The origins of Christmas
The reasons for yielding to the Saturnalia temptation are several. One is a legitimate wish to learn why the birthday of Christ should have come to be celebrated on December 25. After all, the New Testament gives no indication of when Christ was born, and Early Christian writers opt for various dates, reflecting the fact that different customs prevailed in different parts of the Empire. In addition to this natural curiosity, however, some advocates of the Saturnalia theory seem to want to “stick it to Christians” by uncovering the somewhat sordid origins of one of their major festivals.
What then was the Saturnalia? Saturnalia was the festival by which the Romans the commemorated the dedication of the temple of the god Saturn, a somewhat ambiguous figure who has given us the adjective “saturnine.” Originally celebrated for a day, on December 17, it grew it to week-long extravaganza, ending on the 23rd. Efforts to shorten the length of these festivities were unsuccessful. The emperor Augustus tried to reduce it to three days, and Caligula to five. If the available reports are to be believed, Saturnalia was marked by tomfoolery and reversal of social roles, in which slaves and masters switched places. Temporarily, slaves were exempt from punishment, and treated their masters with a pretense of disrespect. The slaves celebrated a banquet served by the masters. Yet the reversal of the social order was superficial, for the slaves had to do the work of actually preparing the banquet. Saturnalia was, or appeared to be, what sociologists call a “zone of licence.” Yet the license was confined within carefully defined boundaries: it reversed the social order without subverting it.
What can we conclude from the time of the festival’s observance, December 17 to 23? First, by advancing into December, it came to encompass the Winter Solstice. We customarily mark that event (after which the days become longer) on December 21. However, an astronomer of my acquaintance indicates that actual observation is somewhat less precise, and can range from December 20 to 23.
Note that even its expanded form, Saturnalia, ending on the 23rd, did not overlap Christmas as we currently observe it. Nor does that Christian festival fall within the range of dates for the Winter Solstice.
The real parallel is this. The observance on the 25th of December corresponds to the Roman feast of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. The exchanging of gifts was originally associated with January 6, Epiphany, when the visit of the Three Magi was commemorated; hence the traditional “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Of course no one knows even the season when Jesus was born, or the precise year. Various preferences for the day of the Nativity were found in different areas of the Roman empire. About 200 CE Clement of Alexandria that a group in Egypt celebrated the nativity on Paschon 25, corresponding to January 6, now observed as Epiphany, or Three King’s Day. Tertullian (d. 220) does not mention Christmas as a feast day in the church of Roman Africa. In his “Chronographia,” a compilation issued in 221, Sextus Julius Africanus suggested that Jesus was conceived on the Spring Equinox. The Equinox was March 25 on the Roman calendar, so this implied a birth in December. “De Pascha Computus,” a calendar of feasts produced in 243, gives March 28 as the date of the Nativity. Others rejected the whole principle. In 245 the theologian Origen of Alexandria stated that, "only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod" celebrated their birthdays. In 303 the Christian writer Arnobius ridiculed the idea of celebrating the birthdays of gods, suggesting that for some Christmas was not yet a feast at this time.
In view of this diversity, the success of December 25 was not preordained in any obvious way. Yet its coincidence with the Sol Invictus observance was probably the decisive factor, because of the concept of Christ as the "sun of righteousness" prophesied in Malachi 4:2. Indeed, in the eighteenth century, some secular scholars proposed that Christ himself had never lived, but was simply a personification of the solar principle. In the broadest sense, this connection goes back to Egypt of the Pharaohs. Not only was the sun worshipped there under various guises, Re or Ra, Re-Horakhte, Amun-Re, but the first monotheist, Akhenaten, devised the first form of monotheism based on the sun as supreme deity (the Aten)
To be sure, once the custom became established, many Christian writers accepted as a matter of course that Christmas was the actual date on which Jesus was born. However, in the early eighteenth century, some scholars began proposing alternative explanations. Isaac Newton seems to have been the first to argue, incorrectly, that the date of Christmas was selected to correspond with the winter solstice, However, in 1743 the German Protestant Paul Ernst Jablonski reached the correct solution: Christmas was placed on December 25 to correspond with the Roman solar holiday Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, and therefore represented a Christian purloining of a pagan custom.
The historical record indicates that in 274 CE, during the time of troubles in the Roman Empire, Aurelian stipulated December 25 as the date of the celebration of "Birth of the Unconquered Sun." Aurelian's empire seemed near collapse. As politicians so often find, when practical measures fail propaganda fills the gap. Accordingly, his festival proclaimed imperial and pagan rejuvenation. As we have noted, December 25 falls AFTER the range assigned to the Winter Solstice itself. Instead, it marks the confirmation of the period in which daylight begins to lengthen.
Recently, William Tighe, a Church historian at Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College, has proposed a different theory. Tighe acknowledges that the first hard evidence of Christmas occurring on December 25 is not found until 336 CE and that the date only became a fixed festival in Constantinople in 379. However, a reference occurs in the "Chronicle" written by Hippolytus of Rome three decades before Aurelian launched his festival. Hippolytus held that Jesus' birth "took place eight days before the kalends of January," that is, December 25. However, Aurelian did not make up his observance out of whole cloth. In fact, the title Sol Invictus embraced several established solar deities, allowing them to be honored collectively. These include Elah-Gabal, a Syrian sun god; the older Greek deities Helios and Apollo, and Mithras, a soldiers’ god of Persian origin. In his own way the eccentric emperor Elagabalus (218–222), who was a priest of Elah-Gabal, observed the festival. Aurelian merely confirmed it as an empire-wide holiday.
Tighe’s citation of Hippolytus seems a slender reed on which to hang a revisionist theory, as there is every reason to believe that December 25 would be significant for sun worshippers, but not, in the first instance, for Christians. As we have noted, sun worship had prevailed for millennia in the ancient Mediterranean. Consequently, the origins of Christmas illustrate one of the major sources of religion: reverence for cosmic forces, in this case the sun.