If you live in North America as I do, you already know about Christmas on December 25 and winter solstice on December 21. Let’s start with winter and how Christmas wound up on December 25.
To understand how this all came together, we need to revisit our understanding of time. Our earliest measurements of time were based on the phases of the moon. As a reminder, the moon orbits the earth every 29 days and its light is provided by the sun reflecting off of its surface. For early people, this was a visible and predictable way to measure the passage of time. Seasons were another way to measure the passage of time. Our earliest calendars used these to create a year.
However, that was rather imprecise since 12 months x 29 days =348 and the earth takes 356 ¼ days to orbit the sun.
Over time in the western world, the Roman calendar and then the Julian calendar revised the lunar-based calendars to accommodate for this, but still fell short. Winter solstice on the calendar we use today falls on December 21. However, on the calendars used in earlier times, there was a bit more wiggle and December 25 was the date for the winter solstice.
In early times, many celebrations were held mid-late winter. Here are some of the celebrations we know about:
Saturnalia celebrated the god of agriculture. 12/17-12/24. Records of this festival exist from 63 BCE until at least 14 CE. Shops closed, public banquets were held, gifts were exchanged, particularly candles, gambling, feasting and alcohol consumption were all part of the fun.
Mithras celebrated the birth of Mithras, the sun-god during the winter solstice. It was also called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, this celebration was the primary festival of the 3rd century, 200-300 CE.
Kalends was the name of the first of the month for the Romans. It was also,a secular New Year’s festival celebrated 1/1-1/5. Records of this festival exist from around 300 CE-1100 CE. It was common to decorate with greenery such as wreaths and garlands, eat, drink, exchange small gifts. A spirit of generosity permeated the celebration. As these traditions evolved, role reversals were added to the festivities and often masters served their slaves. There were also gender role reversals and men dressed as women.
Saturnalia, Mithras and Kalends were not in line with the behavior practices encouraged by the early church. Far too irreverent and jovial. And yet, the celebrations were so wide-spread and enjoyed that they followed to adage, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!
Around 340 CE, Julius I, Bishop of Rome declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the same day as winter solstice, also a date of celebration for Mithras and other sun gods. (Biblical scholars have calculated that Jesus’ birth was likely April, May or September.) By this time, winter solstice had shifted in the calendar to December 25. By 354 CE, Christmas was included on the Roman calendar. The christian church discouraged the wilder aspects of the solstice celebrations and encouraged mass attendance and solemnity.
So, there you have it, how Jesus birth came to be celebrated on December 25. I would love to hear from you. Are the history bits I missed? How does your family celebrate?
Next up, what about Greenery, Wreaths and Trees?
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