1. OVERVIEW: In the Western world, the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth (called the Christ by Christian denominations) has been celebrated on December 25th since 354 CE, replacing an earlier date of January 6th. The Christians had by then appropriated many pagan festivals and traditions of the season that were practiced in many parts of the Middle East and Europe as a means of either stamping them out or re-inventing those original festivals to meet the standards of Christian dogma
There were mid-winter festivals in ancient Babylon and Egypt, and Germanic fertility festivals also took place at this time. For example, the birth of the ancient sun-god Attis in Phrygia was celebrated on December 25th, as was the birth of the Persian sun-god, Mithras. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a festival dedicated to Saturn, the god of peace and plenty, that ran from the 17th to 24th of December. Public gathering places were decorated with flowers, gifts and candles were exchanged and the population, slaves and masters alike, celebrated the occasion with great enthusiasm.
In Scandinavia, a period of festivities known as Yule contributed another impetus to celebration. As Winter ended the growing season, the opportunity of enjoying the Summer's bounty encouraged much feasting and merriment.
The Celtic culture of the British Isles revered all green plants, but particularly mistletoe and holly. These were important symbols of fertility and were used for decorating their homes and altars.
New Christmas customs appeared in the Middle Ages. One of the most prominent contributions was the carol, which by the 14th century had become associated with the religious observance of the birth of Christ.
In Italy, a tradition developed for re-enacting the birth of Christ and the construction of scenes of the nativity. This is said to have been introduced by Saint Francis in the early 1200s as part of his efforts to bring spiritual knowledge to the laity.
Saints Days have also contributed to our Christmas celebrations. A prominent figure in today's Christmas is Saint Nicholas who for centuries has been honored on December 6th. He was one of the forerunners of Santa Claus.
Another popular ritual was the burning of the Yule Log, which is strongly embedded in the pagan worship of vegetation and fire, as well as being associated with magical and spiritual powers.
Celebrating Christmas has been controversial since its inception. Since numerous festivities found their roots in pagan practices, they were greatly frowned upon by conservatives within the Church, especially the Puritans. The feasting, gift-giving, and frequent excesses presented a drastic contrast with the simplicity of the Nativity, and many people throughout the centuries and into the present, condemn such practices as being contrary to the true spirit of Christmas.
2. DECEMBER 25: The Roman historian and early Christian scholar Irenaeus (c. 130–202) viewed Christ's conception as March 25 in association with the Passion, with the nativity nine months after on December 25. Hippolytus of Rome (170–235) may also have identified December 25 for the birth of Jesus and March 25 for the conception. Sextus Julius Africanus (c. 160–c. 240) identified December 25, later to become the most widely accepted date of celebration, as the date of Jesus' birth in 221. The precise origin of assigning December 25 to the birth of Jesus is unclear. Various dates were speculated: May 20, April 18 or 19, March 25, January 2, November 17 or 20. When celebration on a particular date began, January 6 prevailed at least in the East; but, except among Armenians (the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Armenian Evangelical Church), who continue to celebrate the birth on January 6, December 25 eventually won acceptance everywhere.
The New Testament Gospel of Luke may indirectly give the date as December for the birth of Jesus, with the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy with John the Baptist cited by John Chrysostom (c. 386) as a date for the Annunciation. Tertullian (d. 220) did not mention Christmas as a major feast day in the Church of Roman Africa. In Chronographai, a reference work published in 221, Sextus Julius Africanus suggested that Jesus was conceived on the spring equinox. The equinox was March 25 on the Roman calendar, so this implied a birth in December.
The belief that God came into the world in the form of man to atone for the sins of humanity, rather than the exact birth date, is considered to be the primary purpose in celebrating Christmas.
In the early 4th century, the church calendar in Rome contained Christmas on December 25 and other holidays placed on solar dates. According to Hijmans, "It is cosmic symbolism ... which inspired the Church leadership in Rome to elect the southern solstice, December 25, as the birthday of Christ, and the northern solstice as that of John the Baptist, supplemented by the equinoxes as their respective dates of conception." Usener and others proposed that the Christians chose this day because it was the Roman feast celebrating the birthday of Sol Invictus. Modern scholar S. E. Hijmans, however, states that "While they were aware that pagans called this day the 'birthday' of Sol Invictus, this did not concern them and it did not play any role in their choice of date for Christmas."
Around the year 386 John Chrysostom delivered a sermon in Antioch in favor of adopting the 25 December celebration also in the East, since, he said, the conception of Jesus (Luke 1:26) had been announced during the sixth month of Elisabeth's pregnancy with John the Baptist (Luke 1:10–13), which he dated from the duties Zacharias performed on the Day of Atonement during the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar Ethanim or Tishri (Leviticus 16:29, 1 Kings 8:2) which falls from late September to early October. That shepherds watched the flocks by night in the fields in the winter time is supported by the phrase "frost by night" in Genesis 31:38–40. A special group known as the shepherds of Migdal Eder (Genesis 35:19–21, Micah 4:8) watched the flocks by night year round pastured for Temple Sacrifice near Bethlehem.
3. SAINT NICHOLAS: Saint Nicholas (15 March 270 – 6 December 343), also called Nikolaos of Myra, was a historic 4th-century Christian saint and Greek Bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor (modern-day Demre, Turkey). Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker (Νικόλαος ὁ Θαυματουργός, Nikolaos ho Thaumaturgos). He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, a practice celebrated on his feast day―St Nicholas Day (6 December)—and thus became the model for Santa Claus, whose modern name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas, itself from a series of elisions and corruptions of the transliteration of "Saint Nikolaos". His reputation evolved among the faithful, as was common for early Christian saints. In 1087, part of the relics (about half of the bones) were furtively translated to Bari, in Apulia, Italy; for this reason, he is also known as Nikolaos of Bari. The remaining bones were taken to Venice in 1100.
The historical Saint Nicholas is commemorated and revered among Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox Christians. In addition, some Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches have been named in honor of Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers and students in various cities and countries around Europe.