The Not-So-Christian Origins of Christmas

history of christmas

Many often ask about the origins of Christmas. When was the first Christmas? Why do we celebrate Christmas with Christmas trees? How was the date of Christmas decided? While Christmas is certainly a Christian holiday today, the origins of this holiday are not so Christian. Indeed, some may be surprised to learn the truth about the origins of Christmas.

Christmas has some of its roots in the pagan holiday Saturnalia. Saturnalia was a festival of lights held from December 17th-23rd that was meant to coincide with the winter solstice. The holiday shared many similarities with Christmas. For example, there was feasting and gift giving, both of which are common Christmas traditions. The Romans would also decorate their homes with wreaths, much like today’s Christmas celebrations. Although historians are not sure if Christmas trees and wreaths come from Saturnalia, it is thought that Christmas gets many of its traditions from Saturnalia’s traditions. However, Saturnalia is not the reason for Christmas’ date. Instead, many think that the date comes from another pagan festival in Rome, the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti festival.

According to this theory, many believe that under Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, the empire decided that Christmas should be celebrated on December 25th. There is no biblical evidence that Jesus was actually born on December 25th. While some argue that Jesus was in fact born in the spring, the general consensus seems to be that Jesus was actually born in the early fall. This is by no means certain, but either way, December 25th is unlikely to be Jesus’ real birthday. This indicates that the date was chosen for another reason. Christmas would act as a replacement for the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti festival.

By celebrating Christmas on December 25th, Constantine could more easily convert the Roman people to Christianity. Many religions tend to have a festival of lights during early winter months. These holidays might be to help bring joy during such a dark and cold time. Thus, so long as they could celebrate Christmas in the winter, the Roman people wouldn’t feel like they were losing a holiday during one of the most depressing times of the year and then resent the religion. Additionally, the Romans could continue celebrating in somewhat the same way as before, making them more open to Christianity. By associating Christmas with pagan holidays, Christians hoped that Romans might be more accepting of Christianity.

Now we can see how Christmas both got its origins from Saturnalia and the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti festival. While there are other theories about how Christmas got its date, there are certainly connections between Saturnalia and Christmas. It may seem surprising how much Christmas borrows from pagan traditions, but these old festivals were critical for making Christmas what it is today. Without them, Christmas wouldn’t be the same.