Every year, billions of people all around the world celebrate Christmas -- but most of them don't really know what the celebration is about or how it even started. Even out of those who do, most think it's a Christian celebration but that's not exactly the truth.
The history of Christmas is a bit more complicated, drawing from ancient events like Saturnalia and Yule, celebrations that were absorbed into Christianity but still have an impact on how we celebrate December's festive season.
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Christmas, Christ, and Christianity - when was Jesus born?
For most people, Christmas is a holiday deeply rooted in Christianity - but is that really the case?
The ancient Romans celebrated the winter solstice, feasating and celebrating the god Saturn (the equivalent of Zeus). Other cultures, like the Celts, had their own version of celebration around the same period.
The earliest history of Christmas is composed of "pagan" (non-Christian) fertility rites and practices that predate Jesus by centuries. Most of the traditions we associate with Christmas are actually not Christian at all, including decorating Christmas trees, singing Christmas carols, and giving Christmas gifts -- yes, all those beloved Christmas traditions are not Christian at all.
So then, how did Christmas get to what it is today?
The origins of Christmas
It's been celebrated for more than two millennia, so it's pretty safe to assume that the holiday we celebrate today is a mixture of different cultures and religions.
So then, is Christmas not when Jesus was born? The answer is almost definitely 'yes'. You've read it right, we really have no clear idea when Jesus was actually born -- in fact, the most likely dates are not in December at all, and it's possibly not in 'year 0' either.
The New Testament gives no date or year for the birth of Jesus, and the first year was determined by Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk, “abbot of a Roman monastery". In the Roman, pre-Christian era, years were counted from ab urbe condita (AUC) -- from “the founding of the City”, with the city being Rome. So 1 AUC signifies the year Rome was founded, which is 753 BC; 10 AUC signifies the 10th year after Rome was founded and so on.
Dionysius Exiguus based his calculations on Roman history and estimated that Jesus was born in 754 AUC. However, Luke 1:5 places Jesus’ birth in the days of Herod, and Herod died in 750 AUC -- four years before the year in which Dionysius places Jesus' birth. In fact, most researchers conclude that Jesus was born somewhere between 6 BC and 4 BC. Pretty much any way you take it, it seems very unlikely that Jesus was born in what we consider year 0.
Joseph A. Fitzmyer – Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America, member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission supports this idea:
“Though the year [of Jesus birth is not reckoned with certainty, the birth did not occur in AD 1. The Christian era, supposed to have its starting point in the year of Jesus birth, is based on a miscalculation introduced ca. 533 by Dionysius Exiguus.”
The date, 25th December, is even more dubious.
The date was first asserted officially as the birth of Christ by Pope Julius I in 350 AD, but the pope didn't really bring any evidence to justify his claim.
The influential Greek bishop Irenaeus (c. 130–202) viewed Christ's conception as March 25 in association with the Passion, with the nativity nine months after on December 25. The Bible doesn't speak about the date, but the references in the Bible show it most likely did not take place in winter.
Rather it is because this was the date that the Romans and other populations historically celebrated the winter solstice that Christmas, the birth of Christ, was moved towards this date.
Romans and Christmas
Romans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, which was basically a week-long lawless celebration, taking place between December 17-25. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. The things that happened during the Saturnalia were almost unspeakable - we won't go into that here, but they often included violence, rape, and even human sacrifice.
Another interesting tradition was the pagan custom called wassailing, or singing from door to door. While the wealthy feasted and ... did their thing, the poorer people gathered and sang from door to door, with people often giving them food and (more rarely) drink. This is almost certainly the origin of caroling, and there are occasional mentions of this tradition all throughout the middle ages. It was also a common habit for people to gather in groups and sing naked in the streets - really, these are the precursors of caroling. So caroling, yet another favorite Christmas tradition, is also pagan in origin.
As the first few centuries of the "AD" era passed, Christians wanted to attract more pagans into their religions, so they somehow attempted to incorporate Saturnalia into Christianity; the only problem was that it had absolutely nothing Christian in it, so they simply adopted its ending date (25th of December). Because Saturnalia was the central holiday in ancient Rome, they had to make the date important as well, so they made it the birth of Jesus. It was a rather clever political trick, which lured some into the new religion while leaving the rest to do the same things undisturbed.
Stephen Nissenbaum, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, writes:
“In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.”
So there you have it, it's very likely that both the date and the year aren't actually representative for the birth of Jesus.
Romans and Christians
The early Christians learned a lot from the Romans. Despite what most people today think, the Romans didn't really invent much - they just learned, adapted, and incorporated. Early Christians tried to do the same, and they did it pretty smartly. They wanted to attract as many people as possible, but at the same time, they realized that the people weren't giving up on the things they'd been doing for generations and generations. So instead, they tried to incorporate all these pagan traditions and make them a part of Christianity.
The best example for this is the one with the Saturnalia - but that's nowhere near the only case. Just as early Christians recruited Roman pagans by associating Christmas with the Saturnalia, so too worshippers of the Asheira cult and its offshoots were recruited by the Church sanctioning “Christmas Trees” - but that's a matter for a different article.