What is Christmas?

First I have to admit it’s a pain to investigate about Christmas on the anglophone internet. I am not interested in supporting one or another church.
Before I started to read about it in english I thought my speculations are wild, but they were harmless compared to some others I found out there.


Christmas is a christian holiday, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. I think we can all agree on this. The actual day of his birth is unknown. Old records vary from 20th May to 6th January.

Krippe in der Missionskirche in Eslöv (Schweden), von David Castor, public domain

manger scene in a church in Eslöv (Sweden), by David Castor, public domain

Furius Dionysius Filocalus was a christian scribe and calligrapher, living in a moment that lay on the cusp between a pagan and a Christian Roman Empire. In his Calendar of 354 he set the date of Jesus birth on December the 25th.

This day had been the holiday of the rebirth of Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”). He was the Roman state-supported sun god.

The christian church did not always celebrate Jesus’ birth at December the 25th. There had been other doctrines, one set the date on Nisan the 14th of the hebrew calendar, which was the birthday of Isaac the biblical patriarch and son of Abraham.

The english word “Christmas” derives from “Christ” and “matins”. Matins is a morning or night prayer service.
In scandinavian countries the word for Christmas is “Jul” and refers to old teutonic holidays at solstice (“jól”). The german word is “Weihnachten” and might also refer to old solstice holidays, it means “sanctified nights”.
The french word “Noël” is the modern form of the old french word “nael” and that derives from latin “natalis”, which means birth.

die Weisen beten Jesus an, von H.Hofmann, public Domain

the wise men adore Jesus, by H.Hofmann, public Domain

Does that mean that christmas is pagan?

Yes and no. The cult about Sol Invictus was integrated in Christmas, but that’s just human. At those times christians were proud to have overwhelmed Sol Invictus by taking his holiday away from him and giving it to Jesus. They would be astonished that people call them heathens for it nowadays. All people believed in other religions before the christian church was founded. Those people had holidays too. Some believed in one god, some believed in more than one god. With the founding of the christian church humankind was not replaced, some people became christians, the same people that believed in something else before.
To cut a long story short, it is a christian holiday. There have been some pagan influences, but that doesn’t make it a pagan holiday.

The Birth of Jesus Christ in the Bible

I chose Matthew (1.18-2.13.): Mary and Joseph wanted to marry but before they came together she was already pregnant. Joseph thought about leaving her but an angel came and told him the child is from the Holy Spirit (nice excuse). Joseph married Mary and she got a son, Jesus.

Same time some Magi (wise men) came from the east to Herodes and asked where the newborn king of the Jews is. Herodes was the current king of the Jews and didn’t like that some strangers come and ask him about his successor, especially since he didn’t know what they were talking about.

The Magi went on, followed a special star and reached Bethlehem where they found the newborn Jesus and worshipped him and made gifts of incense, myrrh and gold.
Then they went home.

When they were gone an angel came to Joseph again and told him to flee from Herodes’ wrath and go to Egypt with his family.

The gospel of Matthew is quite old, it was made for jews and jewish christians, that means the author tries to prove the status of Jesus with quotes from the Old Testament. It was written between 60 and 100 AD.

So… what’s Christmas about?

The birth of Jesus Christ.


Christ Child in: Stadt Gottes 1893, licence:Public Domain

german Christmas customs

Christ Child

Nowadays Christ Child brings the presents to a lot of german Catholics, Christ Child is Jesus in a way, but older than a baby and with wings like an angel and blond curls.

Who had the idea to let Jesus fly around on his birthday to distribute presents?

That was Martin Luther’s idea. In mediaeval times the gifts were given to the children on Saint Nicholas’ day (December the 6th) or on Holy Innocents’ Day (aka Childermas or Children’s Mass, on December the 28th); gift giving on Christmas day was not a custom. Luther disapproved of the catholic saints. That’s why he replaced St Nicholas in 16th century by Christ Child and set the gift giving date on the 25th.

It must be a strange development of ongoings to be a humble monk and then to become a powerful leader of a church, who can change the date of holidays and the customs and his followers obey his orders.

