Advent means to come in Latin. Advent originally was a time of instruction, prayer, fasting and self-reflection, in preparation to be baptized in the new year.
Saturnalia and Mithras
When I first researched for this topic, the material I found explained that in Roman times, the winter solstice marked celebrations honoring both Saturnus, the harvest god—Saturnalia was held between December 17 and 24—and Mithras, god of light.
Many ancient peoples, including the Egyptians and later the Romans, believed the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. The Roman mystery religion Mithraism was a form of sun worship that had come to Rome from Syria, a century before the birth of Jesus, with the cult of Sol Invictus. It announced that winter is not forever, that life continues, with an invitation to stay in good spirits.
As the story goes, the last day of winter, the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, was thought to be December 25. On that night, Mithras worshippers celebrated the Great Mother Goddess giving birth to the infant sun god, Mithras. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti means birthday of the unconquered sun because the sun was returning to vanquish the cold, dark winter. In fact, Sunday was held as sacred throughout the year and is (evidently) where we get that name for the first day of the week.
Early Christians might have given this festival a new meaning—to celebrate the birth of the Son of God the unconquered Son Who came to vanquish the power of death and the darkness of hell! To the ancients, this would have recalled the prophet’s oracle of the coming Messiah,
for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.Malachi 4:2 (NRSV)
Holly and Mistletoe
Romans had traditionally decked their halls with boughs of holly, evergreens, and mistletoe to symbolize winter’s inability to prevent the renewal of life. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return. That is evidently where our Christmas colors come from: red for holly berries, white for mistletoe berries, and green for evergreens.
Pre-Christian European people groups used wreathes of evergreens with lit candles during the cold and dark December days as a sign of hope for the days of spring to come. Prayers were offered to the god of light to turn “the wheel of the earth” back toward the sun to lengthen the days and restore warmth.
The traditional explanation for celebrating Christmas on December 25, then, was attributed to Christians in the early centuries seeking to avoid persecution. They were said to have coopted the Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Mithras by decking their homes with Saturnalia greenery. Christmas celebration would follow the Saturnalian schedule of twelve days, ending on January 6.
Passover or Sukkot
For the longest time, I was led to believe it was common knowledge that Jesus was not born on the 25th of December, because the shepherds were out watching their sheep, which were lambing. And lambs are born in the spring.
Scholars point out that every Jewish family would need a lamb to sacrifice for Passover, commemorating God freeing Israel from enslavement in Egypt. The congruence of the Lamb of God being born during lambing season is compelling.
Since Jewish families from all over the Roman empire would travel to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, it would also have been an opportune time for the Roman government to take the census recorded in Luke’s gospel.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.
This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.
Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.Luke 2:1-5 (NRSV)
Bethlehem is about six miles from Jerusalem. The proximity of Jesus’ birth coming during the time Jewish families were purchasing lambs and caring for them tenderly in their homes for three days, before they would be slaughtered in Jerusalem, seems especially significant.
However, other scholars point to autumn as a likely birthdate for Jesus, during the Jewish festival of Sukkot or Feast of Tabernacles. Mentioned more than the other festivals in scripture, this feast commemorated God’s provision during Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Sukkot also celebrates the end of the harvest. For about ten days, Jewish families live outside in temporary shelters, or tabernacles, formed out of tree boughs, flowering branches, and leafy vines. The word tabernacle come from a Latin word meaning booth or hut.
Those of Jewish faith and descent were commanded by God to meet in Jerusalem for three of their seven yearly festivals: Passover, Pentecost, and Sukkot. So finding no room at the inn, would have been a believable scenario for both Passover and Sukkot, as well as the taking of a Roman census.
Establishing a Date
The early church apparently did not originally celebrate the birth of Christ in December. No one was quite sure in which month Jesus was born, so Nativity was often held in September, during the Jewish Feast of Trumpets (modern-day Rosh Hashanah). Then sometime between 125 to 136 A.D., Telesphorus, the second Bishop of Rome, declared Church services should be held during the Roman festival of Saturnalia to celebrate “The Nativity of our Lord and Savior.” Nevertheless, for more than three hundred years, people observed the birth of Jesus on various dates.
In the year 274 A.D., the solstice fell on December 25 and Roman Emperor Aurelian proclaimed it as the annual date for Natalis Solis Invicti, the festival of the birth of the invincible sun. Forty-five years later, in 320 A.D., Pope Julius I specified the 25th of December as the official date of the birth of Jesus Christ, festival of the birth of the invincible Son.
In just five years, 325 A.D., Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, introduced Christmas as an immovable feast on December 25. He also introduced Sunday as a holy day in a new seven-day week, and introduced Easter as a movable feast to be held each spring. In 354 A.D., Bishop Liberius of Rome officially ordered his members to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25.
Nevertheless, Christmas apparently failed to gain universal recognition among all Christians until about two hundred years ago.