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The True Story of Christmas: Merry Saturnalia and a Happy Sol Invictus

Updated on October 21, 2010
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Christmas is a time of celebration, family togetherness and good cheer, or so the carols, cards and decorations would have it.  Around the world millions of people will celebrate Christmas, both Christians and non-Christians alike.  Millions of houses will be decorated with fir trees, mistletoe and holly, and millions of children will be visited by Santa Claus, bringing them presents down the chimney.

But why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus in this way when there is no mention of this ritual in the bible, and no mention even of a date?  And what do fir-trees, mistletoe, holly, or jolly old men in red suits have to do with the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, over 2000 years ago?

Alternative Nativity

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The Real Nativity

The Nativity story is familiar to most people in Western and Christian countries from an early age.  The main elements of the story are widely known: Joseph, and his pregnant wife Mary, the journey from Nazareth back to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem, Mary giving birth in a stable, visits from local shepherds and the three wise men, and the massacre of the infants by Herod.  But how much of this is actually described in the Bible, and how much truth is there in this popular story?

The liturgy of the Church would have us believe that all of these events happened between Christmas and Candlemass, which is between the birth of Jesus on December 25th and the start of their journey to Galilee on February 2nd.  When this claim is examined in detail, it begins to fall apart.  Two of the Gospels deal with the birth of Jesus – those of Luke and Matthew.  When they are consulted it is apparent that neither Gospel has any mention of a date for the Birth of Jesus – so how did we end up with December 25th?

The current Pope, Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), has stated that the December 25th date was determined simply by calculating nine months beyond March 25, regarded as the day of Christ’s conception (the Feast of the Annunciation).  However, the evidence in Luke’s Gospel seems to suggest a birth date of late September to Early October. 

Firstly there is the matter of the Roman Census – the reason for Mary and Joseph making the journey back to Bethlehem.  As this census would have entailed a large amount of travelling, it is very unlikely that the Romans would have called a Census in the dead of winter, when conditions in Judea would have made travelling very difficult and unpleasant.  It was far more likely to have been conducted in late Autumn, after the harvest had been brought in, but before the weather conditions deteriorated.

Likewise there is a seasonal issue with the description of the shepherds.  Luke specifically writes that the shepherds were “abiding in the fields” when Jesus was born.  It would have been far too cold for this to happen in December, as the shepherds would not be in the fields any later than early October.

Thirdly there is the idea that all of the inns were full.  Midwinter would not have seen an enormous travelling population in Bethlehem for reasons previously mentioned, but in late September/early October there are numerous Jewish Holy Days when many families would have travelled to Jerusalem to observe the ceremonies.  This could explain why there was “no room at the inn” at this time of year.

All of this information suggests that Jesus was born in September or October, but it does not explain why Christmas is now celebrated on December 25th.  To discover why this happens, we must look back to the days of the early Christian church in Rome.

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“Merry Saturnalia and a Happy Sol Invicta”

In the 3rd Century AD, Christianity was still competing with older pagan Gods for the hearts and minds of the Roman population.  Having been brutally repressed and victimised by the Romans for decades, Christianity was slowly growing in traction.  However, it still had to compete with the immensely popular feast days and celebrations of the Pagan calendar.

As much of the Pagan religions had their roots in nature, the calendar of Pagan festivals revolved around seasons and solstices.  One of the largest of these was the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which lasted for a week, beginning on December 17th, and ending on December 25th.  Romans celebrated Saturnalia in a surprisingly familiar way – raucous jollity, excessive eating and drinking, and the exchanging of gifts. 

As well as Saturnalia there was also the feast of “Sol Invicta”, or the celebration of the “Unconquered Sun”.  This also took place on December 25th, which was the first noticeably longer day after the winter solstice.  On this day a variety of Sun-deities were worshipped, celebrating their “rebirth” after the decline of the sun towards the winter solstice.  This festival was also celebrated with feasting and jollity.  Are these Pagan festivals the true root of Christmas?

It is highly likely that faced with the challenge of competing with these popular pagan religions, the early Christians realised that their own calendar of holy days was somewhat lacking in feasts and celebrations.  They could have easily decided to move their celebration of the “birth of the sun of God” so that it coincided with the rebirth of the Sun-God at Sol Invicta.  This would have allowed for a much smoother and less painful transition from Paganism to Christianity.

