Updated: Aug 23, 2021
Ever wondered where Christmas comes from? After all we have been celebrating a mid-winter festival for millennia. According to the latest research, even the monumental Neolithic structure known as Stonehenge, completed ca. 2,500 BC, seems geared towards worshipping the setting of the sun at the mid-winter solstice.
From the Neolithic through to the Romans, people have been marking the lengthening of the days post the solstice. Ensuring that the sun (and by extension, Spring) returned each year might be thought essential for any farming community reliant of the seasons and the cycle of life. At the darkest point of the year, therefore, when people were increasingly dependent on the stored harvest and hoping they will have sufficient stocks to get through the winter, a celebratory festival would be good for morale. Combine that with some form of religious observance aimed at placating the sun, or the relevant god or goddess, or whatever, seems eminently sensible.
Step forward Pope Julius I, Bishop of Rome from February 6th, AD 337 to his death on April 12th, AD 352 who found an expedient way to settle a question that had divided Christendom: when was Jesus born?
Throughout the Roman world, and especially in Rome, the great celebration was Saturnalia or, by the 4th-century AD, 'Dies Natalis Solis Invicti' (birth day of the Unconquered Sun). The former lasted several days and culminated in the 'Brumalia' on December 25th. The later was also celebrated on the same day following the dedication of a new temple to Sol by the Emperor Aurelian on December 25th, AD 274. The longevity and immense popularity of this ancient festival, in fact the major celebration of the year for many people, caused some consternation for the early Christian church. It just could not stop people enjoying the old rituals.
Pope Julius I thus found himself head of a faith at the heart of which was the resurrection, the defeat of death, by the adult Jesus - and this took place at Easter! How then to wean the faithful off celebrating the old ways at mid-winter and follow the church's teachings?
The early Christians lacked a story of the divine birth of their principal actor, and had actively avoided celebrating the birth of Christ for fear it would mark him 'a mere earthly king', as the early Christian theologian, Origen, wrote ca. AD 245. It seems Pope Julius' response was to simply superimpose a Christian festival on the pagan one. In AD 350, the worship of one sun god was neatly replaced with another at precisely the same time of year, marking December 25th as the birth date of Jesus, and much of the ancient paraphernalia and ritual was adopted. Expropriation of the ancient mid-winter solstice festival gave birth to the Nativity.