e celebrate Christmas on the 25 December but that hasn’t always been the case. While centuries of tradition have cemented this day in the minds of many the precise date of Jesus’ birth is pure guesswork. As we explore its history, we’ll learn more about this holiday and why it falls in December.
In the earliest years of the Christian Church, the festival of Christmas was not celebrated at all. In the second and third centuries, we know that the only celebrated festivals were the Passover, Pentecost, and the Epiphany - the baptism or manifestation of Jesus. This seems to have always been fixed for the 6 of January, and this festival wrapped Jesus’ birth, childhood and baptism all up into one event.
It is widely believed that the date of 25 December was chosen specifically to overlap with other pagan festivals around the vernal equinox and to convert the existing festival of the winter solstice to a Christian use. The returning sun was made symbolic of the visit of Christ to earth, and to draw converts to Christianity from those pagan feasts which littered the closing year. The biggest pagan celebration of the winter came with the Saturnalia, which shares many similarities with our modern Christmas festival.
The Saturnalia was a celebration of the god Saturn by the very earliest of Romans and was marked by utmost social freedom permitted to all classes. Slaves were allowed to come to the tables of their masters clothed in their apparel and were waited on by those whom they would usually serve. Feasting, gaming and revelry were the occupations of all classes without discrimination of age, or sex or rank.
Processions would noisily crowd the streets, boisterous with mirth. These illuminated the night with lighted tapers of wax, which were also given as gifts between friends. The season was one for the giving of gifts of friendship, and especially of gifts to children. It began on 17 December and extended virtually to the start of the New Year.
While the Romans would celebrate the Saturnalia, in Britain the influence of pagan gods came from the wild Scandinavian north as well as the cosmopolitan Roman Empire; and the Vikings and Saxons brought with them their own traditions and celebrations, including the feast of Yule. This feast was named Iàlka tid, or Yuletide, and was celebrated in midwinter to commemorate the god Odin. Because in winter the Vikings were unable to go to sea, they could instead assemble in their great halls and temples to drink and feast in honour of the gods they served so well.
Christmas in Britain became more widely celebrated as the centuries wore on, especially as the festivals of Odin and Saturn began to blend into the season of mirth and merriment we know today. Toward the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries, the celebration of Christmas had become almost the same as our modern incarnation and was marked by festivities, drinking and feasting, as well as the giving of gifts.