Setting A Date
Scholars don’t just disagree on the year of Jesus’ birth, they also disagree on the time of the year in when he was born. While there is one record of Christmas being celebrated in Antioch (Turkey) on December 25 in the middle of the second century, there is no record of it being observed on that date in Rome until the year 336. It wasn’t until 350 that Pope Julius I declared December 25 the official date.
The Winter Solstice
As Christianity established itself, church leaders wanted to move the general population away from their celebrations of other gods and religions, including the winter solstice festivals that were important to the cultures of pre-Christian Europe and Asia.
Ancient people believed that the days grew shorter in December because the sun was leaving them, perhaps even dying. Festivals held right before December 21, the winter solstice, featured rituals designed to appease the sun and make it return. After the solstice, the shortest day of the year, the days became longer again, and grand celebrations were held in honor of the sun’s return. Along with the idea of the physical presence of the sun were underlying themes of harvest, rebirth, and light.
December 25 was, in the Roman calendar, the day after the solstice, which was why the solar feast, also known as Natalis inviciti solis, or “birth of the unconquered sun,” was one of the celebrations associated with the winter solstice. In fact, in the third century (that is, in the century before Constantine began the Empire’s conversion to Christianity), Emperor Aurelian declared December 25 Dies Invicti Solis (the Day of the Invincible Sun).
The Roman Saturnalia
Although the basic concept of the solstice festival was common to all lands, each area had its unique variations. But the tradition that left its mark most indelibly of Christmas was the Roman Saturnalia. The Saturnalia was observed in December and was a nominal celebration of a number of different events, among them Saturn’s triumph over Jupiter. According to belief, Saturn’s reign had heralded the Golden Age of Rome. Although the god later lost out to Jupiter, during the Saturnalia he was believed to return, allowing Rome to relive the Golden Age for a brief time. It was not surprising that the Romans, who associated Saturn closely with the sun, would celebrate this festival near the solstice.
During the festivities, no one worked except those who provided food, drink, or entertainment. Masters and slaves became equals and there was much feasting, dancing, gambling, and general revelry. Candles were used as decoration to scare away the darkness and celebrate the sun and light.
Another recognizable ritual was the giving of gifts, which was done in honor of the goddess of vegetation, Strenia. The people felt that in time of darkness and winter, it was important to honor someone who had a hand in the harvest. At first, produce and baked goods were exchanged, but as time went on, inedible gifts became fashionable.
The Saturnalia was followed by the calends of January (the calends marked the first day of the month). Observed on January 1-3, this period meant still more parties.
(Jeffrey, Yvonne, “Everything Family Christmas Book”)