Is Jesus’ birth really the reason for the season? Or did early Christians simply steal a much older, pagan festival and parachute Christ in? Karen Murdarasi explains
If Mary and Joseph were to drop into any Western city at some point this month, they would certainly be baffled by the festival that marks their son’s birth. Tinsel and turkey, garish jumpers and songs about a regrettable romantic encounter last year… none of it screams: “God with us”
But if they looked hard, they would eventually find their own story depicted on (some) Christmas cards and sung about by carollers – the true meaning hiding underneath all the frippery.
But hang on a minute, some people cry: why should Jesus’ birth be the ‘true’ meaning of this festival anyway? The midwinter celebration came first, they say, and all the Nativity stuff was just welded on afterwards when the Church hijacked a perfectly good pagan festival.
Light in the darkness
But is that true? First of all, it’s important to realise that people have probably always marked the solstice in some way, especially in northern Europe where it’s so cold and dark at this time of year. We want to remind ourselves that the worst of the darkness is behind us, that life will return to the frozen earth so, naturally, lights and greenery play a part in many cultures.
It’s undeniable that there are pagan elements to our Christmas traditions. Mistletoe had special significance for the druids and yule logs were a pagan good luck charm (although the Germanic tribes tended to light them rather than eat them). Even Santa Claus has obviously been mixed with some Norse mythology to transform him from St Nicholas, kind-hearted Bishop of Myra, to an immortal being who commands elves and flying reindeer.
Whenever Jesus was born, the most wonderful time of the year has been celebrated as his birthday for a very long time
But none of this tells us whether Christmas is actually a pagan festival that has been ‘stolen’ by the Christians or whether, despite the mixture of traditions, it has a legitimate claim to this time of year. So which festival might it have hijacked?
Let’s take Yule, the midwinter season recognised by those Germanic tribes. Perhaps Yule was celebrated for centuries before the birth of Christ but, by the time Christianity reached the northern tribes, the date of Christmas had already been set as 25 December. So while Yule gives us some of our Christmas traditions, it can’t have given us the original holiday.
What about the Saturnalia, the Roman festival that took place from December 17? It was a jolly time with lots of eating, drinking, and even some present-giving – not all that different from a modern, secular Christmas in many ways. And it was old even by the time Christianity reached Rome. But Saturnalia could only stretch as far as 23 December at its longest (sometimes only to 19), and there aren’t enough similarities to bridge the gap; it has nothing whatsoever to do with birth or a saviour.
The festival of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, actually was celebrated on 25 December. You could even throw in Mithras (who was associated with the sun) to give you a god, sometimes referred to as a saviour, who had an unusual birth (from a rock). So is Jesus just elbowing Mithras out from his own birthday? No, because the timings don’t add up.
The first ‘official’ date of Christmas as 25 December comes from 336AD, but Jesus’ birth had been celebrated long before that, and Christians had been discussing the possible date for at least a century. We don’t know the actual date when Jesus was born, so ancient Christian scholars formed their own theories, and the most popular date to emerge was 25 December. That could be because they believed that, through a divine symmetry, Jesus would have been conceived on the same day he died (traditionally 25 March), giving you exactly nine months to 25 December. The solstice may have had a role to play too, since it is appropriate for the Light of the World to arrive just as the natural light returns. Some theories base the date on complicated calculations about the creation of the world, or maybe they just had information that has since been lost. Whatever the explanation, by the time the emperor Aurelian popularised the cult of Sol Invictus around 270AD, the 25 of December had already been claimed for Christ.
Mithras was not the only saviour associated with the sun, of course: early Christians also symbolically connected it with Jesus, the sun of righteousness. So if there is any connection between the festival of the sun and the festival of Jesus’ birth, it’s more likely that Sol Invictus was chosen to rival the Christian festival than the other way around. Sol was eventually eclipsed by Christmas, his festival being forgotten rather than stolen. Whenever Jesus was actually born, the most wonderful time of the year has been celebrated as his birthday for a very, very long time.