“In its furthest, dimmest past, Christmas may have a now-forgotten, prehistoric ritual of the sun as one of its ancestors,” wrote folklorist and holidays expert Jack Santino in All Around the Year. ”
Although Christmas is a religious commemoration of the birth of Jesus, it may well be celebrated on December 25 because of the winter solstice that actually occurs a few days earlier.”
The Roman Saturnalia festival stretched from the winter solstice to January 1st. (In fact, the “Twelve Days of Christmas” may be a descendant of the twelve days of Saturnalia.) The Persians celebrated the birth of Mithra, the “Unconquerable Sun,” on December 25. Other European peoples also celebrated the winter solstice, according to Santino.
Church fathers settled on a celebration date for Christ’s birth in the 4th century. But December 25 had been a “holiday” for centuries.
“Ultimately,” wrote Santino, “we find that the fundamental events of the natural order such as the solstices underlie our most precious holidays, which in turn are shaped by history and human hands.”
For example, the display of evergreens and light sources is a midwinter tradition in many cultures, religions and eras. These displays range from wreaths, Christmas trees, holly branches, poinsettias and mistletoe to Christmas lights, the Hanukkah menorah, the star of Bethlehem and the Yule log.
“The lights and candles, the evergreens, the eternal circle of the wreath all remind us of promised new beginnings at apparent endings, of life ongoing during the death-sleep of winter,” wrote Santino.
It’s no wonder light imagery surfaces during the dreary, dark days of winter.
“Some people consciously saw in the solstice the birth of the sun, in that the solstice also is the point when the days begin to get longer again,” wrote Santino. Thus the Persians celebrated the birth of Mithra, the “Unconquerable Sun.”
But Christians celebrate the birth of the Son, the Light of the World.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s project coordinator. He holds a Ph.D. in American Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University, where he studied with Jack Santino.