Many early Christians, including Gregory of Nazainzus, spoke out against combining pagan and Christian ways. This isn’t hard to understand: The celebrations, after all, could take on orgiastic proportions. After years of mostly futile attempts to abolish these pagan festivals and rituals, however, the church realized it would be better served by allowing them – revised so that their focus was to honor Christ.
Incorporating Mithraic or solstice rites into the celebration of Christmas was easy to justify: Christ represents life, triumph over death and darkness, and restored hope and light. Rather than celebrating the sun as before, people would be celebrating the Son of God. Simply put, the birth of Christ replaced the birth of the sun as a cause for celebration.
Both church and popular interests were thus satisfied: The people were able to keep their time of fun, while the church ensured that the birth of Christ would be celebrated with all due decorum and festivity. In this way, many parts of the old festivals remained, while others were reformed to honor Christ’s birth. Some of the retained elements that have remained popular to this day are greenery, candles, singing, tree decorating, Yule logs, and feasting.
Today, Christmas is celebrated on December 25 by Roman Catholics and Protestants, by not by many Orthodox churches, which continue to combine Epiphany and Nativity celebrations on January 6. A small portion of English believers also observed the January 6 tradition until about 1950 – not because of any connection with the rite of Eastern churches, but because some of their own observances followed the old Julian calendar rather than the current Gregorian version.
The Yule Connection
The so-called “barbarian invasions” of the Roman Empire that began in the fifth century brought the Nordic and Germanic peoples into direct contact with Christianity, and therefore with Christians. In northern and western Europe, the Germanic and Celtic peoples had their own solstice rituals, which were later incorporated into Christmas.
The December Julmond festival, for example (Jul later became Yule), was a celebration of harvest and rebirth, with wheat representing life triumphing over death. Anything made of wheat, such as bread or liquor, was consumed heartily, and also given as gifts. Evergreens were used as a symbol of life, and what we would later cal the Yule log was lit to symbolize the eventual triumph of light over dark. The festive meal was boar’s head. These traditions have been presented in centries-old carols, including wassail songs, holly carols, and boar’s-head carols still sung today.
(Jeffrey, Yvonne, “Everything Family Christmas Book”)
Emperor Justinian declared Christmas a civic holiday in 529. Further legislation by the Council of Tours in 567 officially made the pre-Christmas Advent period a season of fasting and preparation. The time from Christmas to Epiphany (the twelve days of Christmas) was also declared part of the festive season.