The history of Christmas

Christmas is the festival most felt by the faithful believers of all Christian faiths. It celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ and occurs on the 25th of December for most of the Christian churches, including the Catholic one. Instead for the Eastern Orthodox Churches and Slavs it is celebrated in January (on the 6th, 7th or 19th).

Today Christmas is also widespread among non-Christians, as a secular festival dedicated to the exchange of gifts, to the family, to the feeling of solidarity and to traditional symbols and figures such as Santa Claus and the decorated Christmas tree. Christmas is also celebrated even in countries with very small Christian minorities, such as India and Japan.


Christmas in St. Peter’s

For the Catholic liturgical calendar, Christmas is more important than Ascension and Pentecost, but its solemnity is less than that of Easter.

On the 24th of December, at 9.30 pm, the Pope celebrates the Mass on the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord at the papal chapel of St. Peter's Basilica. To take part in this Mass a fax must be sent to the Vatican with your request before December the 8th.

On December 25th, at 12:00, however, the Pontiff officiates the mass of the day in the central loggia of the Basilica. During the Mass, the Holy Father reads his Christmas message to the world and performs the “Urbi et Orbi” blessing: “of the City of Rome, and of the whole world”.

The “Urbi et Orbi” blessing is in Latin and invokes the remission of sins for all those present in St. Peter's Square or who attend the apostolic blessing through the media. This ceremony is also held at Easter, after the election of a new Pope and in other particular occasions.


Does Christmas have pagan or Christian origins?

In order to prove that Jesus Christ never existed, some sceptics claim that his actions have been copied from those of the god of Persian origin Mithra, later worshipped by the Romans.

According to their thesis, Mithra, like Christ, was born to a virgin on December 25th and would die to expiate the sins of humanity. In fact, even if the conception from a virgin is just one of the many versions on the birth of Mithra (others claim he was born from a rock), there is no evidence that this event was celebrated on December 25th.

On that date, however, the ancient Romans celebrated Sol Invictus, a Sun God whose cult was imported to Rome in 274 AC by Emperor Aurelian. The first testimony to the celebrations of Sol Invictus on December 25th is however, only in 354 BC, while we know with certainty that Christians in the empire celebrated the birth of Jesus, on that same day, at least eighteen years earlier.

Therefore there is no way of knowing whether the Christian Christmas replaced the pagan one or the pagans chose December 25th to counter the expansion of the new monotheistic religion.

In any case, pagan cults persisted for a long time in the habits and customs of Christians: Pope Leo I wrote bitterly about how, even in 460, before entering St. Peter's Basilica, many of the faithful turned to the sun and bowed their heads, honouring the "glowing star."


Father Christmas

The exchanging of gifts at Christmas is of Roman origin: it occurred between the 17th and the 23rd of December, during the celebration of Saturnalia, festivities dedicated to the God Saturn.

The figure of Santa Claus, who gives gifts to all children of the world in one night, represents the most materialistic and less spiritual ‘spirit’ of Christmas.

However, the image of the old bearded man dressed in red has both pagan and Christian origins.

It is in fact inspired by St Nicholas of Myra. The saint is remembered, among other things, for having donated three bags of gold to the daughters of a very poor man who, thanks to his gift, were able to get married. Saint Nicholas dropped the three bags of gold down the chimney, giving birth to the legend that Santa Claus enters homes through the fireplace.

The transformation of Saint Nicholas into Father Christmas was completed in the United States in the 19th century, thanks to two stories.

The first is by the writer Washington Irving, who tells of a ship full of European immigrants that docks in the port of New York. The captain, who was devoted to St Nicholas, had the ‘figurehead’ of his ship carved to represent the saint. On the night of Christmas Eve the figurehead came to life and flew through New York skies to distribute gifts to all the children.

The second story was written by Clement Clarke Moore who describes Father Christmas as we know him today: the red tunic of St. Nicholas, typically worn by the bishops of Myra, has turned into a jacket and the saint is plump with a large white beard.

Pagan influences are, instead, the god of the Celts Gargan, Odin and other Nordic myths who introduced the elements of the sled, his sack and the reindeer.


The Tree

The Christmas tree originates from a very ancient tradition. It has long been opposed by some circles of Christianity due to its pagan origins.

The introduction of the tree into the Christmas celebrations is accredited to Martin Luther: during a nighttime voyage he had admired the icy trees shining in the moonlight and wanted to recreate that vision.

In the following centuries the use of the Christmas tree spread throughout the rest of Europe. The custom began in North and Central Protestant Europe in the 16th century, to become common in Italy and Spain only in the mid-twentieth century.

The spruce was already considered a tree of the nativity by ancient Egyptians. In ancient Greece, a large spruce was erected in the centre of the city during a spring ritual devoted to the Great Mother.

The Christmas tree can also be linked to the Yggdrasil ash tree, the mythical tree from world of Norse mythology, a meeting place for heaven, earth and the kingdom of the dead.

Today the Church states that the Christmas tree represents both the tree of life from the Old Testament and Christ: the lights used to decorate it symbolise the light God gives to humanity.


The Nativity Scene

The invention of the Nativity Scene is attributed to a Catholic Saint. It happened in Greccio, a small village in central Italy, in 1223. St. Francis of Assisi was spending Christmas there and he decided to represent the scene of the birth of Christ, reconstructing it in the Bethlehem Cave.


When was Jesus really born?

In the second century AD, Clement of Alexandria, one of the Church Fathers, complained about how the Christian faithful were not content with knowing the year of Jesus' birth but busied themselves in how to find out the exact day.

In the early lists of Christian festivals, Christmas is absent. The Christian theologian, Origen, once again in the second century AD, goes further saying that only sinners celebrate the birthday of Christ.

The Gospel does not mention the date of birth of the Saviour. Luca says that he was born in the spring, while Marco completely ignores Jesus’ childhood.

The dates then chosen (25 December, 5 and 6 January) appear to be linked to the winter solstice and ancient Dionysian traditions. Some people have also suggested a connection with the Hanukkah Jewish holiday.

Recently, scholars from the Jewish University of Jerusalem claimed that December 25th could be the actual date of birth of Jesus. Their theory is based on the study of priestly shifts from the Book of Jubilees, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls.