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The Historical Roots of Christmas


At the time of Constantine (313 AD), more and more new cults appeared within the Christian Church. Many of these cults’ celebrations – like Christmas itself – had been unknown to the Christians. 

Based on the sources, we can be absolutely certain that the Christians did not celebrate Christmas anywhere until the 3rd century, and it became more widespread only in the 4th century. On the other hand, under a different name this festivity was not unknown among the believers of some pagan cults a couple of centuries earlier. 

Franz Cumon writes about this the following way: “In general the festivity demanded that 25th December, the birthday of the new Sun should be celebrated when the days start to become longer after the winter solstice and the ‘unconquerable star’ defeats darkness again.” (Astrology and Religion Among Greeks and Romans, 1960, page 89.) Some of mankind – obviously depending on the geographical position –  did observe thousands of years before Christ’s incarnation that towards the end of the year there is a small change in the portion of day and night. The sun that kept losing its power began getting stronger again at last, so as to revive dying nature. This is how the sun cult developed among several people, the early variant of which leads us to ancient Egypt, before it shifted to the Middle East, too. The legend of Osiris-Iris-Horus grew to become such a mystery religion that, after being transmitted to Rome, it had a strong influence on crowds of people even at the time of Christianity. The prominent professor of history demands : “The lengthening of the day starting at the winter solstice was considered to be the birth of the Sun. The Syrian (Emesa) Helios day was held on 25th December, that is when it was first possible to sense the lengthening of daylight. In Alexandria they also held the festivity of Isis, called the Kikillia on 25th December. These pagan solstice festivities are undoubtedly the antecedents of Christmas.” (The History of Chronology, Gondolat publisher,  Budapest, 1960, page 62.) 

We have long known that the first day of the visibly growing amount of light was the day of the festivity of the birth of the Sun God in several cultures. And as this phenomenon can always be observed at the same time of the year, it very soon got a fixed place in the ancient calendars. In Europe, rather in parallel with the rapid growth of the Roman Empire, appeared the Eastern type of Sun cult in the 1st century BC. 

However, it was not unknown before that either. In Greek culture the Sun god was Helios while the Romans had Sol. However, their role was so insignificant for a long time that they could never become any of the Chief Gods of the Olympus. When the Empire reached the territory of Persia in the East, it occupied its religious cults as well, out of which the heliolithic cult was the strongest and most effective one. This soon made an inseparable unit with the western pair of Helios-Sol, creating the belief of Sol-Invictus (Unconquerable Sun God). 

Emperor Aurelianus raised Sol-Invictus to the rank of Empire Religion, or State Religion, but in reality it was already the religion followed by most people of the Roman Empire. This happened while the Christian persecution was still going on. 

The noted historian of religion, Frazer, refers clearly to the sharp fight going on between the two belief systems for quite a while: “The religion of Mithras proved undoubtedly to be a scary opponent of Christianity as it united in itself the solemn liturgy and the hope for immortality. The outcome of the competition between the two religions did seem doubtful for some time. Our Christmas is the didactic memory of this long struggle that the church clearly took directly from its pagan opponent.” (J.G. Frazer: The Golden Branch, Gondolat, Budapest, 1965. page 209.)

The real question of course is when and how the church could do this. First of all we need to state that we do not have either biblical data or from any other source regarding Jesus’ birthday. Actually, we cannot even define the year of his birth (approx. 7-5 BC) let alone its month or day. Most historians of religion and church completely agree that we are groping in the dark in respect of Jesus’ birthday. The level of uncertainty is too high to claim that Jesus was born exactly on that day at the end of December.

The Christians of the age of the Apostles, in other words the Early Church (1st century), did not attach any significance to the day when Jesus was born, hence it did not try to discover when it was. However, in the 2nd century, mainly in Rome and its suburbs, as a result of the anti-Judaic tendencies, more and more people started to celebrate Sunday (originally the Day of the Sun) in parallel with Saturday, on which Christ resurrected. According to the biblical revelations, Christ is the “light of the world” for the Christians just like the illuminating planet, the Sun is in the eye of the believers of pagan cults. However, finding the ideological parallel between the two festivities – that is, Christ resurrected on Sunday adjusting to the function of the Sun and was born on 25th December – still took a long time. Based on the sources we can say that eastern Christianity did not celebrate Christmas before the 4th century. At the time of the first universal Synod (Nicea 325) the question of celebrating Jesus’ birthday was the center of attention. But this did not automatically mean a consensus. Albert Luscher quotes Chrisostomus, a father of the church, who wrote this in 380 AD, the year Christianity became the state religion: “It’s been less than 10 years since we found out about this day more deeply. ” (Albert Luscher: Babilon, Christmas, Easter, Pfluverlag, 1991, page 18.)

However, among western (Roman) Christianity, Christmas was known about for quite a while by this time. Rome is the place where we need to search for the practice of celebrating Sundays and also from where the Christmas tradition was taken by eastern Christianity. The sources show us that the first place December 25th is marked as Jesus’ birthday is the Daniel commentary written by Hippolytus in 202. Of course this did not mean the immediate recognition of the Church here, either. 

Actually we can only find the first signs of western Christianity celebrating Christmas in the so-called Philokalanius calendar that was published in 354. So the eastern Christians ultimately agreed that the Church must celebrate Jesus’ birthday but they sharply protested against it being in December and at the same time arguing that 6th January is the right date. The reason was that the Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Jerusalemian Christians rigidly insisted on their view, according to which Jesus’ birth and christening took place on the same day in January. They accused their western brothers of being idolatrous and heliolithic, as according to them they combined the Lord’s birthday with the most different pagan festivities such as the brumalies and the saturnalies. To be correct we naturally need to remark that it is just as impossible to raise historical arguments for the date in January as for the date in December – the only difference is that the January one does not have a solar aspect.

The question is how the Catholic Church relates to Christmas today, and in what way this festivity, that was not Christian originally, gained public awareness both at a theoretical and a practical level. 

Well, the solution is not that complicated. From a theoretical point of view nothing more happened than changing an ancient pagan festivity to a Christian one (adopting it into Christianity). The Church did profess and professes today as well that there is no order or even just a note in the Bible referring to having or not having Christmas in our lives. On the other hand this was the Church’s way of weakening the pagan cults by taking their biggest festivity, and giving a new meaning to it. A less powerful argument of theirs was that although we do not know the specific day of Jesus’ birthday, this in itself does not exclude the possibility of it being at the end of December. 

Regarding the practical transmissions, the situation is even more simple as Christmas got into the liturgy at the level of commemoration and thanksgiving, but this did not leave any sign in the externalities for a long time. The first manger of Bethlehem was built in the 13th century, whilst setting up the first modern Christmas tree took place only in the 16th century. Interestingly enough this latter one started to  take root in Protestant circles at the beginning. It became more widespread only from the 19th century. 

Tonhaizer Tibor holds a PhD in church history from the University of Debrecen, Hungary, and is the vice rector and leader of the church history department at the Hungarian Adventist Theological College in Pecel, Hungary.

Image: The Examination and Trial of Father Christmas, (1686), published shortly after Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in England.


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