Originally published January 2010.
Archaeologist Paul Frodsham is very fond of Christmas. His book, From Stonehenge to Santa Claus – the Evolution of Christmas, takes readers on a wide-ranging 5,000-year journey through the celebration of midwinter.
Most people are vaguely aware that our modern Christmas merges ancient pagan elements with Christian tradition. As an archaeologist, Frodsham wanted to explore these connections in detail, and trace them back as far as possible. His journey led to encounters with Stone Age shamans, Celtic Druids, Greek and Egyptian gods, Roman emperors, Jesus Christ, Saint Nicholas, King Arthur, St Francis of Assisi, assorted Medieval English kings, Oliver Cromwell, Charles Dickens and, of course, dear old Santa. But the starting point for the journey had to be an investigation of the links between Christmas and the winter solstice.
The science of the solstice
Today, most of us live in towns and cities and pay little attention to the movement of the sun, moon, planets, and stars. In our artificially lit and heated buildings, we can exist almost without reference to the changing seasons of the natural world. But to ancient people, observation of the heavens was critical. This was for practical reasons, so they would know, for example, when to plant and harvest crops, but would also have provided the framework for the numerous ceremonies that occurred at particular times of year.
After midsummer, as each day went by, people noticed the sun rising slightly further south on the eastern horizon, reaching a lower point in the sky at noon, and setting correspondingly further south in the west. The days grew gradually shorter and the nights correspondingly longer, until, at midwinter, the process was reversed.
This slow but irreversible cycle was easily monitored by placing a post in the ground and measuring the maximum length of the shadow cast by it each day: there would be a small but noticeable change from one day to the next, except at midsummer and midwinter, at each of which the movements of the sun appeared identical for about six days. The sun thus appeared to ‘stand still’: hence the term ‘solstice’ (from the Latin sol stetit, meaning ‘the sun stands still’).
In ancient times, midwinter in particular was a dangerous period, both practically due to the cold and the possible lack of food, and also ceremonially as the gods had to be placated to ensure that the Sun did indeed come ‘back from the dead’ to commence its slow cycle back towards midsummer. This is why midwinter became of such ritual importance, and why the ceremonies associated with it are intimately bound up with ideas of death, rebirth, and fertility.
Today, we know that the Sun is not hauled across the sky each day by a god who would refuse to turn up for work a little earlier the next day if we failed to say the correct prayers or make the relevant sacrifice at midwinter. We understand that the Sun does not move around the Earth, and that the seasons are dictated by the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. We know that the key factor is the tilt of the Earth’s axis, which ensures (for the northern hemisphere) midwinter on 21/22 December and midsummer on 20/21 June (reversed for the southern hemisphere).
The tilt of the Earth on its axis also accounts for the fact that the Sun, as seen by an observer on the ground, appears to pass across the sky on a much lower trajectory in winter than in summer. It is this simple astronomical cycle of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, repeated year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium, that underlies the complex cultural history of midwinter.
The origins of the human obsession with midwinter lie way beyond the boundaries of recorded history, but archaeology and ancient myth can be used to reconstruct something of prehistoric midwinter rites. An appreciation of the time depth of midwinter celebrations can help explain the strength of continuing belief in the Nativity – and why so many of us would like to believe in Father Christmas!
Why, then, does Christmas Day, according to our modern calendar, occur three or four days after midwinter rather than on the actual day of the solstice? The answer lies in the inaccuracy of Julius Caesar’s calendar. We know very little for certain about the calendars employed by people in prehistoric Britain – though it would not be unreasonable to assume that the day of the winter solstice marked the beginning of the year. But we do know that the Julian calendar, based on an Ancient Egyptian calendar already 3,000 years old in Caesar’s day, was being used by the Romans when they invaded Britain in AD 43. When the Julian calendar was introduced, in 45 BC, 25 December was the shortest day of the year – the day of the winter solstice.
