Much of what you think you know about Christmas is wrong: Christmas is the day Jesus was born (it’s not); it’s a timeless tradition of family togetherness (nope); and, by the way, your Christmas tree? It’s totally a pagan symbol.
1. Christmas Was Once a Rowdy Street Party
The time of family togetherness — and shopping — that we now associate with Christmas is a relatively recent invention. Up, until the 19th century, Christmas was a wholly different affair. What was it like? The words to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” provide a hint: “bring us some figgy pudding” “and a glass of good cheer,” and by the way, “we won’t leave until we get some.” What’s all this about demanding pudding and booze and refusing to leave until it’s provided? Seems kind of pushy.
Now bring us some figgy pudding
Now bring us some figgy pudding
And a glass of good cheer.
Good tidings we bring to you and your kin
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy new Year
We won’t go until we get some
We won’t go until we get some
We won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here
That’s because, until the 19th Century, most working-class people spent Christmas at the pub getting sloshed before stumbling out into the street and going from house to house demanding food and drink. In a way, it was like drunken adult Halloween, minus the trouble of having to find a costume. As The Economist explained in this years Christmas Double Issue, “Mostly this was tolerated in good humour—a kind of ritualised disorder, when the social hierarchy was temporarily inverted.”
Early Puritan colonists in Massachusetts actually canceled Christmas altogether. (Leave it to the Puritans to spoil all the fun.) By the mid-nineteenth century, as the industrial revolution moved more people into cities, things started to get out of control. Christmas celebrations often were hard to distinguish from street riots. Newspapers started to encourage people to stay home with their families, and soon, new Christmas traditions were born.
2. The Star of Bethlehem Might Not Be a Star at All
There are a number of theories to explain just what it was the Wise Men saw, but among the most promising is that it wasn’t a star at all, rather it was a rare triple conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. When this happens, the earth, sun and Saturn and Jupiter line up three times in a short period of time. This would create a remarkable sight in the sky sure to catch the attention of the Wise Men, who are thought to be astrologers from Babylon — present-day Iraq.
One of the unusual aspects of the biblical story is that the Wise Men saw the star in their home country, then saw it again after meeting King Herod in Jerusalem and followed it to Bethlehem. The appearance and disappearance of a triple conjunction would explain this.
There was a triple conjunction in 7 BC, on May 29, Sept. 29, and Dec. 4. Jesus birth came in the time of King Herod, according to the Bible. Herod is thought to have died in 4 BC. So, it would have been three years before Herod’s death, which would have fit the biblical timing.
There are other theories too, including a comet noted by Chinese astronomers in 5 BC in the constellation Capricorn, a Nova (the bright birth of a new star), and other planetary alignments. Dr. David Hughes, a physicist at the University of Sheffield in England published an exhaustive study of all the competing theories in the scientific journal Nature in 1976 and included an interesting chart illustrating how well they track with the timing in the biblical account.
But, the triple conjunction theory fits all the facts of the biblical account well, says Tim O’Brien, who is associate director of Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, England. “You would [only] get a triple conjunction like this about every 900 years,” he says. So, it would clearly portent something important. “A triple conjunction of this kind ticks all the boxes.”
3. Jesus Wasn’t Born on Dec. 25
There’s nothing in the Bible to suggest Dec. 25 as the day of Jesus birth. Early Christians chose various days to celebrate the Messiah’s birth before eventually settling on Dec. 25. The Roman emperor Constantine proclaimed Jesus was born on November 18th. A third century Christin document thought to have originated in North Africa pegs it as March 28. Either are more likely candidates than December 25th.
In Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:7-8) shepherds are said to have been watching over there flocks at night.
7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. 8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.
December would have been cold and rainy in ancient Judea, so shepherds would be unlikely to be tending their flocks outdoors. In December, they would bring their flocks into a shelter at night. Shepherds would only have their flocks outside at night in the spring or early fall. Further, the biblical account in Luke (Luke 2:1-4) also tells us that Jesus was born around the time of a Roman census.
2 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while[a]Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.
These didn’t occur in the winter when rain and rutted roads would have made travel arduous. Generally, a census would take place in the spring or summer when the weather was better. In fact, there’s actually no real evidence at all that Jesus was born on December 25th. That date was chosen for other reasons (more on that later).
4. Christmas is Probably a Repurposed Pagan Holiday
The reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25th goes back to Ancient Rome. The first time we hear of Jesus birth date as December 25th is centuries later in a fourth-century Roman almanac.
The most popular theory for how we settled on December 25th is that it coincided with the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia, which took place in late December to coincide with the winter solstice. The Roman Emporer Aurelian set the date of the feast of Sol Invictus, the pagan sun god, as December 25th in 274 AD. It’s very plausible that early Christians simply repurposed the feast of Sol Invictus for the celebration of Jesus’ birth.
Recruiting pagans to Christianity, was a priority of early Christians. Fixing the celebration of Christ’s birth to an already established pagan holiday may have made it more attractive to potential converts says historian William Walsh. “[T]he important fact then … to get clearly into your head is that the fixing of the date as December 25th was a compromise with paganism” (William Walsh, The Story of Santa Klaus, 1970, p. 62).
However, Christian writings from around this time make no reference to this. Instead, they see the coincidence of Christ’s birth with the solstice as an auspicious sign. Early Christians weren’t known to adopt other pagan customs, that came later. It wasn’t until the reign of Emperor Constantine a century later that Christians began to adopt some aspects of pagan culture, such as turning pagan temples into churches.
Another theory is that the timing of Jesus’ birth was set to the timing of Jesus Crucifixion. The Biblical account tells us the crucifixion took place during Passover, so early Christians had a more precise idea about its date. Third century Christians thought that Jesus’ death and conception, later celebrated as the Feast of the Annunciation, occurred on the same day. C.E. Tertullian of Carthage calculated that the date for both was March 25. Add nine months, and you get December 25th.
5. The Christmas Tree Began as a Pagan Custom
Our contemporary celebration of Christmas includes many pagan trappings. But, most came later. Many pagan cultures had traditions of bringing greenery into the home around the winter solstice to represent new life and renewal amid the bleak mid-winter gloom. The Christmas tree first emerged in 16th and 17th century Germany. But, Christmas trees were not widely seen in England and the United States until the mid-nineteenth century when Queen Victoria, borrowing a tradition from the childhood of her German mother, displayed a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. An illustration of Victoria and Albert’s Christmas tree was published in the London News in 1848 and was republished in America two years later. From then on, Christmas trees were a hit.
The true meaning of Christmas has little to do with what date you celebrate it or how. There’s nothing in the Bible that tells us how we should celebrate it, or even that we must celebrate it at all. Over the centuries, ideas and traditions have been borrowed from different cultures to create the festive joyous season that we celebrate now as “the most wonderful time of the year.”