The History of Christmas – fact and
The History of Christmas – fact and fiction
Christmas is based on an event that was so long ago that nobody really knows what date it happened – which leaves us with a conundrum: How did we end up with 25 December?
What we DO know is that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod. Somewhat confusingly King Herod died in or around 4 BC – but wait, it gets worse!
We know from the bible that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem to be counted as part of a census. Unfortunately there are no records of this census but the general (historical) opinion seems to be that it took place around 7 BC.
The problem lies in the nature of the census. A census in ancient times could take years to complete because people could not be contacted easily. It is quite possible for this particular census to have overrun its schedule by up to five years.
Pre-Reformation wall painting of the nativity at Wissington, Suffolk
Fortunately we do have a major clue to the correct date of Christmas in the form of the "wonderous star' seen by the three wise men. According to a contemporary Chinese astronomer's records, in the spring of 5 BC he observed the appearance of a "Broom' or "Guest Star' that stayed visible for a period of two months before vanishing.
This "Guest Star' is thought to have been a supernova (an exploding star) which would explain why it was only seen for such a short time.
The Jewish festival of Passover was held in April of 5 BC and many families would have come together to celebrate. An excellent time for a census. It seems, from all the available evidence, fairly certain that Jesus was actually born in March/April of the year 5BC
This leaves us with another small problem. Christmas is celebrated in the winter and the census was held in the spring. How did we get to 25 December?
Bringing home the Yule log (right)
Christmas History out.
Christmas Trees out.
Christmas Cards out.
Christmas Carols out.
The Mistletoe Bough out.
Festive Music out.
A Victorian Christmas card depicting a blue clad St Nicholas
The idea of a December birth was laid down by the early Christians who (for reasons best known to themselves) felt it appropriate that Jesus would have been conceived in the spring to coincide with the Spring Equinox. We still celebrate this event today on 25 March (Lady Day). Which gives us a period of nine months until December and Christmas as we now know it.
The early Christians also found this date convenient for another reason. It enabled them to celebrate the passing of the Winter Solstice with a legitimate Christian event.
Most pagan cultures have celebrated the Winter Solstice as the start of a new year. It was seen as a celebration of lengthening days, more hours of daylight and a hope for the future. It was extremely hard for early converts to Christianity to cast away their need for reassurance that springtime was just around the corner. The early church recognized the need and very sensibly switched the name of the festival.
The Winter Solstice became Christmas and brought with it a host of pagan traditions that are still with us today.
It is interesting to observe that 11 days were dropped from the year in 1752, when we switched from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar. The date, 25 December was effectively moved backwards by 11 days. Some Christian Church Sects, called the "Calendarists", still celebrate Christmas on 7 January (previously 25 December of the Julian calendar).