While Christmas is generally defined as the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus, the festival has complex origins and ambiguous non-religious resonances. The origin of the name Christmas is the Old English Crïstes mæsse, "Christ's mass." The French Noël derives from the Latin Dies Natalis, "Day of Birth."
Why is Christmas on the 25th of December?
Whatever the origins of the festival that is held on the 25th of December, it cannot be the celebration of the actual birth date of Jesus. That date is unknown. So while Christmas is the day on which the birth of Jesus is celebrated, the day chosen seems more related to the many festivals that mark the winter solstice, most of which in Roman or Celtic times predate the birth of Jesus. While it cannot be said that these festivals are the origin of Christmas, they have left their legacy not only in the time of year, but also in many of its symbols and traditions.
Winter solstice festivities of course celebrated renewal and the return of light, a perfect complement to the birth of Christ, which, according to the Christian faith, brought light into the world to dispel the darkness of sin and radiate the love of God. In the Northern Hemisphere, the solstice occurs everywhere at the same time between 20 and 23 December, based on the Gregorian calendar, but local time may be on 21 December in Western Canada and 22 December in Eastern Canada.
The Pagan Antecedents to Christmas
Solstice festivals, marking the low point of the sun, the shortest day of the year, the time from which days will lengthen and hopes for light and warmth will reappear, have been celebrated perhaps for millennia in northern climates, where winters are more severe.
One of these festivals, the Roman solar feast of Natalis Invicti, celebrated on 25 December, may have a strong claim as the origin of our late December date for Christmas. This solar cult reached its climax under Emperor Aurelian (270-275). Later Christians, eg, Chrysostom in the 4th century, made a connection of this festival with the birth of Jesus: "if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice."
Also in Roman times, Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing, was honored with a festival. The Saturnalia was officially celebrated on 17 December and, in Cicero's time, lasted seven days, from 17 to 23 December. In the Roman calendar, the Saturnalia was designated a holy day, on which religious rites were performed. But it was also the most popular holiday of the Roman year, an occasion for visits to friends, for drinking, and for the presentation of gifts, particularly wax candles, perhaps to signify the return of light after the solstice. The Saturnalia continued to be celebrated down to the Christian era, when, by the middle of the fourth century AD, its festivities had become absorbed in the celebration of Christmas.
In North America, some First Nations also held winter ceremonies and festivals as a time for regeneration and introspection. Some, such as the Iroquoian groups, held week-long festivals at mid-winter, with the time determined by observing the moon and stars. It eventually came to be associated with the winter solstice. Typical practices, some of which continue to this day, were healing rituals, making tobacco offerings, prayer and ceremonial drumming and dancing.
Early Christian Dates for Christmas
Some of the earliest records for the celebration of the birth of Jesus come from Alexandria, Egypt. Several scholars, dating back to Clement of Alexandria (c. 200 AD), have attempted to determine the exact date of Jesus' birth. The date has yet to be determined, but Clement notes that Epiphany and the Nativity were celebrated on 10 or 6 January, indicating that some sort of consensus was reached. The commemorations became popular in Egypt between 427 and 433. At the end of the fourth century, in Cyprus Epiphanius asserts that Jesus was born on 6 January and baptized on 8 November.
In Jerusalem in the fourth century the Birth and Baptism were still combined in a single event. There is a record of Cyril of Jerusalem (348-386) writing to Pope Julius I (337-352), declaring that his clergy cannot, on this single feast, make a double procession to Bethlehem and Jordan. He asks Julius to assign the true date of the nativity based on the census documents brought by Titus to Rome, and Julius assigns 25 December. But Julius died in 352, and by 385 Cyril still had not made the change.
Hence there were precedents when Pope Liberius I (reigned 353-356) preached a sermon at St. Peter's, instituting the Nativity feast in December. By the end of the fourth century the feast was established, and every Western calendar assigned it to 25 December. The new date reached Constantinople by 379. In the Western church, Epiphany is usually celebrated as the time the Magi, or Wise Men, arrived to present gifts to the young Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). Epiphany, also called Twelfth Day, is typically celebrated on 6 January, culminating the observance of Twelfth Night on 5 January. Since Eastern Orthodox traditions use a different religious calendar, they celebrate Christmas on 7 January and observe Epiphany, or Theophany, on 19 January.
The Second Council of Tours proclaimed, in 566 or 567, the sanctity of the "twelve days" from Christmas to Epiphany and the duty of fasting on particular days of Advent (period beginning on the Sunday nearest the feast of St. Andrew, on 30 November, and including four Sundays) to prepare for the celebration of Jesus' birth. Fasting was forbidden on Christmas Day and eventually popular merry-making so overwhelmed the religious aspects that the "Laws of King Cnut," c. 1110, ordered a fast from Christmas to Epiphany.