From decorated shopping malls, fancy street lights, to that huge tree dazzling under the night sky—a scene familiar to all of us when it comes to the end of the year. This holiday season is an epitome of merry-making. Exchanging of gifts is a “must-have”, not to mention that delicious turkey and log cake for dinner. The list goes on for this festive season.
Regardless of religion, it is a popular Christian festival that most people participate in. Widely celebrated as the “birthday of Jesus Christ”, it falls on 25 December. Ironically, none of the abovementioned can be found anywhere in the Bible. If so, where did all these traditions come from?
In this article, we will be unwrapping the truth behind everyone’s favourite holiday.
Was the Son of God born on 25 December?
The winter months in Bethlehem are from November to March, with some occasional light snow fall in December1). If Jesus was born on a December night, it must have been rather chilly and wintery. Let us take a look at the scene of His birth in the Bible.
Luke 2:8-11 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night …Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.
Out in the open fields, shepherds were seen herding their flocks… Wait a minute, do shepherds lead their sheep out when it was so cold? Did this scene of the Bible really take place on 25 December?
Hence, it is highly unlikely that 25 December is Jesus’ birthday. In actuality, the Bible has absolutely no records of the birth date of Jesus Christ. In fact, theologians and scholars could not even come to a consensus as to which month Jesus was born.
Some suggested that Jesus may have been born in spring, considering the above-mentioned account in the Bible2). In any case, it could not have been later than October since by then, most shepherds in Israel would have kept their sheep inside.
Some argued Jesus was born in June, summer, or autumn by trying to match the “Star of Bethlehem”3) with actual astronomical events.
The month of September, too, was not spared as they calculated Jesus’ birth date based on John the Baptist’s possible time of conception4).
From all these speculations and research, we can conclude one fact—the birth date of Jesus is unknown.
Since 25 December was not the birthday of Jesus, then what day was it?
It was the birthday of the sun god
Surprisingly, 25 December was actually not the birthday of the Son of God but the sun god instead. In the 1st century B.C., a pagan religion found its way into the great city of Rome, and it later became a “Roman religion”5). It was Mithraism—the worship of the sun-god Mithra. The birthday of Mithra was, yes you guessed it, 25 December6).
In Rome, there were 3 great festivals in December: Saturnalia (17-24 December) when people indulged in great pleasure, Sigillaria (end of December) celebrated by giving dolls to children and Brumalia the winter solstice festival. From these pagan festivals came the celebration of Christmas7).
In addition, in A.D. 274, Roman Emperor Aurelianus (A.D. 270-275) declared 25 December as the day of birth of the Unconquered Sun8).
Why was this date chosen to commemorate the rebirth of the sun? During the winter season, daylight hours shortens. It was only until 25 December, also known as the winter solstice, when daylight hours, then, starts to lengthen.
Then, how did this pagan ritual find its way into the church?
The birthday of the sun god becomes the birthday of the Son of God
During the 2nd century, there seemed to be great interest shown amongst the Christians in dating the birth of Jesus: 20 May, 21 March, 15 April and so on, many dates were proposed9).
By the 4th century, 2 dates emerged as the more prominent ones. One was 25 December, which was more popular in the west. This date was first mentioned by Hippolytus, a father of the Roman church in A.D. 204 (do take note that this date was first associated to the birthday of Christ about 200 years after His coming)10). It is often said that the birthday of the sun god was chosen as a means to “baptise” this pagan festival11). In the east, 6 January was celebrated instead. Eventually, 25 December was the one that prevailed and 6 January became the Feast of Epiphany, a day to commemorate the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem12). The period between these 2 dates became the holiday season better-known today as the 12 days of Christmas.
More Xmas traditions that were rooted from paganism
The Christmas we see today is richly ornamented with decoratives, mythical stories of a jolly man and flying reindeers, festive foods and customs.
What is surprising is that most of these find their roots in paganism as well.
Christmas tree—the indispensable Christmas decor. The evergreen fir is one of the most ubiquitous decorations during Christmas. Due to its ability to remain green in winter, the ancient Romans often decorated their temples with evergreens for worship and celebration during Saturnalia representing fertility and eternal life13).
The Christmas tree tradition also originated from the tree worship in European countries14).
The modern tradition of Christmas tree decoration was said to begin from the Germans. Legend has it that around the 16th century, Martin Luther, a religious reformer, saw stars twinkling amidst the trees when he was on his way home during winter, reminding him of Jesus’ coming from heaven to the earth15). In order to recapture the scene, he brought in a Christmas tree to his home and decorated it with candles. This tradition was made popular in the United States after Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert set up a Christmas tree16).
Santa Claus—the white-bearded old man in a red suit had its history pointing to a monk named St. Nicholas. The name Santa Claus evolved from his Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas17).
He was a Greek Bishop who lived around the 3-4th centuries in a place called Myra in modern-day Turkey18). Well known for his kindness in helping the poor and sick19), over the course of several hundred years, Nicholas became the bringer of gifts or the protector of children20). A better-known tale of Nicholas was of him saving three sisters from prostitution. He did so by delivering three bags of gold down the chimney to their father as a dowry. This also led to the custom of children hanging red socks by the chimney as they wait for the arrival of their gifts21).
Odin, the ruler of Asgard, one of the gods in Germanic mythology was also closely tied to Santa Claus22). During the winter solstice, also known as Yule, Odin would lead a hunting party through the skies ridding on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir23). He was often portrayed as an old man with a long white beard like St. Nicholas and Santa Claus.
Around winter time, children would leave their boots near the chimney filled with food to feed Sleipnir. As a reward, when Odin flew by, he would fill the children’s boots with gifts24).
Gift exchange—the thing that children look forward to the most. Most Christians today associate this tradition with the gifts from the three wise men to baby Jesus25). Records in the Bible show that they paid respect to the Saviour by presenting Him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. However, the custom of gift-giving actually originated from the Roman. The Early Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a 7-day celebration from December 17, dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture26). Sigillaria was celebrated on December 23, a day of present-giving. This custom was seen as a way of wishing for good luck for the next year. New Christian converts carried over the gift-giving practice as they celebrate the birth of Christ.
Chocolate Yule log cake—a traditional dessert served after Christmas meals. The history dates back to the medieval era, where the Celtics celebrated the Winter Solstice by burning logs, marking the end of winter27). They believed that the log’s ashes have mystical properties to ward off evil. Over time, as hearths became smaller, the size of the log made it impractical to burn logs. Log cakes were then used in place of burning logs. However, the exact tradition of baking log cakes is still unknown until today.
Holly—a common Christmas decor. Today, people associate the holly’s sharp leaves with Jesus’ crown of thorns and the red berries to the blood He shed. However, the use of holly and ivy as ornamental pieces originated since ancient times due to their ability to remain green during winter, symbolizing rebirth and eternal life28). The Ancient Romans used holly as decors and attached them to gifts during Saturnalia.
Xmas—A Religious Festival?
In all, it seems Christmas has a more pagan outlook than a festival associated with Christ. In the past, the Puritans even banned the celebration of Christmas, associating it with paganism. There is, however, another feast that we should celebrate in commemorating Jesus Christ. This feast was also directly taught by Him. Appearing not only in the Gospels but also New Testament times, it is the Passover of the New Covenant.
Luke 22:7-8, 19-20 … Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.”…And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.