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Conflicts at Christmas time:

What is the original "reason for the season"

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What is the original "reason for the season?"

As noted elsewhere in this web site, Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, Wiccans, Nova Romans, other Neopagans and others observe a variety of different seasonal days of celebration in December.

The historical "reason for the season," for many of these celebrations can be indirectly traced back to the 23.5º tilt of the earth's rotation axis relative to the plane of the ecliptic, as shown below.

The earth spins like a gyroscope or a child's toy top. It constantly points to the same region far out in the universe.


The seasons are not caused by the earth getting closer or farther away from the sun, as many people believe. It is caused by this 23.5º tilt. As the earth travels around the sun, the density of the sun's rays differs between the Northern and Southern hemispheres. In early December of each year, the sun is very low in the northern sky, and very high in the southern sky. This produces winter in the north and summer in the south. In the northern hemisphere, the daylight hours shorten each day and the nighttime lengthens.


On or about DEC-21, the daytime is at a minimum and the nighttime is at a maximum. This is the winter solstice. Humans living millennia ago were far more aware of the shortening day, an apparent pause, and then a gradual lengthening of the daylight hours in late December. Living in a pre-scientific era, many cultures were terrified that the daylight interval would continue to shorten, causing an end to life on Earth. So the winter solstice or the days immediately following the solstice were a time of great celebration. Ancient faiths attributed a major religious theme to the solstice: it was a time of the birth of a new God to replace the old, dying deity. Implicit in this is the hope for a new warm season and a return to the earth's fertility.

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The historical origins of religious observances in December:

The celebrations of various religions are tied directly or indirectly to the earth's tilt on its axis:

bullet Wiccans, and other Neopagans celebrate Yule, which is their name for the Winter Solstice.

bullet The American Atheists and local Atheist groups have chosen to have celebrations on the solstice which they call by various names: the Great North Texas Infidel Bash, the Winter Solstice bash, the Winter Solstice Parties, etc. Again, their day is tied to the solstice

bullet Nova Romans, celebrate Saturnalia, an ancient Roman holiday. This was the Festival of Saturn which was gradually extended in duration until it became a seven day observance from DEC-17 to 23 each year. The Romans decorated living trees outside their homes, and hung garlands, wreathes and other decorations on their doorways, windows, and stairs. It was also observed at the winter solstice. 2

bullet Ancient Rome: In the religious melting pot which was the Mediterranean in ancient times, there were many celebrations of the births of saviors at this season:

bullet The ancient Roman Pagan religion celebrated the birth of one of their Gods, Attis, in December of each year. Attis was born of the virgin Nana. He was sacrificed as an adult in order to bring salvation to mankind. He died about MAR-25, after being crucified on a tree, and descended for three days into the underworld. On Sunday, he arose, "as the solar deity for the new season." 5 His followers tied an image of Attis to a tree on "Black Friday," and carried him in a procession to the temple. His body was symbolically eaten by his followers in the form of bread. Worship of Attis began in Rome circa 200 BCE.

bullet The Babylonians celebrated their "Victory of the Sun-God" Festival on DEC-25.

bullet The followers of the Pagan mystery religion Mithraism observed the birth of the savior Mithra, the "Deus sol invictus" ("unconquered sun"). Their God was believed to have been born on DEC-25, circa 500 BCE. His birth was witnessed by shepherds and by gift-carrying Magi. This date was celebrated as the "Dies Natalis Solic Invite," The "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun" each year. Some followers believed that he was born of a virgin. During his life, he performed many miracles, cured many illnesses, and cast out devils. He celebrated a Last Supper with his 12 disciples. He ascended to heaven at the time of the spring equinox, about March 21.

The Roman Emperor Aurelian (circa 214-275 CE) blended Saturnalia with a number of birth celebrations of savior Gods from other religions, into a single holy day: DEC-25. At the time, the various Christian movements were not recognized as legitimate religions. They were subject to intermittent oppression. This new holy day partially lost its close connection to the Winter Solstice.

bullet Christianity: By the third century CE the main surviving Christian movement who were spiritual descendents of the first century CE Pauline Christians, had forgotten Yeshua of Nazareth's (Jesus Christ's) birth day. An anonymous third century document "The DePascha Computus," "placed Jesus birth on March 28. Clement, a bishop of Alexandria (d. ca. 215 CE), thought Jesus was born on November 18." 3 After much argument, the developing Christian church adopted the Pagan Emperor Aurelian's date as the birthday of their savior.

Since the people of the Roman Empire were accustomed to celebrating the birth of various Gods on that day, it was easy for the church to divert people's attention to Jesus' birth. The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated in the same way as Saturnalia. They involved drinking, sexual indulgence, and singing naked in the streets. These practices have long since been abandoned, although naked singing evolved into modern caroling. According to the Judaism Online web site: "Some of the most depraved customs of the Saturnalia carnival were intentionally revived by the Catholic Church in 1466 when Pope Paul II, for the amusement of his Roman citizens, forced Jews to race naked through the streets of the city." 3

One visitor to this web site suggested that Christmas trees be mounted at a 23.5º tilt to remind people of the original reason for the season. A southern hemisphere "Christmas" tree -- in the form of a palm tree with Christmas lights, might look something like this image. I don't think that the idea will catch on, unless it is for Festivus -- the annual family secular celebration "for the Rest of Us!"

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References used:

  1. These images are copied from the Wikipedia web site and are reproduced here under the terms of the GNU General Public License. See the GNU Free Documentation License at: The lower diagram in particular is not drawn to scale. If it were, the Earth would be uninhabitable. The image is for illustrative purposes only. In reality, the sun should be drawn much larger and far to the right.
  2. "Saturnalia Practices of Nova Romans," Religio Romana, at:
  3. "The real story of Christmas [sic] origin," Judaism Online, at:

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Site navigation:

Home > Religious information > Christmas > Conflict > here

Home > Christianity > Beliefs, practices, etc > Holy days > Christmas > Conflict > here

Home > Religious hatred & conflicts > Specific conflicts > Xmas conflict > here

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Copyright © 2005 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2004-DEC-09
Latest update: 2010-DEC-20
Author: B.A. Robinson

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