These days, some would have us believe that Christmas has been ‘hijacked’ – that the season of good cheer has been rudely stripped of its religious connotation (of ‘mass on Christ’s day’) and replaced instead by a secular and commercially dubious celebration of family, community, and the joys of eating too many Quality Street.
For others, however – many pagans and archaeologists among them – there may be poetic justice in the notion of a winter festival with little or no Christian content. After all, they ask, wasn’t it the early Christian church itself that first ‘hijacked’ a far older celebration, of the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice on 21/22 December?
As regular readers of The Past will know, the movement of the sun was of crucial importance in ancient times – reflecting the cycle of the seasons, and determining when crops should be planted or harvested. As a result, the sun’s changing position in the sky was marked by ceremonies and rituals throughout the year.
Of particular significance was the winter solstice – the date on which the sun began once again to rise further south on the eastern horizon, heralding the return of spring and summer, and the prospect of warmth, growth and renewal. As a result, the shortest day of the year naturally became the focus for high-spirited celebrations that were also wrapped up with ideas of rebirth – from the Roman Deus Sol Invictus (birthday of ‘the Unconquered Sun god’) to the Germanic Yule.
The New Testament offers no information about the actual date of Jesus’ birth – but against this background, it is perhaps no surprise then that when the third-century Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus first put forward a date for the nativity, it should coincide with the winter solstice (which in the inaccurate Julian calendar was calculated to be 25 December).
After all, as pagans and archaeologists have long pointed out – and as many readers of The Past would surely agree – what could be more fitting than to celebrate the birth of the Son of God on the same day as the birthday of the sun?
To mark the season, we have been delving into the archives for more about pagan festivals connected to Christmas: we looked into Neolithic feasting habits at Stonehenge; we traced the archaeology of Christmas from prehistory to the present day; and we travelled to Scotland’s most remote island to see how standing stones were carefully positioned to observe the movements of the sun at the solstice and the equinox.
And finally, if all that leaves you hungry for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around seasonal celebrations. Happy Christmas, and we hope you enjoy The Past!
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