Few people can confidently say why the United States celebrates Christmas on December 25. And I imagine even fewer people know why we give gifts, or why we pucker up when we find ourselves under some mistletoe. The answers to these questions are under a thick layer of rich human and mythological history. For me, the majority of these discoveries were absolutely shocking—Christ was never in Christmas.
Sol Invictus is the Roman sun god whose birthday celebration falls on December 25. Scholars agree that this date was most likely picked because the Roman calendar lists the 25th as the winter solstice. Interestingly, evidence suggests there was an undeniable overlap between the sun god Sol Invictus, Judaism and Christianity during the 1st through 3rd centuries CE. This makes very little sense because this time period was very tumultuous for both Christians and Jews. Still visible to this day are mosaics of Sol Invictus throughout synagogues in Israel. Why did the Jews ignore a blatant Pagan reference in their places of worship for well over a thousand of years? Or perhaps more importantly, why were the mosaics ever put there to begin with? Emmanuel Friedheim explains his reaction:
“The appearance of Helios [the Greek variant of the Roman Sol Invictus] aroused a stormy scholarly debate that intensified when the ancient synagogue at Hammath Tiberias was excavated . . . this is the earliest example of a depiction of the sun god, and it appeared in one of the most important Jewish centers during the Talmudic period.”
Perhaps it is safe to conclude, then, that the Greco-Roman sun gods were, at some point, substantially rooted in Jewish culture. Though scholars may never know, it’s possible this is why Christmas is celebrated on the same day as two Pagan sun gods (Friedheim).
Before the Common Era, the world ran on a calendar marked by the year’s solstices and equinoxes. These quarter points of the year were celebrated with feasts and celebrations. In the case of the winter solstice, ancient Romans partook in the festival of Saturnalia. This festival, created in honor of the sowing god Saturn, marked the end of the autumn planting season. This festival was different than the Roman’s other festivals. First-century AD poet Gaius Valerius Catullus described this festival as “the best of times.” He claims that the dress codes were less steep and small gifts—such as dolls and candles—were exchanged. According to history, Saturnalia also saw the inversion of social roles; it was common for the affluent to pay that month’s rent on behalf of those who were less fortunate. All executions were cancelled and war was never declared during this time. This festival has been traced to 217 BC and increased days in duration over many years. Dr. David Gwynn, a professor of ancient and late antique history at the University of London says that the festival continued up to 100 years after the Rome’s conversion to Christianity in 312 CE. Dr. Gwynn, however, also...