|Note. This is superseded by some follow-up pieces: on Yule (2018), on the nativity stories in the gospels (2020), more on Yule (2021), a four-part series on ‘the dates of Jesus’ (2021), on the construction of the Julian calendar (2022), and on the origins of Santa (2022). The later pieces also correct a few errors made here (notably: there is no reason to reject the 25 December date found in Hippolytus as spurious; and the date of the solstice in the Julian calendar isn’t quite as straightforward as I thought).
The tradition of Christmas was set up to replace pagan worship of the winter solstice. Just as Easter was set up to replace pagan worship of the spring equinox (the actual holidays/festivals were most likely yule and eostre/eostara)Here’s the long explanation from two years ago. Today we’re just doing an abbreviated version. There’s one update: I’ve now managed to track down an obscure and spurious source relating to Pope Julius I.
-- social media (does it really matter where?), 9 Dec. 2017
- Christmas isn’t based on Yule, and Easter isn’t based on Eostre. Yule and Eostre both appear in the historical record for the first time in the 8th century CE writer Bede. Christmas was being celebrated at least 400 years earlier (by 354 CE at the latest: see below), and Easter 200 years before that (in the time of Pope Anicetus in the 100s CE).
- Christmas didn’t replace any Roman holiday, and it wasn’t adapted from one. Saturnalia continued to be celebrated, by Christians, alongside Christmas, for at least a century and probably a lot longer. Brumalia survived longer still. The festival of Sol Invictus on 25 December was confined to a single city (Rome), and it isn’t attested any earlier than Christmas anyway. One source dating to 400 CE explicitly contrasts Christmas with the secular New Year festival. And as for Mithraism, all of its purported similarities with Christianity are fictional and were mostly made up in the 1990s.
- None of the modern trappings of Christmas can be linked to any Roman festival. Father Christmas seems to originate in a blend of St Nicholas (a Christian saint) and the Christkind, which Luther attached to Christmas in the 1500s in order to discourage the Catholic cult of St Nicholas and his feast day on 6 December. Decorated fir trees are first known in the 1600s. Advent wreaths apparently originate in colonial North America, Advent calendars in 19th century Germany, Christmas cards in 19th century England, and Santa’s flying reindeer in 19th century America. (If you really want to link the 19th century reindeer to the Wild Hunt, or to Cernunnos, you’d better dig up some pretty solid evidence...)
|Les Saturnales by Antoine-François Callet (1783): nothing to do with Christmas
- The 25 December date for Christmas wasn’t based on Saturnalia (that’s 17 December), it wasn’t reported by Hippolytus of Rome in the early 200s CE (that’s a mediaeval interpolation), and it wasn’t determined by the Council of Nicaea in 325 (that’s Easter). It’s possible that it was discussed in a letter supposedly written from Cyril of Jerusalem to Pope Julius I around 349-354 CE, but the only evidence is a very suspicious-looking quotation in a 9th century letter attributed to John of Nicaea: no one really believes that the quotation is authentic (link 1 [see under ‘Z.’]; link 2). The earliest unequivocal evidence for the 25 December date is a catalogue of Christian martyrs’ feast days dating to 354 CE.
- That doesn’t mean the date was first decided in 354. We know that Christian thinkers had been linking the date of Jesus’ death (Easter) to his conception, nine months before his birth, all the way back in the late 100s CE; and we know that earlier still, in the mid-100s, there was a dispute over the best way to relate Passover (in the Hebrew lunar calendar) to Easter (in the Roman solar calendar). The ‘classical’ canonical date for Easter and the Creation was 25 March. We can’t be absolutely certain that Jesus’ birth was already being observed on 25 December at that time, but we can be confident in tracing the origins of the observance, at least, to the time of the Quartodeciman controversy in the 2nd century.
- Christmas and the solstice are linked -- indirectly. 25 December isn’t the date of the solstice nowadays, but it was as far as 1st century CE Roman writers were concerned (Columella De re rustica 9.14.12; Pliny Natural history 18.221). Even at that time they were wrong, because the Julian calendar gradually drifts out of synch with the seasons, slowly but constantly. Nonetheless, 25 December was the traditional date, probably because of astronomical records going back to the 4th-3rd centuries BCE: it’s likely that the Julian calendar was designed based on older records from that period. Be that as it may, the solstice isn’t the reason for the date of Christmas: the date of Easter is. (See above.)
- Note that even though Easter was originally linked to the equinox, and Christmas to the solstice, that doesn’t mean that either of them is based on a pagan solstice/equinox festival. There weren’t any Roman solstice festivals, that we know of -- not until Christmas came along. Contrary to popular belief, ancient religions only occasionally took any interest in solstices. Then as now, it was mainly astronomers that found solstices interesting. (There was another solstice festival, Brumalia, but it’s late. It may well have arisen as a pagan counterpart to Christmas, rather than the other way round: it’s first attested in Tertullian, and it was never very important.)