Christmas is the celebration of the time when the days start to lengthen. Many religions have claimed the winter solstice as a holy day, and this page is an introduction to the "reason of the season" (as they say) and a discussion of its commercialisation.
We do not know everything about the historical roots of Christmas. There are elements that emerged into the festival without known reason, and entire areas where there is much speculation, but no historical evidence to either support or refute claims. The best, and certainly the most accurate, account of this history of such calendar events is laid out by Professor R Hutton. No other authors mentioned on this page are as reputable as Prof. Hutton but his instinctual cautiousness does need to be complemented by other more insightful authors. I include in the following quote the historian's interesting notes about light. Light is a feature of all winter festivals.
“The habit of a midwinter festivity had come by the dawn of history (and probably very long before) to seem a natural one to the British, and not one to be eradicated by changes of political or religious fashion. [...] It was general custom in pagan Europe to decorate spaces with greenery and flowers for festivals, attested wherever records have survived. [...]
What the Scots did emphasize, in common with many of the English, was light. In 1725 Henry Bourne, a Newcastle clergyman, commented that many people in the North of England lit huge 'Christmas candles' on Christmas Eve. [...] The Scots and] the Irish were also fond of them. [...] Yule candles were also common in Scandinavia, a region which had strong contacts with those parts of Britain which maintained them.”
"The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain" by Ronald Hutton (1996)1
The most skeptical view of modern Christmas is that the fads, decorations, festive goods and all the paraphernalia are a commercial scam to make us spend money on over-priced useless goods. However true this is, it has also become a secular social festival much akin to the American thanksgiving. Families come together at Christmas even if they do not for the rest of the year. It probably helps that Christmas and New Year's celebrations have become institutionally intertwined. These make Christmas in essence a meaningful family celebration, even if on top of that there is a thick cover of shallow commercialism.
The festivities are largely led by commerce and retail outlets: The relevant decorations, cards, food and goods are all marketed for Christmas more than any other festival, and it is the High Streets that press Christmas upon the populace way before the populace itself is ready. It is a frequent complaint that stores start Christmas "too early" and too aggressively.
Take the example of the commercial invention of the Christmas card; with corporate effort, these would have remained an expensive privilege of the rich.
“The Christmas card represented a convenient and sophisticated evolution of the ancient custom of giving blessings or good wishes for the New Year. By 1840 it was often carried on among the wealthier classes by sending a short poem engraved within an ornamental framework. [...] This, and some imitations, proved to be commercial failures because they were too expensive. In 1862, therefore, a fresh start was made by the stationers Messrs Charles Goodall, which printed cheap plain greetings. By the end of the decade they were becoming decorated, and other firms were producing them. [...] In 1878 the volume sent was sufficient for the Post Office to commence a separate record of Christmas mail, and in the 1890s the cards became a popular craze, and continued to expand their market over the next century. In 1992 1,560 million were sent, and the commercial value of the Christmas card trade was £250 million.”
"The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain" by Ronald Hutton (1996)2
The human figurehead of the festive season is a modern creation; before the seventeenth century such a figure has no history.
“Nobody seems to have thought of personifying Christmas until the early seventeenth century. It was done then partly because of the general taste of the age for allegory and partly because the criticism of observation of the feast by radical Protestants made a representation of it convenient to writers determined to defend it. Thus in 1616 Ben Jonson introduced to the world, Christmas His Masque, presented a figure 'in a round hose, long stockings, a close doublet, a high-crowned hat with a brooch, a long thin beard, a truncheon, little ruffs, white shoes, his scarfs, and garters tied cross.' [...] Over the next 250 years this sort of character was to feature repeatedly in pictures, stage plays, and folk-drama, known variously as Sir Christmas, Lord Christmas, or (increasingly) as Father Christmas. He was essentially concerned with the adult world, personifying feasting and games, he had no connection with presents, and he was not treated with much respect, being generally a burlesque figure of fun. Then Santa Claus turned up. In origins he was, of course, the medieval patron of children, St Nicholas, who remained a favourite popular figure amongst the Dutch.”
"The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain" by Ronald Hutton (1996)4
This figure gradually moved from St Nicholas Eve to Christmas Eve.
