Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th?
For the answer, let’s take a step back in history…
In early Christianity, from Jesus’ lifetime and up until 300 years later, there didn’t exist a Christian holiday celebrating Jesus’ birth. It was only around 336 AD that the church officials decided to make Jesus’ birthday a Christian holiday.
What day to choose to celebrate Jesus’ birth? The logical choice would be his birthday surely! However, much to church officials’ frustration, The Bible doesn’t state Jesus’ birthday. Text talking of shepherds being hard at work around his nativity suggests it’s likely to have occurred in the Spring time.
Not knowing Jesus’ exact birthday allowed some leeway in allocating the day of his nativity celebration. After careful deliberation, Pope Julius, under the supervision of Emperor Aurelian, named the 25th of December the day on which Jesus’ birth would be celebrated.
So now we get to the why!
Why did they choose December 25th?
At this time of Early Christianity, the Roman era was still strong. As part of Roman tradition, the later part of December was already rife with holidays and celebrations. It was the time of the winter solstice festival of Saturnalia (December 17th-23rd), and it was also the birthdays of Roman sun god, Mithras, and his side-kick Sol Invictus (both celebrated on December 25th).
By allocating Jesus’ nativity celebration on a day that was already celebrated by Romans, it made the transition of the object of celebration easier. Initially, Christmas was called “The Feast of Nativity”, celebrating both the birth of Mithras and Jesus.
There are many parallels of Mithras’ life and Jesus’ which made this decision appropriate. For example, like Jesus, Mithras was also born in extraordinary circumstances, and like Jesus, Mithras the Sun god was also worshipped on SUNdays. The stories behind both Jesus and Mithras are also quite similar. Mithras’ role was seen to save humanity from evil: he was the god of light, seeking to bring righteousness against dark forces.
The Winter Solstice period of Saturnalia which preceded Mithras’ birthday, celebrated the agriculture god, Saturn, because this time of year represented the rebirth of nature: A time when the worst of the winter is over, and new life can soon begin to grow. This also made this time of year appropriate for celebrating Jesus’ resurrected life.
To this day we have retained some traditions left over from Saturnalia and Mithras bithday in our Christmas celebrations.
For example, it is likely that the evergreen decorations like the wreaths and fir trees we put up at Christmas are remnants of the Saturnalia tradition of decorating the house with evergreen leaves. The Romans even decorated their trees, only they used “sigillaria”, tiny ceramic dolls, which they tied to the branches of pine trees.
The obligatory break from work, feasting, merry-making and gift-giving may well also be leftover traditions from Saturnalia.
Even Santa’s and Santa’s elves’ pointy hats may well have been inspired by the pileus hats worn by Romans on Saturnalia.
So next time you’re writing your Christmas cards and writing “Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!” perhaps you can also add “Happy Saturnalia and Mithras’ day!”
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I was trilled to read the historical part bringing the celebration of Christ to be on December 25th!
Thank you very much for your kind words!
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I hope you are having a wonderful holiday period
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