This week: Christmas

It is an argument that has become as traditional as turkey and mince pies. Where did the annual festival held primarily on 25 December and now celebrated by billions of people around the world really come from?

Was it from the New Testament, which told of the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem, but crucially failed to mention a date? Was it from Sextus Julius Africanus, the first Christian historian, who calculated in AD 221 that the ‘Annunciation’ (the announcement to Mary by the angel Gabriel that she would bear a son through a virgin birth) took place on 25 March, and that Jesus would therefore have been born nine months later, on 25 December?

Should we be looking instead to the high-spirited Roman festival of Saturnalia, held around the time of the winter solstice? Or to dies natalis solis invicti (‘the birthday of the unconquered sun’), held on 25 December itself, when Romans celebrated the return of longer days?

Is the answer to be found elsewhere? Perhaps in celebrations dedicated to the Indo-Iranian god of light Mithra? Or in the Germanic festival of Yule, which contained elements – such as the ‘Yule log’ and ‘wassailing’ from door-to-door – that are still part of our modern-day Christmas.

Should we really be looking nearer to our own time? Was Christmas in fact invented by the lone figure of Charles Dickens, whose 1843 bestseller ‘A Christmas Carol’ remains an evergreen festive favourite? Or is the whole thing actually an American confection, designed simply to serve the commercial interests of greetings card manufacturers and the shareholders of the Coca-Cola Company?

The real answer, of course, is: all of the above – for as true lovers of The Past will certainly know, and as Christians, pagans and drinks manufacturers alike would surely agree, the desire to celebrate the return of the light amid winter’s darkest depths is a universal thing, transcending such mortal concerns as time and place.

To mark the season, you’ll find us delving into the archive this week (by candlelight, of course) in search of the history of winter festivals: we looked into the evolution of Christmas, from prehistory to the present; we travelled to Durrington Walls in Wiltshire to understand why wild parties played such a big part in Neolithic life; and we returned to Stonehenge to understand how the winter solstice, not its balmy summer counterpart, came to be the main focus of communal celebration.

And if all that leaves you hungry for more seasonal treats, why not have a go at our latest quiz, which this week is also designed to test your knowledge of winter festivals. Merry Christmas, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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