[Video opens with a filmed segment from my POV where I scramble into the living room, rush around the Christmas trees, and find a present with my name on it. I open it, but instead of a Christmas card, there’s a note asking for my video on Christmas. It cuts and blurs as I begin to panic and cuss in exasperation.]
Sleigh bells, presents, a dude born in a barn who said some radical shit and got a whole new religion – I love Christmas. But one thing that bothers me whenever the festive season rolls around; and it’s that there’s a lot more to Christmas than many people I interact with seem to think, so today I’m going to give a bit of an overview of the non-Christian origins of Christmas. And before I start, I want to say that this is not an attack on Christians and your faith is valid, the war on Christmas is not real, and I hope you learn something if you weren’t aware of this history.
Part 1: Debunking Christmas
As I’m sure you know, the standard date for Christmas Day is the 25th of December. Depending on where you are, it’s either Winter or Summer, but because the holiday developed in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the first one that’s important. Down Under we do have our own Christmas traditions that align with our own weather, like pool parties, outdoor Christmas dinners, and the greatest Christmas song ever – Santa Wear Your Shorts by Hi-5, but that’s not the focus of today’s video. The focus is more traditional Christmas symbols, like Christmas trees, snowmen, reindeer pulling Santa Claus’ sleigh, or even more traditionally, this thing [nativity scene].
But, the specific date of Christmas and most of those symbols I mentioned before aren’t from actual Biblical canon, and when you have a look at history and the Bible, seem to have no connection to the birth of Jesus at all. First, let’s talk about the date and climate; specifically, where and when Jesus was meant to be born. Three gospels; Matthew, Luke, and John, pit Jesus’ place of birth as Bethlehem, situated in modern day Palestine, with Mathew saying precisely that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea (which is now Palestine, Syria, etc). (Matt 2:1)” The reason he was born in Bethlehem despite growing up in Nazareth is because Joseph and Mary were there for a census, and they had to go back to Joseph’s hometown. Quick side note, I’m using the King James Version.
Anyway, the thing is, 2000 years ago in the Middle East, on an evening at the end of December, it would have been bloody freezing. Basic geography tells us that desert regions are really cold at night, due to the lack of cloud cover if I remember right, and in the middle of Winter with no modern heating equipment, it would have been nothing short of insane to organise a census at this time. These weather conditions also put off the idea of a lone shepherd outdoors witnessing the chorus of angels announcing Jesus’ birth. I’m not the first person to pick this up, either. An article on the United Church of God’s webpage points these weather conditions out, and uses calculations based on the supposed birthdate for John the Baptist – who was born six months before Jesus – to figure out that a more likely option for Jesus’ birth is late September. I had a skim through the comments too, and they have interesting points that support or disagree with the article. I also found articles on Beliefnet and History.com that concur with December being a pretty unlikely time.
Biblical and historical evidence also put off the idea of a bunch of well known Christmas symbols, especially the Christmas tree. There is a Bible passage – Jeremiah 10 – that says that “Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen… For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe… They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” In simple terms, God commands his people not to participate in bringing trees inside and decorating them, in the context of it being akin to idol worship. Sure, how applicable it is now is questionable, especially as Christians tend to ignore most of the commandments of the Old Testament, but it does show that perhaps one of the most famous modern Christmas symbols actually goes against the Biblical canon.
Debunking the date and key symbols leaves a lot of gaps in the idea of Christmas as a holiday. If none of it makes geographical or biblical sense, then why is the celebration of Jesus’ birth the way it is?
Part 2: Filling the gaps… With paganism!
On the 27th of February in the year 380, after centuries of battles for protection and theological debates, the Edict of Thessalonica was issued. This declared Christianity as the official state religion of the Roman Empire, spurring a drastic amount of change across several continents, including signalling the end of a battle between Christianity and the numerous pagan religions of the Empire for dominance. And as the clerical bodies and rulers in charge continued to expand their territories and influence, they found points of similarity between Christian doctrine and the more traditional heathen religions, and made alterations to significant holidays based on local ones to make conversion- which was usually forced – easier. And so, the Christmas we know now borrows much of its oldest components from totally non-Christian religions and cults.