The Catholics continued to give the gifts on St Nicholas day till around 1900. But finally the protestant Christ Child prevailed.

Advent wreath

The word “advent” derives from latin “adventus”, “arrival”.
Advent meant the same like the greek “Epiphaneia”, arrival of a high office bearer, a king or a god in the temple.

The Christians used this word for the period of fasting previous to the arrival of Jesus, which was exactly 40 days in old times.
In 6th century Pope Gregory I decided that there are only 4 Advent-sundays and not up to 6, like before.
The 4 weeks represent the 4000 years the church had to wait for the arrival of the Redeemer.

CC by SA

Advent wreath, by Micha L. Rieser, licence: CC by SA

The Advent wreath was a protestant custom used to count the sundays and symbolizing the increase of light because of Jesus arrival. The first Advent wreath must have been used in the 18th century, after 1900 Catholics started to use it too.

christian Christmas-colours

The christian Christmas- colours are green and red (and not red and white).
Green symbolizes hope for health and life during the dark winter. Indeciduous plants have been a symbol for health since the times of old Sol Invictus.

Red symbolizes the blood of Jesus Christ (comment of the author: they drink it on sundays and on Christmas they put it on trees).

CC by SA

danish Christmas tree, by Malene Thyssen, licence:CC by SA

a tree conquers the world

The first actual Christmas trees are documented since the 16th century. People were decorating them with figures cut of paper, apples, nuts, wafers and candy. 1611 the first Christmas tree decorated with candles is documented.

Nuts, apples and even potatos were wrapped in colourful paper or painted and represented the apples of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. That’s why some historians claim the Christmas tree is the modern form of a mediaeval tree of knowledge of Good and Evil that was used in “paradise spectacles”, spectacles that showed the Fall of Man, Adam and Eve’s removal from paradise. The church organized those spectacles on December the 24th.

Baum der Erkenntnis, von Lucas Cranach m. (1472-1553), Public Domain

tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, by Lucas Cranach t. o. (1472-1553), Public Domain

The first mouth-blown Christmas baubles were sold 1830.
Till the end of the 19th century the Christmas tree conquered the catholic parts of Germany and Austria, some other european countries and America.

Christmas dinner

main course

A traditional main course is roast goose or duck with braised red cabbage and potato dumplings.
The goose or duck is often filled with apples, plums or nuts.

Gürgi, Public Domain

stollen, photo: Gürgi, Public Domain


Stollen are pastries of yeast dough, with at least 3 kg butter or margarine and 6 kg dried fruits, raisins, sultana or currants and candied lemon and orange peel on 10 kg flour.

Stollen are documented since the 14th century. In those times they were Lenten food. It was not allowed to use butter or milk, the stollen only consisted of flour, yeast and water. The german nobles sent petitions to the Pope, begging for better stollen.

Pope Innocent VIII allowed the use of butter, milk, raisins, almonds and fruits if the bakers payed monetary fine.

Thus the Christians had more luck with their stollen or less stamina than the jews with their Matzos or lets say: the old catholic custom of committing sins and then paying money to the church helped the stollen to become a tasty Christmas pastry.

Lebküchner, Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I), Lizenz Public Domain

lebkuchen baker, manuscript municipal library Nuremberg, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I), Public Domain

Another traditional Christmas pastry is lebkuchen, sweetened with honey and spiced with cinnamon, cloves, aniseed, cardamom, coriander, ginger and nutmeg. Baking agents are salts of hartshorn and/or potash. Just like stollen lebkuchen has once been Lenten food.

do all Christians celebrate Christmas?

An english friend of ours is Jehovah’s Witness. The Witnesses are a christian religious movement but they don’t celebrate Christmas. They say there’s nothing written in the Bible about celebrating Christmas or even birthdays.
It is not polite to send Jehovah’s Witnesses Christmas cards.

Our friend usually goes on a vacation over Christmas, with his family. That’s a way to celebrate it somehow and maybe a better way than buying lots of useless things.


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