The Julian calendar consisted of 365 days, with an extra day inserted every fourth year. If the solar year (the exact time it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun) was exactly 365¼ days, then no doubt we would still be using Caesar’s calendar today. But the solar year is actually 365.242199 days long – meaning that a discrepancy between calendar and the seasons grew by 11 minutes 14 seconds each year. This was of no significance over a single year, and of very little over a lifetime. But in four centuries, it adds up to three days.
This was of no real consequence for Christmas, with its fixed date on 25 December, but caused serious complications in the Church’s calculation of Easter. The date of Easter relied on a complex formula relating to the Sun and the Moon for which the date of the vernal (spring) equinox was crucial. (The equinoxes are the days in March and September on which the Sun lies directly over the equator, such that, to an observer on Earth, the Sun will spend 12 hours above the horizon, and 12 hours below.)
In the 4th century AD, the church tweaked the calendar so that the vernal equinox fell on 21 March, rather than 25 March, as it had in the original Julian calendar. The four quarter-days within the calendar thus became 21 March (vernal equinox), 21 June (summer solstice), 21 September (autumnal equinox), and, crucially to our discussion, 21 December (winter solstice). Christmas Day was thereby separated in the calendar from the day of winter solstice, and thus Christmas Day is on the wrong day – because of the inaccuracy of the Roman calendar.
The significance of midwinter is indicated by many of our great Neolithic monuments. The complex design of Stonehenge incorporates symbolic architecture relating to the celebration of the winter solstice by Neolithic people 5,000 years ago. The great passage tombs at Newgrange (near Dublin), Maes Howe (Orkney), and Clava (near Inverness), were brilliantly engineered so that their central chambers, containing the bones of ancestors and in darkness throughout the rest of the year, were dramatically illuminated by shafts of sunlight at midwinter; the annual rebirth of the sun was thus integrated into a cult of ancestors. Also aligned on the midwinter sun are the splendid stone circle of Long Meg and her Daughters in Cumbria, the bizarre Dorset Cursus, which runs for 10km across the chalkland of Wessex, and henge monuments in Wessex, East Anglia, and North Wales.
Carved spirals, concentric circles, and lozenges decorate the stones of Newgrange. Similar motifs adorn Long Meg. Some scholars have concluded that these ancient symbols relate to the Sun. In some cases, it seems to be the midwinter sun in particular that is referenced. The rituals implied by these monuments and their artwork are lost forever, though anthropological studies, such as those of midwinter festivals among certain North American native societies, may offer clues.
The Chumash people of coastal California, for example, used to hold elaborate winter solstice celebrations known as Kakunupwama (meaning ‘the radiance of the child born on the winter solstice’ – a reference to the rebirth of the sun at midwinter). Shamans took an hallucinogenic drink and communed with the spirit world, while the people took part in rituals to honour the sun and ensure that it climbed higher in the sky each day. A key element of Kakunupwama was the placing of a ‘sunstick’, representing the centre of the world, into a hole in a ceremonial plaza, around which rituals were concentrated.
The great Stone Age monuments fell out of use during the 2nd millennium BC. Ceremonial practices seem to have become focused on smaller, more local monuments. The sky and the sun were essential to religious belief throughout the ‘Celtic’ world, the sun-god Belanus was worshipped in many parts of Europe, and there is evidence that Maponus or Mabon (who can be equated with the Graeco-Roman god Apollo) was worshipped in Late Iron Age Britain. The fact that St Patrick warns against sun-worship implies that such pagan practices continued into the 5th century AD.
What of the Christian interpretation of Christmas? Christians see the ‘true message’ of Christmas being diluted through commercialisation and an elevation of Santa Claus over Jesus. They point to the move away from religious images on Christmas cards, and the changing nature of school Nativity plays, as evidence of a decline in traditional religious values. Many Christians believe literally in the Biblical story of the Nativity, while others accept that the story itself is fictitious but is an encoding of greater truths. Many non-Christians, on the other hand, regard it as nothing more than a fairy story, albeit a very good one, and some even argue that children should not be indoctrinated with such nonsense.
