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  • Writer's pictureSimon Vincent

Rediscovering Christmas

Updated: Dec 23, 2022

The Adoration by the Shepherds, by Gerard van Honthorst (1622)

In this modern age, Christmas is mostly associated with Santa Claus, decorative trees, gift-giving, and a time for relaxation. But where does this holiday - and its beloved traditions - come from?

Santas drawers, by Salvador Dali (1948)

Initially a Christian feast celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, it has been appropriated by secular forces to be expanded into a generic holiday that serves consumerism and pop culture more than it does Christ. In the United States alone, $1 trillion is spent every year on Christmas gifts and festivities, and 2/5 of spenders go into debt to meet the holiday expectations.

Christmas, it seems, is gradually becoming more of an opportunity to satisfy our appetites and desires, than it is to be reminded of the Gospel message. It has become a time for unrestricted indulgence in food and alcohol, all in the name of "Santa", who has become a bizarre, pop-culture fixation that works excellently in retail markets.

What drives this modern, warped understanding of Christmas? Besides commercialist forces, the most prominent driver is the idea that Christmas does not exclusively belong to Christianity, but is a generic "winter" celebration. 25 December, it is alleged, was originally a pagan feast that Christians simply copied in order to suppress the pagans. The Nativity of Christ, therefore, is only a secondary interest.

But is this true?

To save Christmas from degenerating into meaningless indulgence and consumerist hell, we need to re-examine its roots. We need to find the origin of the feast, how it developed, and what message it conveyed.

Why celebrate the Nativity of Christ?

In the Church calendar, Christmas is the celebration of the Birth of Jesus Christ. For Christians, it is an event of existential importance. It reveals the wonders of the nature of God - an event where the Word of God entered the world by taking on human nature and sanctifying it, giving each man the hope of sanctification and reconciliation with God. "He was made man so that we might be made Divine," said St. Athanasius of Alexandria (296 - 373).

The necessity of this Birth of Christ for the human race is encapsulated by St. Justin Popovic' (d. 1979) words: "In truth God as a man was born on earth! Why? That we might live through him (1 John 4:9). For without the God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ, human life is wholly and completely a suicidal absurdity...Your life, O man, can find its only reasonable, rational, logical meaning in God alone...Through His incarnation, through becoming man, becoming human, has God in the most manifest way entered into the very womb, the very bowels of human life, into the blood, into the heart, into the center of all existence... God’s incarnation is the greatest upheaval and the most providential event, both on Earth and in Heaven."

Christian Orthodox Icon depicting the Virgin Mary embracing the newly-born Christ. The color red is associated with divinity.

Initially, Christians celebrated this existential revolution on Sundays and at Pascha (Easter), but soon, other feasts were added to the calendar. The Feast of Theophany on January 6th initially celebrated Christ's Nativity and Baptism together, but subsequently, Christians began dedicating a special day for His Nativity - 25 December.

25 December & the Question of Pagan influence

But the question remains: why 25 December?

Many allege that 25 December was picked in an attempt to both suppress and appropriate old pagan festivals held at the same time. A prime example is Saturnalia, a Roman pagan feast from 17-22 December intended to mark the winter solstice by delighting in food, wine, entertainment, and other desires. Similar feasts for winter solstice were also held in other cults, like Yule in Germanic paganism. There is also the claim that the Roman feast for the popular pagan god Sol Invictus was held on 25 December, and since Christians "stole" the date, they successfully repressed Sol Invictus worshippers.

Saturnalia was a Roman pagan feast for indulgence. Painting by Thomas Couture.

These claims insinuate that by adopting the same date, Christians accidentally absorbed pagan customs into their own feast, making Christmas a "hybrid" between paganism and Christianity. It is furthered that this, therefore, justifies the view that Christmas is an irreligious "winter holiday", co-created by several spiritual practices.

However, upon closer inspection, none of these claims are substantiated by evidence or logical coherence. Firstly, if Christians truly wanted to suppress pagan feasts, why did they not date Christmas from 17-22 December? By the 25th, Saturnalia (and other winter solstice rites) would be over, making it two clearly distinct holiday periods. Secondly, there is no convincing evidence that Sol Invictus Day was held on the 25th, or that it even predated Christmas. 3rd-century Roman calendars date Sol Invictus Day in August and October. There is a vague reference to a mere "Invictus" day on the 25th of December by Emperor Julian the Apostate (an infamous persecutor of Christians), but this feast emerged decades after Christians began celebrating the Nativity, and it is still a mystery exactly what "Invictus day" was.

So - how did the Christians land on 25 December? The actual birth date of Jesus Christ is, of course, shrouded. Yet, early Christians went to lengths to select a date that reflected both Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition. Here is how it happened:

Divine Liturgy, unknown artist.

In antiquity, the conception and death of great heroes were usually commemorated on the same day (a symbol of the circle of life). Christians, therefore, celebrated the conception of Christ (the Feast of Annunciation, when the Virgin Mary conceived God-incarnate in her womb) at the approximate beginning of Pascha ("Easter", the feast commemorating Christ's earthly suffering, death, and resurrection). This fell on 25 March and had been celebrated since the very beginning of the Church.