The date of December 25 itself comes not from the Son of God, but a Sun… God. Before the Edict of Thessalonica, one of the Roman Empire’s official cults was that of Sol Invictus, or the Unconquerable Sun. He is comparable to the Persian god Mithras, and depicted with sunrays like a halo and a chariot drawn by four horses. Temples and sculptures dedicated to him were present all throughout Rome. On the 25th of December, he and older Roman sun gods were celebrated with festivals including parades and lots of chariot racing. Being one of the biggest cults right before the decline of Roman paganism, it made sense to conflate the celebration of the son of God with this entity. And though the date, and possibly the connotations of Jesus with light and the sun, come from the cult of Sol Invictus, the rest of Christmas comes from elsewhere.
Staying in Rome in late December, a more likely source for the festivities themselves is Saturnalia, the week-long feast of Saturn. It was so influential, in fact, that the Google definition of Saturnalia implies it’s a direct precursor. At this time of year there were grand feasts, gifts were exchanged, trees were decorated, and there was plenty of giving and game-playing. Dr David Gwynn suggests that Saturnalia, alongside Sol Invictus, could have been influencing Christian ideas long before the Edict of Thessalonica, back when the emperor Constantine first began to endorse Christianity at the beginning of the century. However, he does say the Saturnalia connection isn’t as direct as we think, and I also think we can’t call it the only forerunner. The article I cited actually pointed out a Jewish explanation of December as Jesus’ birth month at the end too. Nearly missed that, but I still think logistically September is more likely.
Other holidays and religious traditions that contributed to what became the standard makeup of Christmas include Western and Northern European practices. The inclusion of snow, mistletoe, tree decorating, and wreaths all come back to the rites and rituals of Celtic Druids, the Nordic winter festival Yule, and related people and events. [ I’d love to dedicate more time to this point but I don’t think I have the time in this video.]
Something worth mentioning is how trees actually worked themselves into Christmas. I’m citing a News.com article, which is clearly the most Trustworthy Source Ever, because although I’d already heard this I forgot where I actually read it. While tree decorating goes back to the most ancient civilisations, Christians jumping on the trend that the Bible is meant to condemn is as recent as the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther – this guy, not this guy – allegedly wanted to recreate the view of light shining through tree branches for his family, back in the 16th Century. This being said, it was still considered a ‘heathen trend’ by Puritans, and took another 300 years or so before it came into fashion, due to art of Queen Victoria and her family all gathered around a tree in 1846. And, obsessed as the English speaking world always has been with the royal family, people started putting up Christmas trees in their own homes.
Santa, too, is an interesting amalgamation of stuff. Of course, he originally comes from Saint Nicholas, a fourth century bishop who had a reputation for being fiercely defensive of his faith, but also for his massive generosity. As reverence for him travelled throughout Europe, he became surrounded by legends of giving miraculous gifts to people, and eventually turned into the Dutch figure of Sinterklass. But the transition from Saint Nick to our modern idea of Santa wasn’t this smooth. A lot of comparisons can be made between Santa and the Norse god Odin, suggesting a bit of pagan influence. This includes stuff like his beard, how Odin knows all – and so knows who’s naughty or nice – and Odin’s associations with riding his eight legged horse Sleipnir during Yuletide, much how Santa is associated with having eight reindeer, or the idea of Santa living at the North Pole. Even gift giving, if I remember right, can be connected to Odin.
Part 3: Modern Christmas
But, the Santa – and Christmas – changes don’t end there. You might notice that the Santa suit we see on cards or in movies seems to have nothing in common with the attire of a 4th Century bishop or Nordic god of knowledge and battle. This is where we get to talk about mass printing and capitalism! Thomas Nast was a German-born illustrator working in the mid-to-late 1800s in New York, creating political cartoons, wartime art, caricatures, and… Illustrations of a very familiar looking jolly man in red. Half a century later, his vision of Santa became immortalised by a very popular household name. In the 1930s, Coca Cola began an ad campaign featuring Santa Claus in the familiar looking fur-lined red suit and cap from Nast’s imagination. And because of how capitalism stains our brains and permeates every aspect of our culture, the fluffy red ensemble stuck.
