Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Brief History Lesson: The Christmas Edition

Drunken debauchery + The birth of our Lord = Santa Clause?

First, let me start off by saying that I’m not downing Christmas; I love Christmas. I love the lights, I love the good vibes, I love the presents, (I love the egg nog), I love being with family and, most importantly, I love celebrating Jesus because I think He is the best everrrrr. 

I happened across a Facebook post the other day…yes, Facebook…and the subject of Christmas’s pagan origins were brought up. I had previously learned briefly about how the Romans inserted the birth of Christ into the pagan festivals but I had never been clear on the details. So, in typical fashion, I decided to research every bit of information I could find about the topic until I was completely exhausted and my brain felt like it was going to melt out of my ears. 

Here’s the short version:

In the year 350 AD, Pope Julius III of Rome is credited with having declared December 25th the official birthday of Christ, though no reference to His birthday is mentioned in the New Testament and, furthermore, many biblical and secular historians alike agree that December was absolutely not the time of His birth (I have read several who say that it was fall and a few who say that it was spring; either way, not December).

Why then, would this Pope suddenly declare Christ’s birthday to be at the end of December?  To try and merge Christianity with the pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice, of course (the Winter Solstice is recognized as the shortest day in the year  when the northern axis of the Earth is furthest away from the sun; December for the northern hemisphere, summer for the southern). The date has several historical significances in regards to pagan rituals, beliefs, and practices:

December 25th
  • the last day of the festival of Saturnalia
  • the birthday of Mithra's*, the Iranian "Sun of Righteousness"
  •  Natalis Solis Invicti (the Roman "birth of the unconquered sun")
  • Day designated by Julius Caesar as the official date of the Winter Solstice (though now it falls between the 21st and the 23rd)

*also called Mitra, Mithraism was a mystery religion which many say is the foundation for freemasonry; the story of Mithra bears resemblance to the story of Christ 

Christ’s birthday had not previously been observed by any early Christian; in fact, the celebration of birthdays was considered a pagan custom in those times and not practiced by Christians; thus, celebrating His birthday at all would have been insulting and blasphemous. However, Roman politicians knew that if they did not allow the citizens to keep their holidays than the transition from paganism to Christianity would be difficult; they felt the most painless way to help accomplish this goal would be to announce that the pagan holiday was now a Christian one.

Unfortunately, nothing about these celebrations could even pretend to resemble Christianity.

Ancient depiction of Saturnalia
  • The Roman Solstice celebration in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, Saturnalia was a lawless, raucous festival at the end of December in which normal Roman law was not adhered to or enforced.
  • The festival began with sacrifices in the Temple of Saturn which turned into a week long festival of debauchery and drinking
  • Researchers believe that “The Lord of Misrule”, a member of the community chosen to preside over the unruly festivities, was brutally sacrificed at the end of the celebration
  • Jews in Rome were commonly abused during this festival
  • Greek poet and historian Lucian described a festival filled with human sacrifice, drunkenness, promiscuity and rape

Thankfully, much of the Roman traditions didn’t make it…

But here are the ones that did, and not just from Rome:
Ginger bread Men cookies
  • Lucian wrote of Romans eating human shaped cookies throughout the festival of Saturnalia (is seems cute now but given the nature of their celebrations…yuck).
  • “Fertility rituals” commonly took place under the mistletoe during the Saturnalia…
Lights, fires
  •  All symbolic of  the sun and the sun deities, all lit to honor said deities
Christmas carolers
  • The Mummers, groups of singing and dancing men in costume, would travel from house to house to entertain people during the festival of Saturnalia
Gift giving
  • Gift giving was a common practice during Saturnalia; contrary to popular belief, it is not symbolic of the wise men offering gifts to Christ (if it were, we would be offering gifts to Christ during Christmas, not to each other)
Yule log
  • The celebration of Yule was name the Celts gave to their celebrations
  • Yule logs were burned to symbolize the welcoming back of the sun
Christmas tree
Imitating the light of the sun
  • The tree was a common factor in all European winter solstices, as trees were commonly worshiped by many nations including the Egyptians (palms), Druids (oaks),  and the Romans (firs)
  • It was a long standing tradition for European pagans to bring evergreen trees into their home and decorate them with gold balls, symbolizing the sun, as a reminder that spring would come again

A positive message for our children
**I chose not to include Santa on this list of because that in itself is lengthy topic; it spans from the Biblical Nimrod, to a medieval cult of Italian sailors, and finally to the Coca-Cola Corporation and some guy named Lou Prentice. You can find some of this info here or here.

**Interesting note: Christmas was banned by the strict Puritans because of its pagan background; it continues to be a source of debate amongst certain denominations and groups of Christians

What’s the moral of this story? I’m not sure. I just wanted to share the facts.

I’m probably going to get some backlash over this, but oh well. If anyone has something to add that I may have missed or gotten wrong (I'll admit, it was a lot of information to sort through), or wants to yell at me over this post, feel free to let me know in the comments section :)


  1. This was excellent. Very accurate and well written. I so would have loved to read about Santa (Satan) Clause! LOL Merry Christmas to you and yours. :-)

  2. Merry Christmas to you too!
    Maybe I'll do Santa next year lol...I left links up with some of the information I found pertaining to him.

  3. Excellent Article. Keep up the good work.