In Search of Christmas
Imagine a purer, less commercial, more spiritual Christmas. But don't call it history
Matter of conjecture. Exactly when the church began celebrating Christmas, however, is unclear. The first mention of a Nativity feast, scholars say, appears in the Philocalian calendar, a Roman document from A.D. 354, which lists December 25 as the day of Jesus's birth in Bethlehem of Judea. How the church arrived at December 25, when the actual date of Christ's birth was unknown, is a matter of conjecture.
Most widely held is the view that the holiday was an intentional "Christianization" of Saturnalia and other pagan festivals. In the third and fourth centuries, the church in Rome found itself in fierce competition with popular pagan religions and mystery cults, most of them involving sun worship. From the middle of December through the first of January, Romans would engage in feasts and drunken revelry, paying homage to their gods and marking the winter solstice, when days began to lengthen. In A.D. 274, Emperor Aurelian decreed December 25--the solstice on the Julian calendar--as natalis solis invicti ("birth of the invincible sun"), a festival honoring the sun god Mithras. In designating December 25 as the date for their Nativity feast, says Restad of the University of Texas, Rome's Christians challenged paganism directly." They also were able to invoke rich biblical symbolism that described Jesus as the "Sun of Righteousness" and God's "true light," sent to dispel darkness in the world.
A second view suggests that church leaders arrived at the December 25 date based on the belief, inherited from ancient Judaism, that significant religious figures are born and die on the same day of the month. One prominent church tradition of the time held that Jesus died on March 25--the same date as his conception, according to the tradition. Were that the case, he would have been born nine months later, on December 25.
Whatever their reasons, by assigning Christmas to late December, when people already were accustomed to celebrating, church leaders ensured widespread observance of the Savior's birth. But in doing so, says Nissenbaum, the church also "tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been." As one historian put it: "The pagan Romans became Christians--but the Saturnalia remained."
Not surprisingly, the combination of the sacred and the profane made some church leaders uncomfortable. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth-century theologian and bishop of Constantinople, cautioned against "feasting to excess, dancing and crowning the doors" and urged celebration of the Nativity "after an heavenly and not after an earthly manner." But while there were always people for whom Christmas was a time of reverence rather than revelry, says Nissenbaum, "such people were in the minority." Christmas, he says, "has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize."
The custom of honoring Jesus's birth on December 25 quickly spread to the Eastern Church, which at one time observed Epiphany, January 6, as a joint feast of the Nativity and the baptism of Jesus. Over the next 1,000 years, Christmas observance followed the expanding church from Egypt to northern Europe. In Scandinavia, it became entwined with a pagan midwinter feast known as yule. And by 1050, the words Christes maesse ("festival of Christ") had entered the English language. "From the 13th century on," notes Restad, "nearly all Europe kept Jesus's birth."