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Science Santa History: The Pagan Origins of Christmas

Every year, billions of people all around the world celebrate Christmas — but most of them don’t really know how it started. Most people think it’s a Christian celebration but that’s not exactly the truth.

The history of Christmas is a bit more complicated — and very interesting.

Christmas, Christ, and Christianity – when was Jesus born?

Via Wiki Commons.

For most people, Christmas is a holiday deeply rooted in Christianity – but is that really the case? It’s been celebrated for more than two millennia, so it’s pretty safe to assume that the holiday we celebrate today is a mixture of different cultures and religions.

The earliest history of Christmas is composed of “pagan” (non-Christian) fertility rites and practices which predate Jesus by centuries. Most of the traditions we associate with Christmas are actually not Christian at all, including decorating Christmas trees, singing Christmas carols, and giving Christmas gifts.

So then, is Christmas not when Jesus was born? The answer is probably ‘yes’. The New Testament gives no date or year for the birth of Jesus, and the first year was determined by Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk, “abbot of a Roman monastery”. In the Roman, pre-Christian era, years were counted from ab urbe condita (“the founding of the City”). Thus 1 AUC signifies the year Rome was founded, 10 AUC signifies the 10th year after Rome was founded and so on. Rome was founded in 753 BC, so what we consider today as year 0 would be year 753 AUC. But Dionysius Exiguus, basing his calculations on Roman history, estimates that Jesus was born in 754 AUC. However, Luke 1:5 places Jesus’ birth in the days of Herod, and Herod died in 750 AUC – four years before the year in which Dionysius places Jesus birth. Pretty much anyway you take it, it seems very unlikely that Jesus was born in what we consider year 0.

Joseph A. Fitzmyer – Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America, member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission supports this idea:

“Though the year [of Jesus birth is not reckoned with certainty, the birth did not occur in AD 1. The Christian era, supposed to have its starting point in the year of Jesus birth, is based on a miscalculation introduced ca. 533 by Dionysius Exiguus.”

So what about the date? Irenaeus (c. 130–202) viewed Christ’s conception as March 25 in association with the Passion, with the nativity nine months after on December 25. The Bible doesn’t speak about the date, but the references in the Bible show it most likely did not take place in winter. Rather it is because this was the date that the Romans historically celebrated the winter solstice.

Romans and Christmas

The Saturnalia. Image Source.

Romans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, which was basically a week long lawless celebration, taking place between December 17-25. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. The things that happened during the Saturnalia were almost unspeakable – we won’t go into that here, but they often included violence, rape, and even human sacrifice.

Another interesting tradition was the pagan custom called wassailing, or singing from door to door. While the wealthy feasted and … did their thing, the poorer people gathered and sang from door to door, with people often giving them food and (albeit more rarely) drink. This is almost certainly the origin of caroling, and there are occasional mentions of this tradition all throughout the middle ages. It was also a common habit for people to gather in groups and sing naked in the streets – really, these are the precursors of caroling.

As the first few centuries of the “AD” era passed, Christians wanted to attract more pagans into their religions, so they somehow attempted to incorporate Saturnalia into Christianity; the only problem was that it had absolutely nothing Christian in it, so they simply adopted its ending date (25th of December). Because the Saturnalia was the central holiday in ancient Rome, they had to make the date important as well, so they made it the birth of Jesus. It was a rather clever political trick, which lured some into the new religion, while leaving the rest do the same things undisturbed.

Stephen Nissenbaum, professor history at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, writes:

“In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.”

So there you have it, it’s very likely that both the date and the year aren’t actually representative for the birth of Jesus.

Romans and Christians

The early Christians learned a lot from the Romans. Despite what most people today think, the Romans didn’t really invent much – they just learned, adapted and incorporated. Early Christians tried to do the same, and they did it pretty smartly. They wanted to attract as many people as possible, but at the same time, they realized that the people weren’t giving up on the things they’ve been doing for generations and generations. So instead, they tried to incorporate all these pagan traditions and make them a part of Christianity.

The best example for this is the one with the Saturnalia – but that’s nowhere near the only case. Just as early Christians recruited Roman pagans by associating Christmas with the Saturnalia, so too worshippers of the Asheira cult and its offshoots were recruited by the Church sanctioning “Christmas Trees” – but that’s a matter for a different article.