In the northern hemisphere, the beginning of winter seems an odd time to celebrate...well, just about anything. Yet the world’s major religions all have December celebrations, from Ramadan for Muslims, to Yule for Pagans, to Hanukkah for Jews. Christians, and the many branches of Christianity, celebrate the glory of Christmas. The ancient traditions that shape Christmas, though, may be far more ancient than you realize. They predate Christmas itself.
December 22 at 04:48 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) this year marks the northern hemisphere’s first moment of winter solstice. This is the date when we endure the longest night and shortest day, due to earth’s tilt away from the sun. Here in New York City, five hours behind UTC, we will celebrate the exact moment of winter solstice at 11:48 p.m., December 21. Yet we do not let the precision of astronomers mar our enjoyment of Christmas. We never have, though ancient peoples commonly knew more about the earth and sky than most of us do today.
Scandinavians celebrated Yule from the solstice through January, and these festive times have been co-opted by Christians in celebration of Christmas. Feasts, the Yule log, 12 days of celebration all marked the beginning of longer days and shorter nights. Toasts, using that year’s beers and wines finally ready after months of fermentation, rang throughout warm Scandinavian homes through the cold nights.
At this same time of year, pagan Germans paid homage to Oden, whose nighttime flights across the sky terrified the mere mortals below. Oden had the power of life or death over the cowering people, keeping safely inside so he could not see them.
Perhaps the strongest resemblance to the excess, gifts and sheer joy of Christmas can be found in Rome’s Saturnalia. Saturn, god of agriculture, never punished the farmers and folk of the Italian peninsula as severely as the gods of more northern, and harsher, climates.
During the week before the winter solstice, food and drink fueled a topsy turvy celebration. Romans closed businesses and schools; slaves became masters; peasants commanded the cities. Gifts honoring Saturn were exchanged and little thought was given to work and worry.
At the solstice itself, the Roman feast of Juvenalia paid tribute to the children of Rome. Many wealthy Romans celebrated Mithras’ birthday on December 25. Mithras was the unconquerable god of the sun, born of rock.
From northern Europe throughout the Mediterranean, early Christianity worked to add a Christian veneer to local customs. So the Yule log, Druids’ mistletoe and trees, a sky-flying figure and the custom of exchanging gifts all fit neatly—more or less—into Christmas traditions being created year to year.
No one knows with certainty when Jesus, the reason Christians celebrate Christmas, was born. Pope Julius I, bishop of Rome from 337 to 352, landed the birthdate on December 25, conveniently coinciding with so many solstice celebrations and the Romans’ Saturnalia.
This Feast of the Nativity was supposed to be a somber time, though it adapted to local traditions with remarkable flexibility. By the eighth century, Christmas was celebrated throughout Europe, with Greek and Russian variations carrying it until January 9 of the New Year.
Many of our American Christmas traditions have been shaped by nostalgia for Victorian and New England customs. Few parts of the U.S. see deep snowfall by late December, but everyone dreams of a White Christmas. With a keen sense of their own economic inequality, wealthier Victorians were abundantly charitable at Christmas time, something still seen in New Yorkers’ generous coat and toy drives and the familiar corner bell ringers.