So This is Christmas…?

“So this is Christmas…” Or is it?

Not really. This midwinter celebration was originally a pagan festival, timed around the shortest day of the year. And it was only long after the arrival of Christianity that it was transformed into Christmas.

If anything was “born” around this time… it was the sun.

The Romans – probably following the Greeks, as they tended to do – made a big thing of celebrating midwinter. Their Saturnalia partying went on for a week, taking in the winter solstice; and their Brumalia festivities focused on the shortest day.

Roman emperors seem to like fiddling about with the calendar… and it was Julius Caesar – a few decades before Christ – who shifted the midwinter revels to 25 December.

Sun worship seems to have been around since the arrival of humans, and it became manifest in the creation of assorted sun gods. Various strands of sun worship were combined on 25 December in 274 AD when the Roman Empire made Sol Invictus – meaning the Unconquered Sun – its official solar deity. The holiday celebration of the birth of Sol Invictus continued for well over 100 years.

Mithras – a god of Persian origin and another deity associated with the sun and light and new life – also became popular with the Romans. So much so, that his birth came to be celebrated on 25 December too.

The birth of Jesus, many years earlier, was not linked to 25 December until the third century AD; and from that time Christians began to buy in to this date shared with Sol Invictus and Mithras, perhaps because it was so tied up with the birth of an unconquerable power.

In the middle of the fourth century, in Rome, 25 December became the official date of Christ’s birth. And the Church’s wider acceptance of this as the date of the Nativity – and the elbowing aside of pagan traditions – came in 567 AD.

Christ’s Mass was contracted over time to become – in the Middle Ages – Christmas.

Whichever way you look at it, this is the time of the return of light to the world. And we certainly need some of that right now… Merry Christmas!

Nigel Summerley

Nigel Summerley retired from The Oldie magazine to return to freelance journalism. He previously held executive staff jobs at the London Evening Standard, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Express before freelancing for 20 years for newspapers including The Times, The Sunday Times, The Independent, The Guardian and the ‘i’ paper, plus a wide range of magazines. He continues to write about music, travel and health, and blogs at

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