Since the celebration for the Virgin conception of Christ was on the 25 March, then, naturally, His birth ought to be celebrated nine months later (to reflect full-term). Nine months after 25 March is 25 December. Simple as that.

This date also reflected what the Scripture actually implies as the birth date of Christ. Relying on the Judaic calendar, Scripture reveals the birth date of St. John the Baptist and also notes that Christ was born six months after St. John. This again gives us 25 December. This date is further referenced as the date of Christmas by the likes of St. Clement of Alexandria (153-217), Theophilus of Caesarea (115-181), and Hippolytus of Rome (170-240). (See footnote "25 December in Scripture" for a breakdown).

Therefore, we see that early Christians had no interest in winter solstice or pagan rites. They were exclusively focused on the contents of the Gospels and the Holy traditions of the Church calendar. This makes the Nativity Feast a uniquely Christian tradition, contrary to modern claims.

Ancient feast, unknown artist.

Fasting & Evergreens - Christmas Celebrations over time

Today, Christmas is celebrated with trees, decorations, mistletoes, chocolate, and presents. Many allege that these traditions stem mostly from pagan or secular practices, and very few, if any, from Christianity - again, rendering Christmas into a generic holiday unspecific to Christianity.

Let us begin by revisiting how Christmas was initially commemorated. The answer is found in Orthodox Christianity, where the traditions of the ancient Church are still practiced to this day. It begins with an Advent Fast of 40 days prior to Christmas Day, where worshippers abstain from certain foods and drinks. The Fast is designed to cultivate a prayerful and charitable state, anticipating Christ's Birth. On Christmas Day, they hold a Divine Liturgy in Church and then break the fast with a celebratory feast, often with the extended family. The following 12 days (25th December to 6th January, the Feast of Theophany) are cheerful and festive to reflect the joy that Christ – in other words, hope for salvation – has entered the world.

The Christmas Tree, c.1916 by Henry Mosler

However, with the advent of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, most of Northern Europe gradually departed from this ecclesial tradition. This opened up for new traditions to take precedence.

The use of a Christmas tree gained traction in Germany and Holland at this time. It allegedly originated with Martin Luther, who is believed to have erected an evergreen at his home and decorated it with candles and a bright star at the top, probably symbolizing the night sky and the Nativity star that guided the three wise men in the Gospels (Luke 2:1-19). Many also saw it represent both the Tree of Knowledge (that led to the Fall of Man) and the Tree of Life (the cross of Christ, which led to the Salvation of Man).

Yet, some claim that the Christmas tree was originally a heathen invention. Germanic pagans usually performed rites around sacred oaks, and Norsedom contained a belief in Yggdrasil, the tree that holds the world. The evergreen, in particular, has also been a universal symbol of eternal life for many unrelated cultures (since it stays green over winter).

Be that as it may, this does not mean that any and all symbolic uses of a tree will always stem from pagan witchcraft. Such a claim would need real evidence, but there is simply none to suggest that the Christmas tree became fashionable due to old pagan oaks. So far, it remains mere speculation.

The 1848 Christmas Tree engraving that produced a craze for Christmas Tree across the Western world.

Nevertheless, the Christmas tree was not a defining feature of Christmas until the mid-19th century. In 1848, the German-born Queen Charlotte of Britain published a Christmas greeting depicting her family around a Christmas tree. The Royals were influential trendsetters, and so this image created a widespread craze for Christmas trees. By the late 19th century, it had even spread to Britain's former colony, the United States, which globalized it with its powerful media muscles.

When we then visit the history of other Christmas traditions - singing carols, kissing under the mistletoe, candy canes - we find the exact same pattern of development. They often had an obscure origin but became widely popular in Protestant countries in the late 19th century, and then made mainstream by American media.

Of course, we have so far overlooked perhaps the most curious case: Santa Claus. The fantastical fat globetrotter who puts gifts in children's stockings on Christmas Eve - where (and why) did that come from?

Santa Claus: a charitable Church Father or Coca-Cola's mascot?

Ancient Christian Orthodox icon of St. Nicholas

The story of Santa Claus begins with Saint Nicholas (270-343), one of the greatest Church Fathers and Saints in Christianity. When his parents died, St. Nicholas inherited large sums of money, but used it to help the poor, hungry, orphaned, and sick. Whenever he helped someone, he did it in secrecy, so that only God would see his deeds and he could avoid popular praise.

For instance, there was once an old man who was so desperately impoverished that he had decided to send his three beautiful daughters to the street to earn a wage. When St. Nicholas heard of this, he went out at night in secrecy and tied three stockings filled with gold coins by their window. In this way, he saved the family from ruin. Many probably recognize what Christmas theme this story later inspired.

St. Nicholas rescuing the daughters from depravation. Christian Orthodox fresco.

St. Nicholas' feast day in the Church calendar is on 6 December, and it was popular to give gifts to little kids in memory of the gracious bishop (gift-giving to children is also associated with St. Basil the Great's feast day on 1 January). St. Nicholas himself urges: "The giver of every good and perfect gift has called upon us to mimic His giving."

