What do we actually celebrate at Christmas?
We all know December 25th is the day we feast the birth of Jesus Christ, making the date the most important in the Christian calendar. But we (should) also know that this was not the exact date of His birth. So what do we actually celebrate at Christmas?
Nowhere in the Bible or in any other sacred Christian book is there any indication that Jesus was born in December. On the contrary, though no specific date is mentioned anywhere, as quoted in the Gospel, there is evidence that shows that He was born at a time when shepherds guarded their flock of sheep at night – which was unlikely to happen in winter, as was the census of Herod, which took place just before the birth of Jesus. So Jesus was probably born either in spring or in autumn.
So why then do we celebrate the Nativity on December 25th? The answer lies in Emperor Constantine’s decision to turn Christianity into the official religion of the Roman Empire. This happened in 313, with the Edict of Milan. By then, two pagan celebrations had gained vast popularity and were celebrated in December. One was Saturnalia, the celebration of Saturn, the god of sowing and light. Celebrating the end of a year and the coming of the new one, this festival lasted from December 17th until the 25th and entailed a public banquet, carnivals and gift-offering.
The second celebration was the Birth of Mithra, the Sun God, also feasted on the 25th of December. The party was very debauched, often entailing sacrifices and licentious acts.
And this was precisely what the Roman Empire, in full moral and cultural crisis, sought to eliminate. With the coming of Christianity and its moral principles, the Emperor and the Fathers of the Church agreed to declare December 25th as the date of the Birth of Christ. The Philocalian calendar mentions the first Christmas feast in 354 CE and the celebration has lived on ever since.