Part 1 of 2
Most church historians have said that although December 25 is the official birth date for Jesus, most believe he was born in March. So why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25?
Because of Mithras. Mithraism spread across Asia Minor from Persia and became very popular with the Roman army. The Roman army was made up of conquered peoples, many of whom worshiped Mithras. He was a sun god; one of his main celebration dates was December 25, to ensure that the sun would be reborn to bring warmth to the world again in the spring and summer. When Christianity was just starting, Mithraism was one of its main rivals. So the church changed the date of the celebration of Jesus’ birth to December 25.
The other main rival for Christmas was the Roman celebration of Saturnalia. This farming festival included feasting, giving gifts to family and sharing food with the poor lasted a whole week, ending on December 25. The Romans drank to excess and ate to excess, which is what many do today. The early Church considered these celebrations unseemly, so they made giving gifts and food to the poor part of the Christmas festival.
Christmas was a solemn and reflective holy day (holiday) for several centuries for Christians – Christmas was originally Christ’s Mass, a special service. But the pagan celebrations persisted for so long that the Church adopted them, hoping that the pagans would become Christian.
The way we celebrate Christmas now generally originated in the Middle Ages, mostly from England. The decorations, carols, food, cards and gift giving were brought to the United States from England, Holland and Germany. Santa Claus was originally Saint Nicolas, which in Dutch became Sinter Claus, which became Santa Claus. In Holland, Belgium and Italy, children are left presents in their shoes on December 6, which is St. Nicholas’ Day. The Santa Claus we all know and are used to was created by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly, and first appeared in 1863!
Did you know Christmas was outlawed in the Puritan community of Plymouth. The Puritans associated all the celebrating and carousing with paganism. By the 1870s, Christmas gradually began to become more like what we know now. In the Jamestown Colony, in Virginia, Christmas was celebrated riotously, almost like it was in England.
Fun facts about our Christmas traditions coming in Part II!!
- Christmas curiosities: old, dark and forgotten Christmas by John Grossman, c 2007