However, in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, Martin Luther sought to move the tradition of gift-giving from St. Nicholas' feast on the 6th to Christ's Nativity on the 25th, as the Reformation sought to end the veneration of Saints. Thus, in Northern Europe, the Nativity feast and St. Nicholas' gift-giving were joined into one holiday on the same day.

Spirit of Christmas Present, from C. Dickens.

As the memory of St. Nicholas' Sainthood faded in the Protestant world, the figure of St. Nicholas was increasingly susceptible to new characterizations and old folklore. In England, Father Christmas was trending as a literary personification of the festive Christmas spirit - most famously exemplified in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (the Spirit of Christmas Present).

Meanwhile, in North America, references to the gift-giving St. Nicholas were abbreviated to "St. Claus", from the Dutch Sinterklaas. Children would hang up stockings on Christmas Eve and wait for "St. Claus" to fill them up with goodies.

In the 19th century, the Americans produced two decisive works that cemented the modern re-shaping of St. Nicholas: (1) A Visit by St. Nicholas ('Twas the Night Before Christmas) by Clement C. Moore in 1823, and (2) a published and widely distributed illustration of "St. Claus" by Thomas Nast in 1863.

Nast's famous 1863 "St. Claus" illustration.

In the former, Moore described St. Nicholas as "chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf" with "a little round belly", that "shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly", This was a very silly characterization, and therefore became very popular for amusement and humor. By the turn of the century, numerous children's books were written on the hysterical figure. In the early 1930s, The Coca-Cola Company picked up on the trend and used Santa Claus to promote their brand to kids. Disney exploited the same phenomenon. Thus, with massive financial capital for global advertising, the secular creation of Santa Claus was complete.

What originated with a charitable, holy bishop who rescued the downtrodden from deprivation was converted by modernist forces into a plump, goofy gift-giving fascination. "Santa" is thus a modern creation, only about 120 years young, while St. Nicholas lived 1800 years ago.

A Coca Cola advert featuring Santa, by pin-up artist Haddon Sundblom

Rekindling the flames of the Nativity

What we have before us is a drastic reinvention of Christmas over the past 150 years. It has been refashioned to accommodate our unquenchable desires and to reinforce commercial interests on a global scale. Santa Claus has replaced Christ. And so, alcoholic excess and lavish gluttony have replaced the humble Nativity Fast. Obsessive materialism in the form of stress-inducing gift shopping has replaced charitable care for the poor and sick. A season for 1 trillion dollars in revenue has replaced a season for spiritual reconciliation with God.

It is actually the modern man that has copied pagan Saturnalia and called it Christmas. For there is now very little difference between this modern "winter holiday" (as the conglomerates have begun to call it), and Roman Saturnalia. In a twisted way, the modern man desperately looks for pagan influences on the early Christians as means to justify this reinvention. But he finds none, as we have seen.

We may conclude in the same way the early Christians did: let Saturnalia be for the pagans, but let the Christians celebrate Christ's Nativity. We can heed the counsel of St. Gregory of Nazianus (325-390), equally effective in ancient times as it is today:

"Let us keep the Feast [of Christmas], not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a Godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own, but as belonging to Him who is ours, or rather as our master’s; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation."

Merry Christmas.

Orthodox fresco depicting the Nativity scene.

Footnote: 25 December in Scripture

Although the Gospels are not interested in the exact dating of the Birth of Christ, they do offer some clues. Christians spotted this very early.

The Gospel according to Luke begins by describing the birth of St. John the Forerunner (also known as St. John the Baptist). His father, Zacharias, was a priest at the Temple, and his wife, Elizabeth, was barren of high age. Then the following happens:

  1. Zacharias was selected to enter the Holiest of Holies during Yom Kippur. Once there, an angel visited him and declared that he would have a son who would come in the spirit of Elijah and be named John. (Luke 1:8-26).

  2. Then, "Now in the sixth month [of Elizabeth's pregnancy with St. John] the angel Gabriel was sent by God to the city of Galilee named Nazareth to a virgin..." and announced to the Virgin Mary the miracle of the conception of Christ in her womb. This, then, happened six months after Yom Kippur, when St. John was conceived. (Luke 1:26-38).

Yom Kippur usually takes place by the end of September. From September, count six months and you land in the end of March.

Then, count another nine months from March (when the Virgin arrived at full term), and you arrive in the end of December.

In this way, the Gospels strongly suggest to us that Christ was born in the end of December.

Further Reading:

Santa Claus is real: Santa Claus as the Hypostasis of Christmas:

The economic impact of Christmas:

On the alleged pagan influence on early Christians:

On the Date of Christmas:

On the Life of St. Nicholas:

On the Date of Christmas (ancient commentaries):

Orthodox Christian understanding of Christmas:

Christmas Trees and Christianity:

The Cocal Cola Santas by Haddon Sundblom:

General outline of the History of Santa Claus:

General outline of the History of Christmas:

General outline of the History of Christmas Trees:

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