Saturnalia was a festival held between 17 and 24 December, which began in the days of the Roman Empire. This was a week of feasting, gift-giving and an excuse for an orgy during the Northern Hemisphere's winter solstice. The objective of the debauchery and dancing around (carol1) was to give the sun a nudge and send a message to Mother Earth to begin reproducing for the spring. This seemed to work quite well because sure enough, in spring things started growing again.
The traditional Christmas colours of red and green, being complementary colours2, represent male and female, fertility and incubation. Pagan decorations still seen around Christmas include the red berries and green leaves of holly, mistletoe and wreaths. Yule festivities are a mixture of customs and beliefs going back thousands of years.
Celebrating the winter solstice was forbidden by the early church, but customs survived anyway and it didn't take much to tempt Christians to join in the solstice feast in honour of the Pagan god Mithra. So the church provided an alternative with a festival in honour of the birth of Christ and celebrations were definitely in order.
In the 2nd century, the winter solstice was 6 January and Christians celebrated both the birth and the appearance of God's Son on that day, Epiphany Day.
By the 4th century, the date for the winter solstice was moved to 25 December and Pope Julius I declared that Jesus' birthday celebrations would also be on that day3. This effectively transformed the Pagan occasion into a Christian holy day (holiday).
This was not, however, merely a convenient way to 'Christianize' a Pagan celebration. There is no historical evidence to prove what date Jesus was born on, or the season4, or even the year. The important thing for Christians is to celebrate the birth of Jesus because that showed God's love for us. It doesn't really matter a hoot when the birth is celebrated; the important thing is to celebrate it. So since the 'why' is much more important than the 'when', 25 December has been good enough for Christians5 ever since. (See Meaning of the Cross.)
Nine months before the birth of Jesus, Christians acknowledge the Feast of the Annunciation (the conception of Jesus) and this is set as 25 March. Consequently, this day is known as Lady Day (after the Blessed Virgin Mary) and until 1752 in England, this day was the first day of the calendar year6. Lady Day, or the date adjusted for days lost due to a subsequent calendar change, 6 April, was the traditional day for starting new work contracts or tenancies. For this reason, the fiscal year began on 6 April and is still the start of the tax year in the UK.
The work schedule of today's UK accountants was largely determined in the 4th century by Pope Julius.
Children are taught that Santa Claus evolved from the good Saint Nicholas, and most people are happy to leave the story there. But followers of Paganism know a bit more about our Jolly Santa.
A tough old Pagan god named Odin7, was imagined as a paunchy white-bearded old man in a long cloak. A mixture of the characterisations of both St. Nicholas and Odin is thought to result in Father Christmas, whom for the past eighty years or so has sported the Coca Cola colours8.
When we are young children, we are told about Santa's existence. Later, when we're about seven years old (or maybe seventeen!) we find out that he's really just a fictional character. And then we learn that, OK, he doesn't exist now, but he used to. Childhood can be very confusing.
Even though St. Nicholas is our inspiration for creating Santa Claus, the St. Nicholas Cross is not known as Santa's Cross. The closest we might find to a Santa Cross is in a story from Japan; a story that is as mythical as Santa himself. See Christmas in Japan.
Then there are those who believe that Santa is an anagram for Satan. You know... breaking into houses late at night, dodgy preference for small children, wearing long kinky boots, and psychotic reindeer with militaristic nicknames. At home in the flaming fireplace; Nicholas = 'Old Nick'. And Santa's little helpers – those elves? They must be fallen angels in green tights and Spock-ears. Elves. Evil. Devil. See the connection?
Well, we agree that the Devil is a master of disguise, but come on... Why the devil should he appear as a paunchy geriatric troll with a raucous laugh? Hardly blends in with the crowd, now does he?
We believe there is no link between Santa (who doesn't exist), and Satan (who does). So we'll leave that connection theory with the pile of pine needles and head off for Christmas dinner.
Christmas is enjoyed by people all over the world and there's no need for Christians to get upset about some people forgetting what it's all about, since it is, after all, based on many non-Christian customs. Jesus was born in the humblest of settings; indeed his whole life showed us the importance of humility. He taught us not to be judgmental. He taught us now to love.
So enjoy Christmas, wherever you are, whoever you are and whatever your beliefs.
What's the best thing to put into a Christmas cake? Your teeth.
What sort of ball doesn't bounce? A snowball.
How do snowmen travel around? By icicle.
And here's our favourite joke for a snowy evening.