Here begins a series of articles on the history of Christmas.
The Advent Season (Advent means the “coming” of the Christ Child) is marked by the four Sundays before Christmas and is celebrated in the church calendar as one the most festive seasons of the year. This year, because Christmas itself falls on a Monday, Advent starts three weeks before Christmas, or next Sunday.
As we shall see, many of the traditions, customs, and stories of the Advent Season have Christian roots while others have non-Christian sources. Some are legendary, and others are firmly rooted in history.
Ironically, the date for the Nativity — upon which our Western calendar system is based — is not known with certainty. The Feast of Christmas was not an early festival for the church, as Resurrection Sunday (Easter) was and did not see general observance until the 4th century. It was not until the early part of the 5th century that the western church agreed upon the current date of December 25. Historians believe this date was picked to supplant the pagan holiday Saturnalia that was celebrated by the Romans and whose many customs survive today: evergreen, holly, mistletoe, feasting and gift exchanges.
The 25th of December, the ancient date for their winter solstice, was celebrated as the birthday of the unconquerable sun or natalis invicti solis when the sun’s transit was in the lowest point on the horizon with the shortest “day” of the year and then with longer days coming began its transit northward. Under the Christian calendar the 25th was to become known as the birth of the unconquerable Son.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
Inspired in part by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time