“In 1809 Washington Irving, whose sentimental interest in traditional Christmases has been mentioned, drew attention to the old tradition in his Knickerbocker's History of New York, rescheduling it from St Nicholas's Eve to Christmas Eve. Irving's portrait was repeated in an 1821 issue of the Children's Friend, published in the same city, and that may have been the direct inspiration to another New Yorker, Clement Clark Moore, to create the modern Santa. [...] His saint was not the traditional, sentimental, figure of the Dutch, but a magical sprit of the northern midwinter. He wore fur cloths, had a bushy white beard, traveled through the sky merrily in a sleigh drawn by reindeer, and came down chimneys with a sack of gifts. [...]
Soon after 1863, he was frequently depicted wearing a red suit, trimmed with white fur.”
"The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain" by Ronald Hutton (1996)2
From 1931, Haddon Sundblom the illustrator for Coca Cola "drew a series of Santa images in their Christmas advertisements until 1964"5, which is where the tradition of a Santa Claus wearing red comes from. The colours red and green had always been prominent in Christmas card greetings, however.
Prominent elements of Christmas are commercial inventions, from Father Christmas (and his suit) to Christmas Cards. The history of commercialist Christmas is older still than those creations. From the 1870s onwards, The Times broadsheet could be relied upon to attack the commercialism of Christmas6. Clearly, its commercialisation has not destroyed it and since the nineteenth century, it has become even more popular than ever.
To remove the commercial aspects of Christmas would be largely to destroy it; religious activists would create in its place a series of historically-challenged myths and break it into a sectarian event. Without commercialism the general populace, Protestant Christians, secularists and evangelical Christians would all cease to have anything in common during the festive season.
Christmas day, by other names, "was the ancient feast-day of the Sun, in the depths of winter", pre-dating Christianity7. But the exact date of the Winter Solstice changes slowly over time. "So, although the solstice moved progressively from 6 January to 25 December, some traditions continued to celebrate it on the familiar night. Today it falls around 22 December"8. The Roman religion of Mithraism, which existed for hundreds of years before Christians started celebrating Christmas, holds that the birth of Mithras was on the 25th of December. In another coincidence, the birth of Mithras was also said 'to have been witnessed by three shepherds!'9.
Many traditional elements of Christmas pre-date Christianity7. In other words, Christmas was pagan before it was adopted by Christians. Prof. Hutton, a respected and careful primary-sources historian, mentions Christmas in his valuable book on the history of modern Paganism.
"The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft" by Ronald Hutton (1999)10
Momen, the Bahá'í and scholar of comparative religion, widens the scope:
“Most Christmas customs are, in fact, based on old pagan festivals, the Roman Saturnalia and the Scandinavian and Teutonic Yule. Christians adopted these during the earliest period of Church history. The Church, however, has given this recognition and incorporates it into the Church year without too many misgivings. Only the more radical fundamentalist elements in some churches protest from time to time about this mixing of 'pagan' elements into the religion.”
Sun worship formed the basis of Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, other Roman religions and many other pagan traditions. It is the reason Sun-day is a holy day in many religions, and why major festivals are held at Spring and the Solstices. The real meaning of Christmas is sun worship; a reminder to all life on Earth that we owe everything to the Sun. Sun worship is one of the main pillars of all religion, especially older religions. Sun worshippers and nature religions, the most ancient of the religious, held major celebrations at the Winter Solstice the victory of the strength of the Sun over the forces of darkness that try to suppress it. Osiris-Dionysus represented and was represented by the sun, as was Jesus, whom the Church father Clement of Alexander calls 'The Sun of Righteousness'8. When old relics and religious symbols (such as Human faces) are given a light backdrop of rays of light or a corolla it means they represent the sun.
“The Catholic Encyclopedia says, "Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts." [...] Sir James Frazer says, "The largest pagan religious cult which fostered the celebration of December 25 as a holiday . . . was the pagan sun- worship, Mithraism . . . This winter festival was called . . . 'the Nativity of the SUN.' [...] Franz Cumont, perhaps the greatest scholar of Mithraism, wrote, quoting Minucius Felix, "The Mithraists also observed Sun-day and kept sacred the 25th of December as the birthday of the Sun. Many scholars have pointed out how the Sun- worshipping Mithraists, the Sun-worshipping Manicheans and the Christians were all syncretised and reconciled when Constantine led the take-over by Christianity[...]"
