The Origin of Christmas

In doing an essay recently, I came across a few mentions on how the date for Chrismas was chosen by early Church scholars. An excerpt from my essay:

All that I came across had direct references to the holy day in Mithraism being the date that was borrowed for Christma, but in all the recent Halloween/Pagan holiday threads, Christmas has been associated with the Celtic Winter Solstice (unless people were referring to a different winter solstice).

So which one is it?

(background note: Mithraism was a monotheistic-ish religion in the Roman empire, it’s origins (probably) out of Persia and Zoroastrianism)

Isn’t it amazing how all of the Christian holidays mirror a pagan holiday?

They did it to draw the people to them.

This is an utter WAG, but couldn’t they both be right? Say, the date was chosen to associate with Mithra, maybe, but a lot of the customs we now associate with the holiday might come from the Celtic customs?

Oh, the customs I have no idea about. I’m talking pure date-wise here. Do you think that’s what they meant about the Celtic holiday? I thought most of the way we celebrate Christmas was a pretty recent invention.

And Reeder, while I do think that’s one reason, I’m also going to give the people credit for sincerely believing that those days were holy days. I don’t think the date was necessarily chosen to associate Christ with Mithra, more that that day was when the sun conquered, Christ was born the day the Sun was born (or something).

I seem to remember, and I’m afraid I don’t have any cite or back up for this, that there had been records found that A Joseph of Arimathea (or wherever he was from (I’m not religious, and my study of religions dates back to secondary school!) produced a child named Jesus for registration during the reign of Herod. This was dated to sometime in June or July. Now if this was true (and despite my atheist beliefs, I do not deny the existence of Jesus, just that he was the son of God), it would seem to be a cynical ploy to try and stamp out the pagan winter festival by moving his birth date to December.

(Anyone have any citeable evidence of the dates I just mentioned? I would be grateful if anyone could convince me I’m not just making this up!)

Another factor to consider is the fact that we have had many different forms of calendar since the alleged birth of Christ, and only settled on the current form a few hundred years ago. Could the date not have been confused at some stage?

Lots of religions have holidays around solstice or equinox. Both the Romans and the Celts found these times to be magical.

Because Christmas was in place prior to the Celts being an influence, the date for Christmas probably had more to do with the Roman holidays than the Celtic ones (I believe there were older Roman holidays associated with Solstice that predated Mithra, Mithraism just picked up on those). However, many of our Christmas traditions are a hodgepodge of pre-Christian religions, including those of the Celts. Mistletoe, Christmas trees, and Yule logs to name a few.

There is no reliable information on Jesus’s birth outside the gospels, so either you are misremembering, or it is a late forgery.

Early Church Fathers explain the choice of Mithras’s birthday for Xmas as an attempt to convert the pagans from their evil ways. One suspects that it was more in the nature of a compromise: “OK, you can have a party, but let’s call it a party for Jesus now, alright?”

Fair enough FriendRob, I stand corrected. Still reckon it probably was a cynical ploy tho, otherwise it would be one hell of a coincidence.
“You mean you have YOUR festival today too? Well, isn’t that interesting? Now stop dancing around a fire naked, get some clothes on like a decent human being and start giving presents to our kid, the baby Jesus, damn you!!”

Did they really? Will you be offended if I ask for a cite? I find that so outrageous.

It’s true. The Romans actually had <i>several</i> gods who Christmas was holy for – I mean, much bigger than the Mithraic cult was Saturnalia. And it was sacred to the Celts, and the Norse (who gave us the word Yule).

The simple explanation is that so much of life was dependant on the Sun, which seemed to be slowly disappearing. On the Winter Solstice, the sun hits its lowest point, then starts to return. It’s a sort of rebirth, and it’s not too hard to link those traditions to Christian resurrection.

Mithra may have been the reason for its official incorporation into Christianity, though. St. Augustine was a Mithraic before his conversion, and brought some ideas along with him. I once read that there was a shrine to Mithra where the Vatican is now, but my source on this last point is not particularly reliable.

Righto. Since a lot of our holidays are carried from agricultural societies, the winter was a far less active time. Dark and cold, sitting inside and waiting for spring and planting; a party to mark the halfway point probably seemed like a good idea, regardless of which God(s) were in charge. Combining the celebrations as traditions and populations merged makes sense, and makes it pretty hard to give a definitive origin.

From the searches I ran, it looks like each religion claims to have been first. If I find anything that seems to be unbiased and scholarly, I’ll come back and post it for your perusal.

You might also wish to wade through the Catholic Encyclopedia entry for “Christmas”

About half way down the page, there is a brief discussion of other festivals that take place on or around the winter soltace. The conclusion reads:

Surely, the whole point is that it SHOULD have been Christ’s birthday – isn’t the fact that it was arbitrarily set (for whatever reason) a little but suspicious anyway? Surely, if the guy DID exist, someone and sometime knew when he was born

We don’t have data on when lots of historical figures were born. Eleanor of Aquitaine springs to mind as an immediate example.

Even today, I have a friend who knows he was born “around 1971.” Just because there isn’t anyone around who knows when doesn’t negate his existance. His circumstances are unusual for today, but it actually isn’t that uncommon for parents who adopt internationally to only have a best guess birthdate for their child.

Lack of information neither proves nor disproves anything in this case. In fact, if someone were to show up with the birth certificate of one “Jesus of Nazareth” it would be a very suspect document - even if they’d shown up with it in 152 AD.

Sorry, you may have got the wrong end of the stick, or perhaps I didn’t explain myself too well. I wasn’t trying to make an argument for the existence or otherwise of Jesus with reference to proof of his birth. The reason I highlighted ‘DID exist’ is because I am an atheist, and while I believe that A Jesus may have existed who was a very special man, I do not believe he was the Son of God. The point I was trying to make was that no matter what the reason for placing the date of Chritmas, we celebrate as Jesus’ birthdate and as we don’t know when that really was, any placement of his birthday is going to be arbitrary and therefore likely to be put to very cynical uses, such as have been suggested, stamping out pagan festivals etc. Any clearer?

This woman came to our church last night. She’s from Shofar Ministries and told us that Chrsitmas was co-opted by the folks who celebrated Saturnalia.
Most people believe that Jesus was really born in September for many reasons.
So if He was…then He was conceived around Christmas!

Much clearer. I’m on the same page with you on the Jesus thing btw (I’m a Deist). Probably existed, but not a provable proposition at this point in time (references to Josephus notwithstanding), but existed or not is kind of a moot point in my mind. I just got from your statement “if we don’t even know when he was born, he can’t possible have existed”…which doesn’t follow, but wasn’t what you were trying to say. (And yet, dumber logic has come up around here, I’m even probably guilty of it once or twice).

Also, it’s a persistent myth that the custom of exchanging gifts on Xmas was inspired by the gifts of the Magi to the baby Jesus, when in fact it was part of the Roman Saturnalia celebration. St. Nicholas’ gift-giving reinforced the idea a bit. Also, I believe a Norse god (Thor or Odin?) flew through the sky on a sled bringing gifts.

Yes, there was a high priest of Mithraism in Rome, but I’m not sure about the Vatican.

I guess the winter solstice explanation is good, but isn’t the solstice on Dec. 21, not 25?

Oh, and finally: the “magi” were interpreted (by the people who wrote the books I read for this project) as Mithraic or Zoroastrian holy men. So it all ties in…

sqweels wrote:

Maybe so, but he never got his picture on a Coca-Cola billboard!