Christmas Celebrations

The term Christmas can be traced etymologically to an Old English term, Cristes mæsse, meaning The Mass of Christ (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.).

There is not a more endearing Festivity that is celebrated around the world than Christmas, and the centuries have seen a plethora of traditions surrounding this season –  from the wild and wacky – In Japan, Christmas, as a result from a brilliant marketing campaign in 1970, is celebrated with fried chicken as the “must-have” meal to mark the season; to the presence of the quintessential Victorian era invention by Tom Smith, the Christmas Cracker after Christmas Pudding at the British table; to rearing carp in the family bathtub as a sort of pet, and then frying it as a Christmas meal on Christmas Eve in the Czech Republic (Novak, 2019).

Some countries on the other hand, celebrate Christmas beautifully. For example, in Mexico, the Las Posadas is celebrated between 16 December to 24th December and memorialises the long journey that Joseph and Mary made to Bethlehem. Each house in the designated villages represents an inn that Mary and Joseph stop by, and as the procession of adults, children, and musicians stop by requesting for lodging, they are met with the hospitality of the “innkeepers”. The travellers then sing Christmas songs as a gift of thanks for this hospitality. This celebration stretches across 9 nights to remember Mother Mary’s 9 months of pregnancy, and on the last night, children break open pinatas containing sweets and treats, in a Christmas fiesta (Novak, 2019; Hefron, 2019).

Around this time, many places like Orchard Road in Singapore have a special light-up of Christmas décor along the shopping belt, while many of us would also be inundated by a flood of Hallmark feel-good holiday movies. Our calendar days are filled to the brim with meet-ups, Christmas cooking and baking, and the shopping and wrapping of Christmas presents. Yet, what really is the real deal of Christmas?

Christmas – Historical evidence for 25th December

Christmas as a holiday is not without its controversies. For millennia, people have been arguing about the date of Christ’s birthday, with Christians and the pagans slugging it out in a metaphoric snowball fight, with each claiming that they were the originators of the date and the celebrations. Medieval and Modern opinions have argued that the early Church in the 3rd century Christianised December 25, as a date to counter the pagan Roman festival Natalis Invicti, which celebrated the deity Sol, the Roman sun god – a festival celebrated during the Winter solstice, a time when the cold of winter seemed to wane. This was celebrated in conjunction with the festival of Saturnalia, a mid-December revel honouring the deity Saturn, which included such traditions as gift-giving (Encyclopedia Romana, n.d.).

What we do know however, is that an illustrated codex Chronography of AD. 354 was compiled that year. This contained a documentation of the calendar of AD. 354, the bishops and consuls of that year, the astronomical phenomena that happened that year, and a group of other unillustrated documents. In the section pertaining to the Calendar of Philocalus, the date December 25 is annotated with Natalis Invicti, a reference to the deity Sol – supposedly a first time in a Western text that this has been written down; while in another section of the Chronography of AD. 354, the section documenting the Disposition of Martyrs, the liturgical year is noted to begin on 25th December, and is annotated natus Christus in Betleem Iudeae – “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea”. In the section listing the consuls, there is also a note for the date AD 1: dominus Iesus Christus natus est VIII kal. Ian – a reference to the birth of Jesus being 25th December (Pearse, n.d.; Encyclopedia Romana, n.d.). It was taught that the Liturgical Year began on Christmas until the 10th century (Martindale, 1908).

The Chronography of AD. 354 was instrumental as a means of ordering future calendars, for example, Polemius Silvius was said to have consulted it for his own annotated calendar in AD. 449 (Pearse, n.d.). Nonetheless, what are the implications of the written records of both Natalis Invicti, and Natus Christus existing in the same document? This means that by the year AD. 354, both the Nativity of Christ and the Roman festival Natalis Invicti were already existing and were celebrated in parallel of each other.

So which came first?

