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So you think Christmas is about the birth of the Biblical Jesus Christ? It turns out it has nothing to do with Jesus. At all!
In fact, the Bible gives no reference to when Jesus was born. Early Christians never saw the need to celebrate the birth of Jesus. With no Biblical directive to do so and no mention in the Gospels of the correct date, it wasn’t until the fourth century that church leaders in Rome embraced the holiday.
Christmas evolved out of pagan celebrations during the winter solstice which takes place in the Northern Hemisphere. This period marks the year’s shortest day and heralds the onset of winter. It also promises the gradual return of the sun after a prolonged period of darkness.
That there were holidays at the time of this astronomical event is no coincidence. Since ancient times, people have celebrated the solstice and observed it with many different cultural and religious traditions. Some of them survive to the present day—though not always in the form you might expect. Christmas is one of them.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice always occurs on or about December 21 and marks the beginning of the winter season. As many people notice, it’s the shortest day of the year, featuring the least amount of daylight between sunrise and sunset.
In the Southern Hemisphere, this is the time of the summer solstice and the longest day of the year. From now on, as the northern days grow longer so do the southern days get shorter.
The term solstice means “sun stands still.” On the year’s two solstices (winter and summer) the sun appears to halt in its incremental journey across the sky and change little in position during this time. Of course, contrary to appearances from Earth, the sun’s “changing position” throughout the year is actually caused by the rotation of the Earth on its tilted axis as it circles the sun each year.
The solstice occurs twice a year (around December 22nd and June 21st) when the sun is farthest from the tilting planet’s celestial equator.
The holiday timing of the winter solstice is rooted in ancient religions. Throughout history, humans have observed this seasonal milestone and created spiritual and cultural traditions to celebrate the rebirth of sunlight after the darkest period of the year.
The Gospels do not specify when Christ was born, so the date December 25th may have been originally chosen because of the belief that the season of Christ’s conception would be that same as that of his death and resurrection. But the new celebration soon became co-mingled with traditional observances of the solstice.
Traditional solstice celebrations existed in many cultures. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, honoring the God Saturn, was a weeklong December feast that included the observance of the winter solstice. Romans also celebrated the lengthening of days following the solstice by paying homage to Mithra—an ancient Persian god of light.
Christian leaders of the time endeavored to attract pagans to their faith by adding Christian meaning to these existing festivals. And they therefore invented Christmas, giving it a date as close to the Winter Solstice as possible!
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