It’s December and we all know what that means – festivities galore: lovingly decorated pine trees, warm lights and of course hot “Punsch” and delicious “Krapferl” all over Austria. Traditionally, Christmas day, which is celebrated on December 25th, is a religious celebration to remember the birth of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe to be the son of God. Christians and people of other or no religions will gather around to spend time with their loved ones to give each other wrapped gifts and share festive foods, as the holiday has become one of the most celebrated holidays worldwide.
But how did December 25th become associated with the birth of Jesus Christ?
The truth is no one knows the real birth date of Jesus Christ. There is no mention of the celebration of Jesus’ Nativity in early Gospel Acts, nor in any of the writings of early Christian writers. The biblical writings of the Shepherds who were tending to their sheep when they heard the news of Jesus’ birth suggest it might have been lambing season, which is in spring. So how did we decide on a random date? And perhaps an even better question would be: How random is the date really? The answer, if you may not have guessed it by now, is, not random at all.
Let’s start at the beginning
If you’re thinking as far back as “The Big Bang”, you’ve gone too far. Come forward to Ancient Roman Times, specifically around the Bronze Age to early Iron Age, which is where the traditional festivities around December 25th first began. The Romans had a mid-winter festival called “Saturnalia” in late December.
Ancient Romans also celebrated a winter festival in honor of the Sun God, Sol Invictus. It was the celebration of the end of the year and was known to be on December 25th. The end of December marked “the waxing of the light”, for ancient Romans this meant the longest night of the year was coming up. The Romans of the Bronze Time believed that the light was going to come back to them again, which it did, every time, on the very next morning, thanks to Sol Invictus. Invictus was particularly important for this celebration because the Romans believed that he defeats the darkness and gives rise to the sun the next morning, in particular on the morning of December 26th, thus defeating the longest streak of darkness of the year. It was never that dark again in the year, which justified their beliefs for the celebration.
However, Romans were not the only ones celebrating on this particular date. History tells us that the barbarian people, from Northern and Western Europe, celebrated holidays in late December around the same time as the Romans. And so it went for thousands of years.
So what’s the connection to Christianity and the birth of Christ?
The biggest theory about Christmas and December 25th is that it is a kind of spin-off from the aforementioned ancient solar festivals. The theory goes: when Christianity started gaining momentum, early Christians decided to make December 25th a celebration because they believed it would encourage the spread of Christianity. They believed that more non-Christians would join the religion if their celebrations and customs resembled those of the ancient cultures. This is a popular theory, but a theory nonetheless, and naturally experts of the topic have had many arguments about the truth behind this theory. However, it ceases to be disenchanting.
If we think about the many stories that surround this date which stretch over thousands of years into the past – way before the birth of Christ, all of the stories, beliefs and rituals that have been connected to this very date. It is enchanting in itself. December 25th festivities seem to have existed way before 312 C.E. and way before civilization as we know it. Many people before us felt that familiar feeling we all feel on this particular day. The surge of historical facts of this date alone are enough to justify that feeling you might get around this time of year; whatever those feelings may be – whether it’s love, peace, happiness, warmth, sadness, loneliness, anger or simply non-interests. Know that millions of people throughout history have felt what you’re feeling for thousands of years on the very same date, and that in itself is engaging enough to keep the traditions and celebrations going for years to come.
Photo credit: Cover image by Pixabay