However, other Sun-worshipping groups were included too, because of the general importance and popularity of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun-deity. Mario Righetti, a renowned Catholic liturgist, writes, "the Church of Rome, to facilitate the acceptance of the faith by the pagan masses, found it convenient to institute the 25th December as the feast of the temporal birth of Christ, to divert them from the pagan feast, celebrated on the same day in honour of the 'Invincible Sun', Mithras. [...] The mixing of pagan Sun-worship and Christianity is exemplified by the testimony of a Syrian scholiast on Bar Salibi, who said, "It was a custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same 25th 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." Practically all the known Sun-deities were born on the 25th December. In S.E. Titcomb, Aryan Sun myths, the Origin of Religions, we find it cited, quoted from primary sources, that the following Sun-deities were all born on 25 December, according to their legends: Crishna (Vishnu), Mithra (Mithras), Osiris, Horus, Hercules, Dionysus (Bacchus), Tammuz, Indra, Buddha. Therein we also read of the Scandinavian goddess Frigga in whose honour a "Mother-night" festival was held at the winter solstice (+ - 25 December), as well as a similar great feast of Yule, where a boar was offered at the winter solstice in honour of Frey.”
www.iahushua.com/ST-RP/xmas.htm, accessed 2005 Dec 06
It must also be clear that many Christmas customs are, as we heard from Mojan Momen at the beginning of this page, very ancient. But they have in present centuries been combined with the very modern: Commercialism.
Despite the nature-reveration, pagan festivals and sun-worship that formed the basis of the Christmas period, Christians sometimes complain that the 'original' Christian message is ignored at Christmas. Such modern Christians do not know its history. Christian Churches have themselves led long and bitter campaigns against the observance of Christmas and in various times and places banned it completely. The religious content was always very small, with most celebrations and rituals being secular (i.e., organized by the people, not by clerics). Major elements of Christmas are simply commercial inventions based on themes of nature, such as Christmas cards:
“From the beginning, the proportion of religious themes in [Christmas card] designs was small. Examples from before 1890 (of which the Jonathan King collection has 163,000) show an overwhelming concentration upon the natural world and upon jollity. [...] The choice of imagery has remained more or less constant ever since; an evocation of survival, rejoicing, and the resilience of nature, usually constructed around the (literally) vivacious colours red and green.”
"The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain" by Ronald Hutton (1996)2
Modern-day Christmas frequently contains modern Christian elements. Not least of all, in English, the word 'Christmas' is the one we are all familiar with, moreso than Yule or Winter Solstice. Nativity stories are taken from the Christian tradition - even though the ideas of shepherds, wise men and the like were all originally pagan, the stories are now told with Christian overtones at Christmas.
44% of English children think Christmas is about Jesus11
“Mostly derived from pagan myths, Jesus' birth stories are very dubious, and it very likely that all such beliefs were written retrospectively by the Roman gospel writers, or were assumed from the outset. There is no evidence or reason to believe that they actually occurred.”
Some Christians of the first few centuries celebrated the birth of their messiah. They did not know for certain where he was born, where he died, or where he was buried. This fact is bemoaned by early Christian leaders. When they did celebrate Christmas, they generally did so in April and May. "Pope Julius I, in the fourth century commanded a committee of bishops to establish the date of the nativity of Jesus. December 25 (the day of Sol Invictus, the invincible sun) was decided upon. Not coincidentally, that is the day when the "pagan world celebrated the birth of their Sun Gods -- Egyptian Osiris, Greek Apollo and Bacchus, Chaldean Adonis, Persian Mithra -- when the Zodiacal sign of Virgo (the sun is born of a virgin) rose on the horizon. Thus the ancient festival of the Winter Solstice, the pagan festival of the birth of the Sun, came to be adopted by the Christian Church as the nativity of Jesus, and was called Christmas"12. The reasons that the Christians annexed the Winter Solstice, and chose to celebrate Christmas in December instead of Spring, was that influential Roman religions celebrated the birth of the sun-of-the-sun on the Winter Solstice, and the first Christian emperor fused paganism and early Christianity, to create the Pauline Christianity that we know today.
The rhetoric that Christians use against the celebration of Christmas pre-date Christianity itself, and originated with Jewish mores against the celebration of birthdays, plus an avoidance of pagan practices. The 'Old Testament' book of Jeremiah, 7th century BCE13, it warns Jews not to 'learn the ways' of those pagans who decorate trees with silver and gold:
“This is what the LORD says: Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the sky, though the nations are terrified by them. For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.”
