By most accounts, the birth was first thought — in around 200 A.D. — to have taken place on Jan. 6. Why? Nobody knows, but it may have been the result of “a calculation based on an assumed date of crucifixion of April 6 coupled with the ancient belief that prophets died on the same day as their conception,” according to religionfacts.com. By the mid-fourth century, the birthday celebration had been moved to Dec. 25. Who made the decision? Some accounts say it was the pope; others say it wasn’t.
One of the prevalent theories on why Christmas is celebrated on Dec. 25 was spelled out in “The Golden Bough,” a highly influential 19th-century comparative study of religion and mythology written by the anthropologist James George Frazer and originally published in 1890. (The first edition was titled “The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion”; the second edition was called “The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion.” By the third printing, in the early 20th century, it was published in 12 volumes, though there are abridged one-volume versions.)
Frazer approached the topic of religion from a cultural — not theological — perspective, and he linked the dating of Christmas to earlier pagan rituals. Here’s what the 1922 edition of the “The Golden Bough” says about the origins of Christmas, as published on Bartleby.com:
An instructive relic of the long struggle is preserved in our festival of Christmas, which the Church seems to have borrowed directly from its heathen rival. In the Julian calendar the twenty-fifth of December was reckoned the winter solstice, and it was regarded as the Nativity of the Sun, because the day begins to lengthen and the power of the sun to increase from that turning-point of the year. The ritual of the nativity, as it appears to have been celebrated in Syria and Egypt, was remarkable. The celebrants retired into certain inner shrines, from which at midnight they issued with a loud cry, “The Virgin has brought forth! The light is waxing!” The Egyptians even represented the new-born sun by the image of an infant which on his birthday, the winter solstice, they brought forth and exhibited to his worshippers. No doubt the Virgin who thus conceived and bore a son on the twenty-fifth of December was the great Oriental goddess whom the Semites called the Heavenly Virgin or simply the Heavenly Goddess; in Semitic lands she was a form of Astarte. Now Mithra was regularly identified by his worshippers with the Sun, the Unconquered Sun, as they called him; hence his nativity also fell on the twenty-fifth of December. The Gospels say nothing as to the day of Christ’s birth, and accordingly the early Church did not celebrate it. In time, however, the Christians of Egypt came to regard the sixth of January as the date of the Nativity, and the custom of commemorating the birth of the Saviour on that day gradually spread until by the fourth century it was universally established in the East. But at the end of the third or the beginning of the fourth century the Western Church, which had never recognised the sixth of January as the day of the Nativity, adopted the twenty-fifth of December as the true date, and in time its decision was accepted also by the Eastern Church. At Antioch the change was not introduced till about the year 375 A.D.What considerations led the ecclesiastical authorities to institute the festival of Christmas? The motives for the innovation are stated with great frankness by a Syrian writer, himself a Christian. “The reason,” he tells us, “why the fathers transferred the celebration of the sixth of January to the twenty-fifth of December was this. It was a custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same twenty-fifth of December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and festivities the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day and the festival of the Epiphany on the sixth of January. Accordingly, along with this custom, the practice has prevailed of kindling fires till the sixth.” The heathen origin of Christmas is plainly hinted at, if not tacitly admitted, by Augustine when he exhorts his Christian brethren not to celebrate that solemn day like the heathen on account of the sun, but on account of him who made the sun. In like manner Leo the Great rebuked the pestilent belief that Christmas was solemnised because of the birth of the new sun, as it was called, and not because of the nativity of Christ.Thus it appears that the Christian Church chose to celebrate the birthday of its Founder on the twenty-fifth of December in order to transfer the devotion of the heathen from the Sun to him who was called the Sun of Righteousness….
Yet an account titled “How December 25 Became Christmas” on the Biblical Archaeology Society’s Web site takes some issue with this theory:
Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.
Furthermore, it says, the first mentions of a date for Christmas, around 200 A.D., were made at a time when “Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.” It was in the 12th century, it says, that the first link between the date of Jesus’s birth and pagan feasts was made.