Regardless of personal belief, the Nativity has undeniably been crucial to the development of Christmas over the last two millennia. But all aspects of it, including the Virgin Birth and the Star of David, have antecedents in much older mythology. The story was apparently concocted retrospectively in the attempt to fulfil a number of Old Testament prophecies and provide a suitably grand entrance into the world for the Son of God. Even the most fervent believer in the Nativity will struggle to find any suggestion in the Bible that Jesus was born at midwinter. The link with the solstice was a clever move by the Church to appropriate the power of an already long-established midwinter festival.
In the Roman world of the first three centuries AD, the week-long festivals of Saturnalia (from 17 December) and the Kalends (from 1 January) were popularly observed. During these festivals, buildings were decorated with evergreens, presents were exchanged, and people over-indulged in feasting, drinking, gambling, and general revelry. Social roles were reversed, with slaves becoming temporary masters, and both men and women openly cross-dressing or dressing up as animals.
Sandwiched between the Saturnalia and the Kalends was the ‘Festival of the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun’ (Dies Natalis Invicti) on the day of the winter solstice – 25 December under the old Julian calendar. This was the main feast-day of the Mithraic religion, which was popular among army officers, such that it was enthusiastically celebrated on the distant frontiers of the Empire.
Some of the ancient Roman traditions survive as ingredients of our modern Christmas, either through their incorporation into Christian doctrine, or through the failure of the Church to eradicate them. A good example is the decoration of churches and homes with evergreens as symbols of everlasting life (Christian interpretation) – or fertility (pagan interpretation).
The greatest festival in the Early Christian Church was Easter. There seems to have been no widely practised celebration of the Nativity until the 4th century AD, when the Bishop of Rome announced that it would be celebrated on 25 December – effectively replacing the pagan Dies Natalis Invicti. We have little information about the British Christmas before the Norman Conquest, and the term ‘Christmas’ – as opposed to ‘the Nativity’ – is only recorded for the first time in the 11th century. It is of note, however, that from earliest Christian times, Christ is often referred to as the ‘Sun’ of Righteousness, implying a clear link with pagan sun-worship.
A royalist festival?
After 1066, contemporary accounts tell us something of the Medieval Christmas (though not always reliably). The festival was not centred solely on Christmas Day, but lasted for an extended season, reaching a finale on ‘Twelfth Night’ (5 January) – the Christmas season’s final invitation to over-indulge. Epiphany, an important Church festival commemorating the arrival of the Magi at Jesus’s crib, was celebrated on 6 January, this finally bringing the Christmas season to a close.
St Francis of Assisi did much to popularise Christmas in the early 13th century, for example by setting up Nativity scenes and introducing popular carols. The earliest known carols date from the 4th century, but these were in Latin and therefore not accessible to the masses. In contrast, by the 15th century, carols in English were very popular, providing fascinating amalgams of pagan and Christian themes. The Church continued to embrace pagan tradition, for example in the form of the Boy Bishop (elected each year from among the choristers of cathedrals and given pretty much the full power of a bishop for a few days around Christmas), and in the bizarre ‘Feast of Fools’.
Medieval kings often celebrated Christmas in style. William the Conqueror sent the Pope a Christmas present consisting of part of the booty he had won through his conquest of England. Henry II held gargantuan feasts during the festive season (despite the murder of Thomas a Becket at Christmas 1170). King John gave similar feasts in the early 13th century, and Henry III, a devoutly religious man, ordained that Westminster Hall be filled with poor people for a week at Christmas 1248 and that they all be well fed at his expense.
Henry VIII did not allow the small matter of the Reformation to interfere with his enjoyment of Christmas, and enjoyed celebrations more extravagant than any of his predecessors. James I was particularly keen on Christmas, hosting extravagant plays and masques, in some of which he even participated himself. In one play, Christmas, His Masque by Ben Johnson, first performed in 1616, we see an early reference to a Father Christmas figure, referred to as ‘Captaine Christmas’.
