It is December and the Christian world is preparing to celebrate the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, even though most scholars believe that he was not born on December 25. So why is Christmas celebrated on that day? Because it is the first day after the winter solstice when any perceptible extra daylight can be seen. It is a day of hope, a new year, and people have been celebrating it long before Jesus was born, as far back as Neolithic times.
The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, happens in the Northern Hemisphere on the 21st or 22nd of December and in the southern hemisphere on the same days in June. In anticipation of the return of longer sunshine, the ancient farmers, although they faced several more months of winter, viewed the solstice as a promise that spring was on the way. They built calendars to alert them of the sun’s movement in the sky. The stone circle now called the Adams Calendar, built in Mpumalanga, South Africa ca. 11,000 b.c.e., the 12 pits dug near Aberdeenshire, Scotland ca. 8000 b.c.e., Stonehenge in England, the corridor at Newgrange in Ireland (both built ca. 3000 b.c.e.), the Neolithic Gosec Circle in Germany, the Adena Sun Serpent (800 b.c.e.) in southern Ohio, the Intiwatana stone (15th century, c.e.) at Machu Picchu, and many more all mark the rising or setting sun on the day of the solstice..
It is not surprising that every culture celebrated the winter solstice. It was the perfect time for a holiday because all of the ingredients for a good party were available. By that time, the last of the perishable fruit and vegetables had to be consumed before they spoiled, there would have been fresh meat because most of the cattle had to be slaughtered to keep them from starving during the winter, and by late December, the beer and wine made from the fall harvest would have fermented enough to be drinkable. So we find in the archaeological record evidence of winter festivities all the way back to when we first became farmers.
Solstice celebrations were elaborate all over the world. The Zagmuk festival in ancient Babylonia was celebrated for twelve days with feasting, gift exchanges and regatta races down the Euphrates River, the Scandinavian societies celebrated the rebirth of the Sun Goddess with drinking the Jȯl (Yule) ale for three days and nights, the ancient Greeks extended the merriment to two weeks during their winter Poseidea, but the Romans took celebrating to an extreme. Their Brumalia festival honored Bacchus, the god of grapes and wine, and added Saturnalia, devoted to the god of agriculture, Saturn, that evolved into a rowdy several days of eating, drinking, gambling, gift-giving, and role reversal that imitated the sun’s reversal in the sky. Also, Emperor Aurelian, in the 3rd century c.e., moved the feast day for the Roman sun god, Sol, which was in August when the sun was at its most intense, to December 25, the traditional birthday of Mithra, the Zoroastrian sun god who become Sol Invictus Mythras and surpassed Jupiter as the supreme Roman deity. In the 4th century c.e. most Romans had adopted Christianity and the Chronography of AD 354 codex, for the first time, lists December 25 as the beginning of the liturgical year and refers to this day in AD 1 as dominus Iesus Christus natus est VIII kal. Ian, the first reference to December 25 as the birthday of Jesus, linking him to all of the previous celebrations of hope. This is how Christmas ended up on December 25, still a good day for a party.