TW Viewpoint | Where Do Christmas Traditions Come From?December 10, 2021 | Stuart Wachowicz
Tradition has the power to make common those things which, upon even a little contemplation, are peculiar or outright bizarre. Practices that seem to have nothing to do with the event at hand can be considered essential elements. What do decorated evergreens, mistletoe, and fat men in red suits have anything to do with the stated purpose of Christmas—celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ? If that is the goal: then Christmas traditions are wrong. Where do these Christmas traditions come from?
Imagine yourself as a citizen of Rome in the third century. Waking excitedly on a cold winter day in late December, your house is decorated, special candles are ready to be lit and gifts are ready to be given—and received. Your plans for the day include going door to door singing and a lavish feast. As is normal for this season, the festivities have already been going for a week, but we've reached the pinnacle, the day celebrating the birth of the sun. The Son of God, Jesus, the one called the Christ? No…never heard of him. Wait a moment, was He the one that was crucified and supposedly rose three days later? No, His followers want nothing to do with what's going on today—we're celebrating dies natalis solis invicti, the birth of the unconquered sun.
December 25th holds a special place on the calendar, very close to the winter solstice, the time when nights were the longest and the sun finally began to remain visible for longer in the day. Many ancient religions observed this as a special time as they knew their lives depended on the return of warmer weather. The connection between the winter solstice and a date chosen as the birth of the sun is obvious. To understand the true history of Christmas, it is important to note that many of these ancient observances merged together in the cultural melting pot of ancient Rome. Dies natalis solis invicti and Saturnalia are among the most prominent.
Writing for History today, Matt Salusbury describes the similarities between Saturnalia and current Christmas traditions:
It was a public holiday celebrated around December 25th in the family home. A time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. But it wasn’t Christmas. This was Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival. (Matt Salusbury, "Did the Romans Invent Christmas?" HistoryToday.com, Dec. 2009)
The encyclopedia Britannica confirms that there is no date specified in the biblical account of Christ's birth [in fact, the biblical account would place His birth in the early fall], but that decision to celebrate it on December 25th was likely borrowed from Roman festivals:
The precise origin of assigning December 25 as the birth date of Jesus is unclear. The New Testament provides no clues in this regard. December 25 was first identified as the date of Jesus' birth by Sextus Julius Africanus in 221 and later became the universally accepted date. One widespread explanation of the origin of this date is that December 25 was the Christianizing of the dies solis invicti nati ("day of the birth of the unconquered sun"), a popular holiday in the Roman Empire that celebrated the winter solstice as a symbol of the resurgence of the sun, the casting away of winter and the heralding of the rebirth of spring and summer. Indeed, after December 25 had become widely accepted as the date of Jesus' birth, Christian writers frequently made the connection between the rebirth of the sun and the birth of the Son. ("Christmas," Britannica.com, updated Oct. 25, 2021)
One doesn't need to review the biblical account too closely to recognize that decorated trees, special candles, mistletoe, and even the date of December 25th are no where to be found. These seem to be peculiar ways to celebrate the birth of the Son of God, and so they are, because they were borrowed from earlier observances. Will Durant summarized how Christianity, especially in the 3rd and 4th centuries rose in popularity, becoming the dominant religion of the empire.
"Christianity did not destroy paganism, it adopted it." (Will Durant, "The Story of Civilization")
This is particularly evident in the modern festival of Christmas. If you'd like to delve deeper into comparing the history of the traditions of Christmas with the biblical account, be sure to click the link in the description and watch our full length telecast titled: "Questioning Christmas". For more on the role played by Constantine in merging pagan traditions with Christian ideas, a link to our Viewpoint: "Constantine and Christianity" can also be found in the description.