But Christmas was abolished by Cromwell’s Parliament after the Civil War, resulting in the ‘loss’ of a dozen Christmases, when church services were banned and shops and businesses were forced to remain open as usual. The Puritans objected to Christmas on the grounds that the Bible made no reference to the date of Christ’s birth; Christmas, for them, was ‘Popish nonsense’. In practice, Christmas was far too popular for it to be abolished: most people probably continued to celebrate it behind closed doors. A famous cartoon of 1653 shows ‘Old Father Christmas’ being told to ‘keep out’ by a Puritan, while being enthusiastically welcomed by a Royalist. Father Christmas became something of an icon of the Royalist cause.
After the Restoration of both King and Christmas in 1660, people were again free to enjoy the festive season. Although there is no doubt that a sizeable proportion of the population continued to celebrate Christmas with gusto, many contemporary commentators report the season’s declining importance towards the end of the 18th century and into the early 19th.
The Victorian Christmas
Christmas was then spectacularly ‘reinvented’ during the first half of the 19th century, when many aspects of our present day ‘traditional’ Christmas were introduced. This was the time when Santa Claus became popular. Alongside Jesus Christ, Santa is one of our two great Christmas characters, and he is arguably even more of an enigma than Jesus. Though his shady origins can be traced back to St Nicholas, who lived in what is now southern Turkey in the 4th century AD, Santa as we know him today, with sleigh and reindeer, is an American invention of the early 19th century.
That said, he does undeniably incorporate several characteristics (his home at the North Pole; his link with flying reindeer; his descent into our homes through the chimney; and his existence outside conventional time) that we might more normally associate with prehistoric shamans. Does Santa perhaps embody some very ancient traditions buried deep in the collective subconscious?
The 19th century story of Christmas includes the work of Charles Dickens (in England) and Washington Irving (in the USA), whose influence over the development and popularity of the Victorian Christmas was immense. It also includes the introduction of Christmas cards, trees, and crackers, along with the rise in popularity of the Christmas turkey, Christmas pudding, Christmas cake, the giving of presents, Christmas carols, and watching pantomimes. These elements of our traditional Christmas have little if anything to do with the traditions of the Church. They represent an ‘invented tradition’, but one that draws on ancient pagan practice from a very distant past.
Christmas has a unique power to bring out the best in people. The famous ‘Christmas truce’ of 1914 revealed the season’s real capacity to generate peace and goodwill in the most unpropitious of circumstances, as opposing British and German soldiers came out of their trenches to sing Silent Night, exchange cigarettes and brandy, and play football in No Man’s Land. During peacetime, the 20th century has seen increasing emphasis on charity at Christmas, with much work being done to care for the poor, the lonely, and the homeless over the festive season.
Within the family, children have become the main focus of Christmas Day celebrations. Their insatiable desire for presents has had much to do with the continued rise in popularity of Santa Claus – while public sympathy for the traditional Nativity has declined along with the general decline in churchgoing. The 20th century has also witnessed such innovations as Christmas films, Christmas songs, and the Queen’s Speech. The ‘traditional’ Christmas continues to be reinvented, but the old substrate of pagan belief and practice remains stubbornly in place. Indeed, our modern Christmas celebrations – albeit under a different name – may not have been radically different had Christ never been born.
The ‘true meaning’ of our festive season transcends Christianity and its celebration should be open to all, regardless of religious belief. The desire to gather around a warm fire with loved ones to reaffirm or debate ancient creation myths and discuss the nature of our place in the universe – while eating, drinking, singing, and generally making merry – is a natural response of human beings to the darkest point of the year. Our present-day Christmas is the current version of a long-established tradition extending back into the mists of prehistory, and many of the fundamental issues that concern us at midwinter are perhaps not greatly removed from those that exercised the minds of our prehistoric ancestors as they gathered for their solstice celebrations.
Paul Frodsham’s book, From Stonehenge to Santa Claus: the evolution of Christmas, is published by The History Press, price £12.99. It presents a seamless history of midwinter celebrations over the past 5,000 years.
Archaeological consultant, historic environment officer, and author of several books on various archaeological subjects.