Although this version of events explains why Christmas is in December rather than September, it still does not explain all of the other rituals which have grown up around Christmas over the centuries, such as the Christmas tree, Holly wreaths, or kissing under the Mistletoe.  Once again the answer lies in culture of our Pagan ancestors.

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‘Christmas’ Trees, Holly wreaths and Mistletoe

If some doubt remains as to the possible pagan origins of December 25th, there can be no doubting the pagan authenticity of the Christmas tree, alongside the majority of our other well-known festive/Christmas symbols.  Of all these symbols, the Christmas tree is one of the most easily recognized around the globe, and also one of the most replicated – it’s lack of Christian imagery lending it easily to other cultures. 

The lack of Christian imagery is because the Christmas tree is in fact a powerful pagan symbol of fertility.  Throughout the cold countries of Northern Europe pagan cultures would revere Evergreen trees as symbols of fertility that endured the barren winter months.  Fir trees would be brought into the home to remind inhabitants that winter would soon be over and that life - and greenery, symbolized by the tree – would soon return to the world. 

The same applies to the holly tree, which not only remains green throughout the year, but even fruits with it’s red berries in the middle of winter.  For this reason Holly was revered by the Pagan Druids of ancient Briton.  A similar logic elevated Mistletoe, which also fruits in the winter.  Christians later gave these plants Christian attributes, attempting to override their pagan relevance – the holly is woven into wreaths that represent Jesus’s crown of thorns from the crucifixion, and the white berries of the mistletoe are said to represent the chaste purity of the Virgin Mary.

As far as “Yuletide” and “Yule Logs” are concerned there is not even an attempt to superimpose Christian imagery.  The word “Yule” is believed to stem from the Old Norse word “Jol”, meaning wheel – signifying the cyclical nature of life and the seasons.  Essentially the tradition of the Yule-Log was a midwinter fire-festival originating from Germanic Paganism.  A log would be brought into the house and burnt assiduously so that all that remained was ashes.  Meanwhile family members would dance and sing around the log demanding the end of winter and the restoration of fertility to the land.

The Ghost of Christmas Present - AKA Father Christmas

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Santa, Charles Dickens, and Ebenezer Scrooge

The final part of this Christmas puzzle is the elusive gift-giver, known to most cultures as a variant of Father Christmas, or Santa Claus.  A festive phenomenon with no real relation to Christianity or Paganism, the popular myth of Santa Claus is a modern phenomenon with massive variations around the world.

Father Christmas originally typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, but was neither a gift bringer, nor particularly associated with children.  The symbolic personification of Christmas as a merry old figure begins in the early 17th Century, in the context of resistance to Puritan criticism of public observation of the Christmas Feast.  In pictures from the time Father Christmas’s advanced age represents the antiquity of the feast itself, and his form as a jolly fat man represents the joyousness and plenty of the celebration.

Father Christmas makes a few more historical appearances, but he seems to fully enter the public consciousness after the publication of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, in which a character very like Father Christmas visits Ebenezer Scrooge.  He is the “Ghost of Christmas Present”: a well-nourished bearded man dressed in a long green fur lined robe who takes Scrooge through the streets on Christmas morning, sprinkling the essence of Christmas onto the happy populace.

Since the Victorian era, the figure of “father Christmas” has slowly merged with the character of the pre-modern gift-giver St Nicholas.  Around the world the name “Santa Claus” (or variations thereof) is more common than “Father Christmas”, which is essentially an English creation.  This figure was eventually adopted into US culture, and has been disseminated around the world by the media.

The inconsistencies in his name around the world and in the dates on which he visits are testament to his recent addition to the tradition, but also the zeal with which this tradition has been adopted.  He is variously called “Sinter Klaas, Der Weihnachtsmann, Tel-apo, and Mikulas” to name but 4 of the plethora of names he possesses.  Likewise his deliveries occur at any time from 6th December to 6th January, and his gifts are placed in a variety of shoes, stockings, pillows and clothes.

“The Christmas Spirit”

For many people in the modern world, Christmas is no longer about religion, but is about family, ritual and tradition.  Far from undermining or debunking the idea of Christmas, this exploration of the subject reinforces the common idea of “the Christmas Spirit” embodied by many of these traditions. 

The fact that Christmas is an enormous amalgam of traditions from a variety of very different cultures is testament to the power of ritual, and to the spirit of unity that brings people together at Christmas.


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