Saturnalia as a Roman festival has had written social documentation in the form of a poem written by Gaius Valerius Catullus in AD. 1 and the cult of the planetary deity Saturn was already in existence 200 years before the birth of Christ. During the reign of Emperor Augustus (63 BC. – AD. 14) Saturnalia was a festival celebrated on the 17th and 18th of December. As a means of asserting his rule, Emperor Domitian (AD. 51-91) was said to have shifted the celebration of Saturnalia to the 25th of December (Salusbury, 2009). By the time of the poet Lucian of Samosata (AD. 120 to 180), the festivities had already been stretched to become a month-long revelry which climaxed on 25th December (Salusbury, 2009). By AD. 449, Saturnalia was recorded in the Christian calendar of Polemius Silvas as being another civic holiday. For some strange reason, Saturnalia is not the contender for the rightful date of 25 December, but rather Natalis Invicti. A large part of the reason, was that despite the popularity and the sensuality of the festival of Saturnalia, Saturn was a lesser deity in the eyes of the Romans, in comparison to Jupiter.

The cult of Sol was introduced into the Roman Empire by Emperor Aurelian (AD. 214 – AD.275) in AD 274. Emperor Aurelian made the worship of Sol into a state religion and the image of Sol was placed on Roman coins. Emperor Constantine, the first Christian convert Roman Emperor was in fact brought up and trained in the cult of Sol. The cult of Sol quickly gained traction and popularity, as it was able to assimilate various attributes of Jupiter and others from the myriad of Roman deities into the absolute reign and rule of the Sun King. By weaving a narrative of Divine Kingship, the Romans Emperors pegged themselves as sons of the Sun, and allowed them to exercise power over the populace. Interestingly, many pagan Emperors before Constantine tried to ride on the popularity of Saturnalia by assimilating its celebrations as part of the celebration of Natus Invicti, without much success. It is thought however, by several historians that because Emperor Constantine was brought up in the cult of Sol, that the institution of Christmas was a means to curb the pagan festival (Salusbury, 2009; Nothaft, 2012).

It did not help that even the Gospels themselves did not give a specific date to the Nativity of Christ. A reason was that traditionally, to the Jews, birthdays were not celebrated with importance. In addition, legislation was in place to curb any such celebrations. In later part of AD. 1, it is recorded by Historian Josephus, “the law does not permit us to make festivals at the births of our children, and thereby afford occasion of drinking to excess, but it ordains that the very beginning of our education should be immediately directed to sobriety. It also commands us to bring those children up in learning, and to exercise them in the laws; and make them acquainted with the acts of their predecessors: in order to their imitation of them: and that they might be nourished up in the laws from their infancy: and might neither transgress them; nor have any pretense for their ignorance of them.” (n.d., 26).

It would be AD 192 when Pope Clement of Alexandria proposed that the date of Christ’s nativity to be either the 18th of November, or if accordingly, the 49 missing days from the Alexandrian calendar were added, to be 6th January (1885). This attempt to date the Nativity of Christ, would predate the introduction of the cult of Sol by 82 years.

Hippolytus of Rome’s Commentary on Daniel is agreed by historians to be composed between AD 202 and 211. In it he states, “For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty-third year, March 25th,  Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, while Rufus and Roubellion were Consuls.“ (Schmidt, 2010, IV, 23.3). This is in fact the earliest written reference of the date of Christ’s nativity being the 25th of December – “Hippolytus of Rome, in his commentary on the Book of the Prophet Daniel, written in about AD. 204, was the first person to say clearly that Jesus was born on 25 December.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 2009, para. 3) and this was a result of the tradition that placed the Annunciation to be the 25th of March. To count forward the months, then it would be logical to place the birth of Jesus on the 25th of December, 9 months after the Annunciation. Jewish tradition also taught that influential figures such as Moses, were born and died on the same calendar date. Based on that, Hippolytus, and subsequently, Tertullian, made calculations to conclude that if Jesus died on the 25th of March around the time of the Passover, then it would also be logical that he was conceived on the 25th of March as well (Martindale, 1908).

Thus, we see from historical evidence, that written records of Jesus’s birth date as the 25th of December, predate any festivities in the Roman empire that were associated to Sol.

Subsequently, the early Church Fathers would preach about this anticipated feast. St. John Chrysostom for instance writes, A feast is approaching which is the most solemn and awe-inspiring of all feasts. If one were to call it the metropolis of all feasts, one wouldn’t be wrong. What is it? The birth of Christ according to the flesh. In this feast the Epiphany, holy Pascha, the Ascension and Pentecost have their beginning and their purpose. For if Christ hadn’t been born according to the flesh, he wouldn’t have been baptized, which is Epiphany. He wouldn’t have been crucified, which is Pascha. He wouldn’t have sent the Spirit, which is Pentecost. So from this event, as from some spring, different rivers flow — these feasts of ours are born.” (Contbeare, 1899).

