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.
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 on December 23rd. The later was celebrated on December 25th after that date was chosen by the Emperor Aurelian to dedicate a new temple to Sol in AD 274. The longevity and immense popularity of ancient mid-winter festivals, 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.
Step forward Pope Julius I, Bishop of Rome from February 6th, AD 337 to his death on April 12th, AD 352. who found himself head of a faith whose followers were still celebrating the old ways at mid-winter. How, then, to wean the faithful off these 'pagan' festivities and simply follow the church's teachings? At this point one may discover sources stating that said Pope Julius decreed, or formalised, that the nativity of Christ should be celebrated on December 25th. Some speculate that the Pope chose the date to align with the festivals of Saturnalia and Sol Invicti with the intention of creating a Christian alternative or at least attract more converts to Christianity by allowing them to continue to celebrate on the same date. The source for such claims is one John of Nikiu who, in the 9th century, quotes a correspondence between one Cyril of Jerusalem and said Pontiff that establishes the idea as fact. The problem is that the correspondence is spurious at best.
The earliest Christians lacked a story of the birth of their principal actor, and some 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. Indeed, the actual date of Jesus's birth was, and still is, unknown. However, early Christians adopted December 25th as the date of Christ’s birth because it falls exactly nine months after the feast of the Annunciation on March 25th that celebrated Christ’s conception. The same early tradition held that Christ had also died on March 25th, the traditional date of the spring equinox. This may seem strange to us but it is a perfect example of parallelistic thinking commonly found in different religious doctrines. It just made sense to early Christians that Jesus’ birth should be on the same date as his death. As soon as Christ’s conception was fixed at the spring equinox, his birth nine months later thus became a midwinter event.
So it seems the notion that, in AD 350, Pope Julius simply superimposed a Christian festival on the pagan one makes little sense as Jesus' nativity had already been established. That said, there must have been something strangely reassuring when the worship of one sun god was neatly replaced with another at precisely the same time of year.