Jeremiah 10:2-4 (NIV)
The first Christians were Jewish converts such as the Nazarenes and Ebionites. Because early Christians and Jews do not celebrate birthdays - they considered it a pagan practice, and there are no Christian birthday celebrations in the Bible. It was related, said early Christians, to sun cycles. For these reasons, Biblical fundamentalists do not celebrate birthdays, including Christmas. One such group is the Jehovah's Witnesses.
“There is no evidence that the first-century disciples of Jesus observed such a holiday. [...] Even if Jesus' disciples had known the exact date of his birth, they would not have celebrated it. [...] The only birthday observances mentioned in the Bible are those of two rulers who did not worship Jehovah. (Genesis 40:20; Mark 6:21). [...] Those who want to please God do not celebrate it or any other holiday that has its roots in pagan worship.”
"What Does the Bible Really Teach" by The Jehovah's Witnesses (2005)14
The suspicion of birthdays and the fact that there are no written first-hand records of Jesus or his life, mean that it has long been impossible to work out when he was born.
Modern Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals tell Christians not to celebrate Christmas. "Three and a half centuries ago the English Puritans used their influence within the Cromwellian Republic (Protectorate) to ban Christmas celebrations. [...] They asserted (quite correctly by their own lights) that the 25 December had no biblical connection with the birth of their messiah and that the Christmas festival was therefore essentially pagan"12. The Scottish reformers of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example, claimed that the "Papists" (Catholics) had invented all the rites of Christmas so they abolished the lot of them.
“A literary debate [occurred] which broke out in December 1643 and was to continue intermittently [...] until 1656. Despite a few desperate efforts upon both sides to find some scriptural indication of the true date of Christ's birth, a common ground was established almost at once; that as there was indeed no objective evidence of when Christ was born, the feast of the Nativity was wholly a creation of later authorities and supported by tradition and not the Bible.”
"The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain" by Ronald Hutton (1996)15
“In 1647 the English Parliament ordered that Christmas, along with other pagan holidays, should cease to be observed. A 1652 Parliamentary act repeated [the ban on Christmas]16. In New England, where celebrating Christmas was considered a criminal offense and remained forbidden until the second half of the nineteenth century... [...] as late as 1870 in Boston, students who failed to attend public schools on Christmas were punished by public dismissal.16”
These graphs are from data published by the Church of England which show the percent of the total population of England and Wales involved. The marriages graph has "Anglican" mean "Church of England" or "Church of Wales", and also shows the % as the total population of England and Wales (excluding the Isle of Man and Channel Islands).19 You might expect that the National Secular Society would have found statistics that show lower attendance, therefore supporting their cause that organized religion should not be an official part of public politics. However in 2011 they commented on Christmas attendance and state higher values20. They mention that surveys before Christmas in 2010 saw about a quarter of respondents say that they were going to go to Church over Christmas, but, actual counts of attendance shows that only 11% did, which is less than half of those who said they would. This is very similar to the phenomenon by which in official polls, about twice as many say they are religious as actually are. See "Institutionalized Religions Have Their Numbers Inflated by National Polls" by Vexen Crabtree (2009). The Church of England think that just over 2% of the population attended Christmas or Easter in Church in 2010.
See: "The Worst of the Modern Mass Media" by Vexen Crabtree (2009) for an analysis of UK news outlets.
Some low-brow newspaper outlets pushed the idea for many years that the 'political-correctness-gone-mad' idea of Winterval was officialdom's replacement for Christmas. The sensationalist idea was that because Christmas has the word 'Christ' in it, then, modern secular governments and councils could not support it. So, the types of newspapers that peddle anti-foreigner positions took up the story with gusto. The Guardian blogger Kevin Ascott reported that the Daily Mail repeated the myth the most between 1998 and 2011, a total of 44 times. The Times and The Sunday Times together repeated it 40 times, The Sun 31 times, The Express 26 times and The Daily Telegraph 22 times. The Guardian even mentioned it a few times however, it also ran several articles debunking the myth.
“After years of perpetuating the Winterval myth, the Daily Mail Corrections and Clarifications column this week admitted it was all made up. It said: 'We stated in an article on 26 September that Christmas has been renamed in various places Winterval. Winterval was the collective name for a season of public events, both religious and secular, which took place in Birmingham in 1997 and 1998. We are happy to make clear that Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas.”