And speaking of capitalism weeding its way into everything, I think it’s very on brand for me to mention that Santa isn’t the only thing that changed with the advent – see what I did there? – of capitalism. Due to a mix of Christianity being the dominant religion in the West, increasing secularism, and the modern desire for mass market appeal, Christmas seems to have lost a lot of its sacredness. Of course, it’s still a special and holy event for religious people all over, as are the traditions it borrowed from elsewhere for conversion’s sake, but on a surface level I think modern Christmas has become extremely commercialised. And for me, it doesn’t feel like a good thing.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Christian privilege in the Western world is very real; and the fact it’s been normalised so much has thrown a lot of people under the bus, notably religious minorities like Jewish people and modern Pagans. But this being said, it’s still disheartening to hear my Christian friends talk about how they feel their sacred holidays have been turned into cheap gimmicks for secular communities, engineered to encourage people to spend more money on big corporations through mass produced decorations, toy sales, or Hallmark movies.
I feel like the capitalist hell scape has also taken its toll on some other faiths like this; of course, by commodifying Christmas capitalism indirectly puts a price tag on dozens of pagan traditions, some of which are still practiced today. And I don’t have sources on hand at the moment to back this up, but I’m fairly sure Hanukkah is actually a very minor holiday in Judaism; its importance has been artificially inflated by its close proximity to Christmas. I see way more gimmicky Hanukkah clothes and decorations online than I do merchandise for Pesach or Rosh Hashanah, which are much bigger.
So, that, in a nutshell, is the history of Christmas and how it’s borrowed from different faiths and cultures to evolve into what it is today. If you’re a conservative Christian, I’m really grateful you managed to make it this far – because I know this stuff isn’t common knowledge to everyone and some people struggle to come to terms with or even humour the idea that the fundamental aspects of Christmas, and other Christian holidays, are effectively all pagan. I still think Christianity is just as valid as any other religion, and we all have something beautiful to offer to each other when we don’t shove our beliefs down each other’s throats. And to everyone, of all faiths or lack thereof, have a fantastic holiday season, and a happy new year.
- The Holy Bible (King James Version): Jeremiah 10:1-5, Matthew 2:1, 5, 8, 16; Luke 2:4, 15; John 7:42.
- Good News, “Biblical Evidence Shows Jesus Christ Wasn’t Born on Dec. 25,” Beyond Today, December 3, 2004, https://www.ucg.org/the-good-news/biblical-evidence-shows-jesus-christ-wasnt-born-on-dec-25.
- Lesli White, “When Was Jesus Really Born?,” Beliefnet, accessed December 10, 2019, https://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/christianity/articles/when-was-jesus-really-born.aspx.
- History.com editors, “Christ is Born?,” HISTORY, updated July 17, 2019, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/christ-is-born.
- The Colchester Archaeologist, “25th December: the Roman festival of sun god Sol Invictus,” The Colchester Archaeological Trust, December 25, 2015, https://www.thecolchesterarchaeologist.co.uk/?p=22534.
- Matt Salisbury, “Did the Romans Invent Christmas?,” History Today 59, no. 12 (December 2009), https://www.historytoday.com/archive/did-romans-invent-christmas.
- Jamie Seidel, “The great Christmas tree heresy: Truth, or a storm in a sea of biblical interpretations?,” News, December 22, 2017, https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/christmas/the-great-christmas-tree-heresy-truth-or-a-storm-in-a-sea-of-biblical-interpretations/news-story/abb02f9afe6d820cb9f7f5195419f55a.
- Encyclopædia Britannica editors, “St. Nicholas,” Encyclopædia Britannica, November 13, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Nicholas.
- Goran Blazeski, “Thomas Nast – The man who invented Santa Claus,” The Vintage News, December 9, 2016, https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/12/09/thomas-nast-the-man-who-invented-santa-claus/.