire. A week before Christmas
in 1834, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol (in which he
wrote that Scrooge required Cratchit to work, and that the US Congress
met on Christmas Day). It was so popular that neither the churches
nor the governments could ignore the importance of Christmas celebrations.
In 1836, Alabama became the first state in the US to declare Christmas
a legal holiday. In 1837, T.H. Hervey's The Book of Christmas also
became a best seller. In 1860, American illustrator Thomas Nast borrowed
from the European stories about Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of
children, to create Father Christmas (Santa Claus). In 1907, Oklahoma
became the last US state to declare Christmas a legal holiday. Year
by year, countries all over the world started to recognize Christmas
as the day for celebrating the birth of Jesus.
Have a merry Christmas
Today, many of the pagan uses are reflected in Christmas. Jesus
was born in March, yet his birth is celebrated on 25 December, the
time of solstice. The Christmas celebrations end the 12th day of
Christmas (6 January), the same amount of days that the return of
the sun was celebrated by ancient and Roman pagans. It thus is no
surprise that Christian puritans - or even conservative Christians
- often are upset that Christmas "is not as religious as it
was meant to be," forgetting that Christmas was not celebrated
at all until fairly recently.