The Eastern Churches however situated the Nativity of Christ to be around the 10th or 6th of January (Martindale, 1908), and this tradition ensues today.


Some Christmas Traditions:

The Christmas Pageant

The putting up of a dramatic presentation about the Christmas story, came in part from the performance of the Easter Story in the 9th century, when notable persons such as Tuotilo of St. Gall wrote Easter tropes as means to catechise. In the 10th and 11th century, these Easter sketches that were used as part of the Liturgy developed to include the Christmas story, and began to revolve around themes such as the annunciation to the shepherds. Notable examples include Quem Quaeritis in Sepulchro and Quem Quaeritis in Praesepe (Margetson, 1972; Bedingfield, 2002; Campbell 1979).


The Nativity Scene

In 1223, with the permission of the Pope, St. Francis of Assisi celebrated a Mass at Grecio. He then built a nativity scene, the village was called, and there he preached the Good News of the Birth of Christ (Saunders, 2003).


Hymns and Carols

The first hymn to contain content about the Nativity can be traced to Prudentius in the 4th century. The popular tunes that are used in the repertoire today, can be traced to the Weihnachtslieder or songs about Christmas in Germany as far back as the 11th and 12th centuries; and the first noels to the 11th century. Adeste Fideles is attributed to have been written by John Francis Wade, an English hymnist in 1744, while Silent Night was composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber and set to lyrics written by an Austrian priest, Joseph Mohr (Martindale, 1908; Eyerly, 2018).


The Christmas Tree

While the origins of the Christmas Tree are contested, Historians generally agree that it came from Germany.

St. Boniface was consecrated as the Bishop of all Germany East of Rhine by Pope Gregory and it was under this authority when he returned to Germany in AD. 723. As he went about his missionary trips, he began to collect data surrounding the local customs, which allowed him to know that the inhabitants of the village of Geismar, would gather during Winter around an oak to offer oblations to the Thunder deity, Thor. While his companions were afraid, St. Boniface grabbed an axe and hacked down the pagan oak. In its place, he pointed to a fir tree, and evangelised the villagers to call it the Tree of the Christ Child (Laux, 1989; Carroll, 1987).

Interestingly, the Christmas Tree as we know it today, took off in popularity in the 16th century. According to Historical sources, a Christmas tree was erected in Strasbourg Cathedral in 1539, while Martin Luther, of the Protestant Reformation, is attributed to first putting lights into the Christmas tree, by adding candles to it (McKeever, 2020).



Gift-giving at Christmas may not necessarily be as Christianised in origin as we thought they would be. This practice of gift-giving could be seen as the Roman and Celtic cultures celebrated their own pagan festivals such as Saturnalia, mentioned above. For the ancient Romans, the 1st of January, was also another opportunity to gift, in celebration of their 2-faced deity Janus, who represented the old year and the new year. As parts of the Roman Empire and Europe became more and more Christianised, this practice of gift-giving was retained and also baptised and incorporated into the Church’s tradition to gift during Christmas (Kosloski, 2017). The Church then took as its examples, the Magi who brought the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant Jesus (Britannica, 2022a) and also the life-story of St. Nicholas of Myra, who was attributed to have dropped gold into the stockings of a poor family who had to marry off his daughters, but did not have the resources for the needed dowry (Britannica, 2022b). Still, gifts were given on the Feast of the Epiphany, rather than on Christmas Day itself. Giving gifts at Christmas is a rather recent invention, that was also popularised with advertisement campaigns such as Coca Cola (Kosloski, 2017).


Concluding Remarks

Christmas is freely celebrated by many today. Its celebration has not come easy and has been fought for, defended against heresies, and bought with the blood of martyrs. It has taken on a different characteristic today, and has often fallen astray to secularisation. What are some Christmas traditions that you celebrate with your loved ones? How can I bring back the true meaning of Christmas?

By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan



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