It says in part:
Clearly there was great uncertainty, but also a considerable amount of interest, in dating Jesus’ birth in the late second century. By the fourth century, however, we find references to two dates that were widely recognized — and now also celebrated — as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor). The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6; for most Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas.The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea … ” So, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, we finally find people observing his birth in mid-winter.”
Bottom line: Nobody knows for sure why Dec. 25 is celebrated as Christmas.
Here’s a little more history, this on the non-religious figure of Santa Claus. According to the St. Nicholas Center (whose Web site has a subtitle: “Discovering the Truth About Santa Claus”), the character known today as Santa originated with a man named Nicholas said to have been born in the third century A.D. in the village of Patara, then Greek and now Turkish. It is said his parents died when he was young and that the religious Nicholas, who was raised by his uncle, was left a fortune. Ordained as a priest, he used his money to help others and become a protector of children, performing miracles to help them. He was, the center says, persecuted by Roman Emperor Diocletian and buried in 343 A.D. in a church, where a substance with healing powers, called manna, formed in his grave. The day of his death, Dec. 6, became a day of celebration.
How did this man seen as a saint become Santa Claus, the one with the red suit and white beard? The St. Nicholas Center says Europeans honored him as a saint over the centuries, while St. Nicholas was brought to the New World by Columbus, who named a Haitian port for him in 1492. According to the center:
After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride their colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. John Pintard, the influential patriot and antiquarian who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and city. In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that same year, he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not the saintly bishop, rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of imagination are the source of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends: that the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of St. Nicholas; that St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; that the first church was dedicated to him; and that St. Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts. Irving’s work was regarded as the “first notable work of imagination in the New World.”The New York Historical Society held its first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner on December 6, 1810. John Pintard commissioned artist Alexander Anderson to create the first American image of Nicholas for the occasion. Nicholas was shown in a gift-giving role with children’s treats in stockings hanging at a fireplace. The accompanying poem ends, “Saint Nicholas, my dear good friend! To serve you ever was my end, If you will, now, me something give, I’ll serve you ever while I live.”….1821 brought some new elements with publication of the first lithographed book in America, the Children’s Friend. This “Sante Claus” arrived from the North in a sleigh with a flying reindeer. The anonymous poem and illustrations proved pivotal in shifting imagery away from a saintly bishop. Sante Claus fit a didactic mode, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad, leaving a “long, black birchen rod . . . directs a Parent’s hand to use when virtue’s path his sons refuse.” Gifts were safe toys, “pretty doll . . . peg-top, or a ball; no crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets to blow their eyes up, or their pockets. No drums to stun their Mother’s ear, nor swords to make their sisters fear; but pretty books to store their mind with knowledge of each various kind.” The sleigh itself even sported a bookshelf for the “pretty books.” The book also notably marked S. Claus’ first appearance on Christmas Eve, rather than December 6th.
Then, in 1823, the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” later known as “The Night Before Christmas,” became popular, and the modern version of the plump Santa started to become established, what his sleigh led by reindeer and the chimney as his delivery system. By the 1920s, a jolly red-suited Santa was depicted in drawings of Norman Rockwell and other illustrators, and by the 1950s, he was portrayed as a gentle gift-giving character. That Santa became the one kids in the United States and other parts of the world know today, though in many other countries, St. Nicholas — not Santa — is still celebrated, as well.
Was Nicholas real? The bottom line from the Web site on Santa:
Some say St. Nicholas existed only in legend, without any reliable historical record. Legends usually do grow out of real, actual events, though they may be embellished to make more interesting stories. Many of the St. Nicholas stories seem to be truth interwoven with imagination. However, [certain] facts of the life of St. Nicholas could contain some part of historical truth. They provide a clear sense of his personal characteristics which are further elaborated in other narratives.
(You can read about those “facts” here in a piece titled “Was St. Nicholas a Real Person?”)
So there you have it. Some history of Christmas you may not have known before. If you made it this far, now you do.