Saturnalia, by Antoine Callet

Saturnalia, by Antoine Callet

The Origins of Christmas

Yme Woensdregt

Have you ever wondered about the origins of Christmas? I don’t mean the Biblical stories (yes there are two, which are quite different from each other) about the birth of Jesus. I mean all the traditions surrounding how we celebrate Christmas.

The very earliest church didn’t celebrate Christmas. To be known as a follower of Jesus could cost your life. It was a matter of life and death. Both the Jewish authorities and the forces of the Roman Empire saw early Christians as a threat.

On the one hand, the first Christians were Jews. They were following a young rabbi who was teaching radical new ideas. The leaders of the synagogue thought he was drawing people away from the Torah, which was the heart of Jewish faith. As a result, they treated early Christians as a disruptive threat who were spreading division in the synagogue. We can see elements of this history reflected in John’s gospel, such as in John 9:18–23 or John 19:38.

On the other hand, Christians were hated by Romans. They refused to pay homage to the emperor, since there was only one true God. They didn’t hesitate to spread that message to anyone who would listen. Romans treated them as malcontents who disrupted the carefully laid plans of the oppressor to subdue the people in the countries they had conquered. The empire couldn’t control these Christians. They defied the empire, and Rome could not let that happen. They called Jesus “Son of God, Saviour, Lord of lords” which were titles the emperor claimed for himself.

In such an environment, the church didn’t celebrate any festival too openly. It was too dangerous. These early Christians met in secret, small gatherings in homes. For them, the most important event was Easter, the day of resurrection, and every Sunday was a mini–Easter, the “day of the Lord.” Christmas was a non–event.

It continued that way for a couple of centuries.

It all changed in the momentous year 313, when the emperor Constantine declared that Christianity would be an official religion of the Roman Empire. Suddenly, it was legal to be a follower of Jesus, and the church quickly went from being an underground group to being part of the power structure. The Church (with a capital C) stepped easily into the corridors of power.

One of the signs of that influence was what the Church did with the Roman festival called Saturnalia, a weeklong festival from December 17–25. Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one would be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. The festival began with Roman authorities choosing “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. On the last day of the festival, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by murdering this innocent man or woman.

Suddenly, in the 4th century, the Church had power. Church leaders flexed their newfound muscles by deciding to take over this festival. They converted large numbers of pagans to Christianity by promising that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia.

But how to do that? There was nothing remotely Christian about Saturnalia. They stumbled upon the ingenious solution of declaring that Saturnalia’s concluding day, December 25, would be Jesus’ birthday. The very first mention of a Nativity feast happened in the year 354, only 40 years after becoming a legal religion.

In his book, “The Battle for Christmas,” Stephen Nissenbaum writes, “In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Saviour’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.” The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets (a precursor of modern caroling), and so on.

Ever since, there has been a tension at Christmas time between an orgy of consumerism and a more religious observance of the holiday. The consumerist emphasis took firm hold in the 5th and 6th centuries, culminating in a revelry of eating and drinking in medieval times.

Inevitably, there was a backlash. Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas in England in the 17th century. In Boston, the Reverend Increase Mather observed in 1687 that “the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.” Puritans also banned Christmas in New England.

There is much more to this story. I only have room for this very brief historical overview. It’s clear that the origin of Christmas is not quite as obvious as we think. It all began with the Church imposing a religious gloss over an ancient pagan festival. Christmas was born with two purposes.

Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas—decorating the house, purchasing presents, putting up a tree, wishing for a white Christmas—come from sources other than Christian origins.

In truth, we don’t know when Jesus was born. The date was chosen for an entirely different reason.

There is a deep human need to celebrate a festival during the shortest days of the year. As a Christian, I will celebrate this season as the birth of Christ. And I will participate in other parts of this festive time. I am grateful for a time of festivity and a festival of Light as the days begin to lengthen. And I am grateful for those who celebrate in other ways.

After all, my way is not the only way.