The true story of the origin of Christmas

(CNN Spanish) — Was Jesus born on December 25? Millions of Christians celebrate Christmas on this day, but the truth is that in the Bible —and specifically the Gospels, which is where episodes of his life are narrated— there is no mention of a specific date of his birth.

In fact, the first Christian communities did not even celebrate the birth of Jesus. To trace the mentions of this festivity, it is necessary to go back only to the fourth century after Christ (from the year 300 to 400).

Historians have accurate information that at the time, when the Roman Empire was officially converting to Christianity, both those who believed in Jesus and the pagans—who believed in multiple gods—had celebrations on the same day: on December 25.

Why is Christmas celebrated?

At this time, Christians “begin to discuss the origin and humanity of Jesus, and then it starts to become important not only to celebrate death and crucifixion, but also the birth,” he told CNN. Lorena Perez Yarzaprofessor of History of Religions at the Carlos III University and postdoctoral researcher.

Already from the previous century, the III, calculations were being made to determine what would have been the date of the birth of Jesus and different alternatives corresponding to the months of June, July and even November, among others, had been considered. Subsequently, two dates were set that continue to this day: December 25, the main one, and the one for the Eastern branch of the Orthodox, which is January 6.

Then the cross-signaling between Christians began, since each party defended that its date was correct and that the other branch had invented its own.

Within the framework of this dispute, in the Middle Ages the Armenians and Syrians “accuse the Catholics and Orthodox that they are copying a pagan festival, that they are not celebrating the true day of Jesus’ birth,” Pérez explained.

And that is why in the 19th century historians thought that the choice of December 25 to celebrate Christmas had originally arisen from a pagan holiday of the Romans. But that hypothesis, deep down, is the result of a dispute between Christians who couldn’t agree, Pérez explained. And the truth is that, although it is a simplified answer, today the experts still do not have 100% certainty in their answer to the question.

But what will the pagans celebrate on those dates?

Around those dates there were multiple pagan festivals, among them the Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn, which was one of the most popular in the Roman Empire. However, the end of that celebration dedicated to the god of agriculture and harvests was December 23.

The Saturnalia, in honor of the god Saturn, was one of the main celebrations of the Roman Empire (Getty Images)

During that holiday, as the Encyclopedia Britannica explains, “all work and business were suspended. Slaves had temporary freedom to say and do what they wanted and certain moral restrictions were relaxed.” And also during that celebration, Pérez explained, gifts were delivered, a tradition that continued in Christian Christmas.

On the 25th, for its part, there was an important celebration dedicated to the solar cult, a cult that “gained popularity at the end of the Roman Empire as a way of praising the emperor,” according to the professor. This celebration of the Sol Invictus was one of great majesty, with public festivals in the Roman Circus and races.

The truth is that the symbols of that cult of the emperor and of the Christian cult were generated in the same culture and the influences are notorious. An example are the halos of the saints, which come from the cult of the sun, as well as the crowns of medieval kings and allusions to light that exist in Christian symbology.

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