Have you ever wondered why we celebrate Christmas on December 25? Do we know for certain the date of Christ’s birth? Do you know when the customs of gift-giving, lighting of candles and erection of Christmas tree began?
Although the history surrounding the origin of the Christmas festival is still very unclear, there is evidence that the earliest feast of the Nativity was celebrated in the early fourth century. In order to understand how Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25 in the West and eventually throughout the entire world, we should first take a look at a festival called Epiphany which had developed in the East in the early fourth century. This feast, held on January 6, celebrated both the baptism and birth of Christ. This date is connected with a pagan water festival in Alexandria in relation to the winter solstice, the time of year when the sun is farthest south of the equator, thus marking the time when the days begin to get longer. We also know that some Gnostics in Alexandria kept January 6 as the date of Christ’s baptism as early as the second century. The Gnostics were adoptionists, therefore believing that Christ’s baptism was also the divine birth of the Redeemer. In any case, January 6, was widely observed by the orthodox in the East as the birth and baptism of Jesus.
About the same time in the fourth century, the Nativity festival was celebrated on December 25 in the West. There are two ideas which would account for Christ’s birth being celebrated on December 25. The date was partly determined by the idea that the birth of the world took place on the vernal equinox (March 25). Its new birth in Christ would also be at the same moment. This date (March 25) would correspond to the conception by the Virgin Mary and therefore the actual birth of Christ would be nine months later, on December 25.
A more likely idea is that the date was influenced by a series of heathen festivals kept in Rome in the month of December. These heathen festivals – the Saturnalia, Sigillaria, Juvenalia and Brumalia (or Sol Invictus) commemorated universal freedom and the unconquered sun and were great holidays especially for slaves and children. The Sol Invictus celebrated the victory of light over darkness and the lengthening of the sun’s rays at the winter solstice. For the church, there was symbolical importance in the relation between the feast of the birth of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, the Light of the world and the festival of the unconquered sun, which on December 25 (after sinter solstice) breaks the growing power of darkness and sheds light anew.
The gift-giving we associate with Christmas has its origin in connection with similar customs practiced at the Roman Saturnalia. Saturnalia was the feast of Saturn, when all labor ceased, prisoners and slaves were freed and all people rejoiced. At the end of the Saturnalia was a feast called Sigillaria, when miniature images of the gods, wax tapers and all sorts of gifts were given to children and relatives, and trees were erected.
The two celebrations of Epiphany and Christmas arose independently of each other, the one in the East, the other in the West, but eventually both parts of the church adopted each others celebration. Christmas became the feast of the Nativity, while Epiphany represented in the East the baptism of Christ and in the West the quest of the Magi.
And now just a thought to contemplate during the coming holiday season: Will knowing that our present-day Christmas is the transformation of heathen festivals and that the gift-giving custom had its origin in the honor of a heathen god, draw our attention away from gifts and trees and toward the Sun of Righteousness, the Light of the World, our Savior?