National Secular Society Newsline (2011 Nov 11)
The true source of the story is that of one event promoter who combined several winter events (including Christmas) into one Winterval event in order to simplify marketing. From the Guardian:
The myth was not just repeated, either. It was also gradually distorted to become ever more removed from the original misconception. What started as a myth that one council had rebranded or renamed Christmas became a pluralised, open-ended narrative that 'councils' and 'authorities' were rebranding or renaming Christmas as 'Winterval'.
It then mutated from a simple rebranding to a calculated attack on Christianity by 'atheists', 'Muslims', or the 'PC brigade' who feared offending 'other faiths' or 'ethnic minorities'. In one extreme example, the South Wales Echo claimed that Winterval was the result of 'virulent attacks on religion by atheists', which had led to 'new rules such as Christmas being renamed as 'Winterval'. [...]
In all, at least 15 articles directly claim that Christmas was renamed Winterval because of a fear of offending 'other faiths'. At least a further 10 articles directly claim that Winterval was used to avoid offending 'ethnic minorities'.
So now, thanks to perhaps one repetition too far, the Daily Mail has finally admitted that Winterval is a media fiction. But what impact will those few lines of correction have compared with the huge body of journalism that has been repeating it for so long as fact? And, more important, will Melanie Phillips offer her own apology for repeating the myth?
www.guardian.co.uk (2011 Nov 08)
When I first heard the story, I thought 'ridiculous' and didn't believe it was true. I spent a few minutes researching it, and found out that I was right. Therefore, my world-view was not distorted. Journalists broadcast their opinions to others, and it is downright criminal that failures in basic fact-checking can be so endemic.
Christmas is a multicultural, multi-religious festival. It combines sun worship, polytheism, pagan nature religions, Christianity and other myths and traditions. When Christians complain it is too pagan, or when lay folk complain it is too religious, or when both groups complain it is too commercial, then they are all in need of realizing that Christmas is a commercial fusion of diverse nature-based festivals. The date of the 25th accords with Sun Worship thousands of years old, the Christmas tree and some of the decorations are pagan, the Nativity stories are pagan, Mithraistic, Roman and Christian.
The main outstanding issue in the West is the Christian assertion that Christmas has something to do with the Christian figure of Christ or his birthday. These elements should be disclaimed. Firstly, the paganism inherent in Christmas, such as decorating trees, is warned against in the Bible (Jeremiah 10:2-4). Second, there are no Christian birthday celebrations in the Bible. Thirdly, early Christians celebrated Christ's birthday in April or May - it was only changed to match with 25th of December, a major pagan holiday, by Emperor Constantine, in order to harmonize Christianity with paganism. It is certain that Christians should not attempt to celebrate Jesus' birthday, and they certainly shouldn't do so at Christmas.
In addition to its rich history, Christmas has now become largely a secular holiday, a social festival based on the family, and a commercial enterprise. Critics largely concentrate of the portions of Christmas they don't like, and claim that those portions ruin the rest of it. As long as no-one tries to "capture the flag" and exclude others, then there need be no modern conflict over the nature of Christmas. The non-religious can celebrate the commercial and social event, Christians can pretend Christmas has something to do with Christ, pagans can celebrate nature, and all can be happy. There are even alternative and well-known names for Christmas, such as Yuletide, which can be used according to taste. Whether or not one choses to celebrate Christmas is mostly a matter of mood!
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
Breuilly, O'Brien & Palmer
(1997) Religions of the World. Subtitled "The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, & Festivals". By Elizabeth Breuilly, Joanne O'Brien & Martin Palmer. Hardback. Published for Transedition Limited and Fernleigh Books by Lionheart Books.
(2014) "The Birth of Jesus and the Christmas Story: Pagan and Unhistorical" (2014). Accessed 2014 Aug 31.
(1995) The Dark Side of Christian History. Published by Morningstar & Lark, Windermere, FL, USA.
(1996) The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. 2001 re-issue. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
(1999) The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. 2001 paperback edition published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
Weiser, Francis X.
Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (1983) 64-65. Published by Random House, New York, USA. In "The Dark Side of Christian History" by Helen Ellerbe (1995) p153.