Christmas Eve is finally here! The tree is decorated, the presents waiting
to be opened, and the egg nog is chilling. But where did Christmas really get its start? What do decorated pine trees have to do with the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem? What we call Christmas does not really seem to fit with our idea of 1st century Judea.
Like Christianity itself, Christmas is likely the result of a lot of different ideas and traditions from various cultures merging together in a process called syncretism. There were many celebrations held around the end of December that a number of ancient cultures celebrated long before Christianity arrived on the scene.
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule beginning on December 21st, the winter solstice, and lasting until January. This was their celebration of the return of the sun, which they would welcome by burning very large logs for the duration of the celebration. A little further south, Germans would honor the god Oden around this time in order to avoid his wrath.
And further south still, the Romans would celebrate the Saturnalia, which honored the god of agriculture, Saturn. Saturnalia would start in the week leading up to the winter solstice, usually held from December 17th through the 23rd, although the exact dates shifted over time. The festivities included lavish banquets and parties. Social norms were reversed and masters would serve their slaves. Some gifts were also exchanged.
Now, back to Christmas. Jesus’s date of birth is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible (the Nativity stories in the Gospels contradict each other anyway). The first generation of Christians did not seem to care about when Jesus was born; nowhere in Paul’s letters does he really mention anything regarding an Earthly life for Jesus, he only talks about Jesus up in Heaven. But by the end of the 2nd century Christians were starting to try and figure out when Christ was born. The earliest writings that have survived regarding the discussion of Jesus’s possible birth come from Clement of Alexandria, who tried to calculate it and recorded what he thought. Based on some traditional beliefs that the date of some prophets' birth or conception would mirror the date of their death, Jesus's birth could be calculated to be December 25th by assuming he was conceived the same date that he was killed, on Passover at the end of March.
So sometime in the late 2nd or early 3rd century a growing number of Christians began to believe that Jesus was born on December 25th (the Eastern Church contended he was born on January 6th, and there were some Christians who thought he was born in the spring). Jesus being born on December 25th does not mean that Christians immediately started celebrating Christmas. The earliest Christians did not celebrate birthdays because they believed these were pagan customs inspired by demons. So they did not celebrate the birth of Jesus either. The earliest known mention of a Christmas-like celebration of Jesus’s birth on December 25th is found in the Philocalian calendar, composed in the year 354. The calendar also mentions December 25th as the celebration of the birth of the god Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. This was a religious belief that began with the Persian god Mithras and then, again through syncretism, became Hellenized and spread into the Roman Empire.
Most historians would be reluctant to contend that Christmas is a direct, deliberate lift of one of these traditions, but the fact that these traditions predate Christmas means it is reasonable to believe there was likely some influence.
So there you have it, Christians probably started celebrating Christmas around the middle of the 4th century, more than 300 years after the religion started. It was very different then from what it is today. It would be another 1,300 years before the Christmas tree entered the mix and became a part of the celebration thanks to Christians in Germany. Merry Christmas!
You can read more about this here and here.