Why Do We Celebrate Christmas On December 25?

By | December 23, 2020

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Queen Victoria's Christmas Tree, 1850. Found in the collection of Royal Collection, London. Artist: Roberts, James (1824-1867). (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Ah, Christmas: the most wonderful time of the year, according to Andy Williams and basically every retailer in the Western world. However, as we become lost in all the beauty of the twinkling lights, sparkling ribbons, and spiked eggnog, it can be easy to forget the origins of Christmas. Of course, we all know about the birth of Jesus, but where did our Christmas traditions come from, and why do we celebrate it every year on December 25? We don't even know exactly when Mariah Carey was born. How are we so confident about Jesus?

Was Jesus Born On December 25?

The truth is we can't be totally sure about Jesus' birthday. Despite eventually becoming one of the most popular religions in the world, Christianity started small and faced great persecution, so celebrations of Jesus' birth went undocumented until 336 C.E. That's as far back as we have proof, in the form of an ancient Roman calendar, that it was celebrated on December 25, but three centuries is plenty of time to forget someone's birthday if you neglect to write it down. Most of us forget after three days.

You might assume it has something to do with the scripture, but the Bible is remarkably vague about the time of year when Jesus was born. The obvious thing to do would be to search for documentation of the Star of Bethlehem, which is said to have guided the Magi to Jesus after his birth, but the closest astronomers have found to an event like this occurring was the meeting of Jupiter, Saturn, and the Moon in 6 B.C.E. There's a number of problems with connecting this event to Jesus' birth on December 25: It happened in the spring, not winter, and it's famously believed Jesus was born in the year 0. The Bible gives some evidence, however, that his birth likely occurred closer to springtime, as the mentions of shepherds working the fields would make more sense during spring rather than the dead of winter.

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An illustration to Baldrs draumar. The list of illustrations in the front matter of the book gives this one the title Odin rides to Hel. (W.G. Collingwood/Wikimedia Commons)

Norse Christmas

The reason for celebrating Jesus' birth on December 25 probably has a lot less to do with the Bible than the patchwork of religions that existed across Europe in the early fourth century, specifically the various pagan religions, almost all of which celebrated the coming of winter as a significant holiday. The Winter Solstice, the day when the Earth is at its greatest tilt and thus experiences the longest night of the year, was especially important to pre-Christian European religions. Winter was always a hard time for people, as survival depended greatly on how much food could be cultivated and stored before the cold and snow took away a good deal of your nutritional opportunities. In plain English, you may starve to death before spring, so you'd better party it up.

The Norse celebration of winter was known as Yule, which the ancient Germanic people celebrated by feasting on the last of their livestock, singing, decorating trees, and drinking ale. Some classic Christmas iconography, like the Yule log and Christmas tree, can be traced back to the evergreen trees that were central to this pagan festival, representing the hope that life could outlast even the cruelest of climates. Not for nothing, but the Norse god Odin was said to zoom across the night sky on an eight-legged horse, which sounds suspiciously close to the modern-day myth of Santa, who has been pulled by eight reindeer ever since the 1823 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore.