Christmas may get buried under the catalogues of holiday cheer, present buying, and a lot of food prep stress, but the 2 thousand-year-old holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus has one of the most complex and interesting timelines of any holiday in the history of the world.
The annual festival celebrated on Dec. 24, Dec. 25, January 7, and Jan 19 depending on denomination, is both a cultural and deeply religious occasion celebrated by billions of people around the world. From the inclusion of the Christmas tree to the annual gift-giving, the feast day that spans through modern history has many traditions, myths, and stories that resonate around the globe.
As a main celebration in the Christian liturgical calendar, it follows the season of Advent and ushers in Christmastide, or The Twelve Days of Christmas. It was first decided to the specific date in the Western calendar by Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk who was an abbot in Rome. With Exiguus’ research and biblical texts, Jesus’s birth was decided to have occurred on December 25, 1 C.E. There have been many disputes over the actual date of Jesus’s birth since, but Exiguus’ date has stuck despite them.
Prior to Christian celebrations, Roman pagans celebrated the holiday of Saturnalia, a week of raucous celebrations from December 17-25, where Roman courts were closed and the law dictated that citizens could not be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the feasting. The Romans believed these celebrations, which chose a community victim and forced them to indulge in food and festivities, destroyed the forces of evil when they murdered this victim at the conclusion of the week, on December 25.
In the 4th century, Christian leaders were successful at converting many pagans to Christianity by allowing them to also continue the celebration of Saturnalia, and this was its first connection to Jesus’s birth. Because the festival of Saturnalia had no connection with Christian teachings, leaders tacked on the holiday of Jesus’s birth onto the last day of the festival. For many years, contemporaries of the time continued to allow the celebration.