Midwinter Festivals

Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas

So why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th, if it isn’t the actual birthday of Jesus? The answer is that the celebration goes back much further than that.

Midwinter has always been a time to hold rituals. When it’s dark and cold and you haven’t got electric lights or central heating you need something to keep you going.

In the book “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” C S Lewis takes us to Narnia, a mythical land that is gripped by evil. In Narnia it is always winter and never Christmas and the children who explore this dark world can’t think of anything worse. Winter needs Christmas, and mid-winter festivals were around a long time before Christmas.

The Romans had a mid-winter festival called Saturnalia, and a lot of what Saturnalia was about we would recognise today. It was the time of the year for being merry and exchanging gifts. It was a time to over-eat and get drunk. Another mid-winter festival around at the time of the first Christians was called the Feast of the Unconquered Sun. This was the main festival of a rival religion to Christianity and it drew many revellers.

Early Christians didn’t celebrate the birth of Jesus. Birthdays themselves were considered pagan. But by about 350 AD there was pressure to name a feast day to Jesus: a mass of Christ, and it was a classic case of if you can’t beat then join them and the date of December 25th was chosen. It was a day people were already partying so the Church decided to give them something to party about. So Christ’s mass or Christmas was born.

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