The 25th of December as the date for the nativity is first mentioned in 354 in Rome apparently. From there the notion spread to Constantinople. A 4th century Christian writer tells us that the date was one on which pagans were accustomed to kindle lights for a festival holy day to celebrate the return of the sun. That festival however, was in itself fairly recent and only eight years earlier than the aforementioned Roman date, and borrowed from an older Syrian worship of the“ Unconquered Sun.” in the 5th century, Pope Leo had to remind people that it was Christ they were worshipping, and not the sun! However, maximus of Turin, also in the 5th century was happy to mention that a cult of Pagan sun worship had been taken over for Christian use.
The Romans celebrated the feast of Saturnalia around this time of year - 17th December - and the revels might go on for over a week. Everywhere closed down, gambling was permitted in public, the mood was joyous, and gifts of light were exchanged - candles for example, and the masters waited upon the servants at meal times. There were games and high japes. Shortly after this, the Kalendae sacred to Janus, would be marked with more exchanges of gifts to bring luck during the coming year. The gifts were often of food - figs, honey and pastry. Later on, these were commuted to coinage
The feast of the nativity, amalgamated and absorbed both of these Roman feasts and promulgated new ones of its own. By the 2nd century the Eastern churches were celebrating the baptism of Christ on the 6th of January. By the 4th century, the Epiphany was known in Gaul. By the 6th century, the wise men from the East, whose number had been unknown in the original texts, were now settled at three, had become kings, and arrived at the nativity scene bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh. By the 8th century, wrangled out in various synods and councils, the Mediaeval system of the 12 days of Christmas was in place with the 25th of December as a highlight celebrating Christ's birth. The actual word "Christmas" in English is first recorded in the year 1038 as "Cristes Maessan." By the last quarter of the 8th century, Alfred the Great's Law Code granted freedom from work to all servants during the 12 days of Christmas.
In northern Europe, the midwinter celebration for Scandinavian society was known as"Yule" - a word brought to England by the Danes in the 11th century, and becoming an alternative word for "Cristes Maess." not a great deal is known about the actual ceremonies of Yule, but it was a major midwinter feast based around the solstice with its focus on New Year's Day as the sun was seen to be triumphing and strengthening over darkness. Welsh culture too of the early mediaeval period focused on a New Year Feast which was mentioned in poems such as Y Gododdin and Culhwch ac Olwen.
Whatever version of Christmas you celebrate or don't may I wish you seasons greetings and a peaceful heart.
For those wanting to delve further I can highly recommend The Stations Of The Sun - a history of the ritual year in Britain by Ronald Hutton published by Oxford University Press
Photo credit Image by Wolfgang Dietz from Pixabay