The Pink Triangle Trust

Introducing the Humanist Tradition

Leaflet number 3: Why We All Celebrate At Christmas-Time

We all (well, nearly all) celebrate at Christmas-time because everyone else is doing so, and we don’t want to miss out on the fun. People have been doing so at this time of year since prehistoric times, but why is everybody celebrating? The answer is that in the world’s northern hemisphere it is the time of the winter solstice (about December 22).

Midsummer Day is June 24 each year, but the longest day (the summer solstice) is actually about June 21. After that date the period of daylight gets shorter every day, and night-time gets longer. At the winter solstice the turning point is reached and, from then onwards, the daylight hours will increase and those of darkness decrease, until the next summer solstice.

Survival through the winter, any winter, could be a hard struggle in bygone ages, so the turning point of the year was definitely the time to celebrate. Afterwards people could start looking forward to springtime and to summer.

The ways to celebrate Christmas-time have varied through the ages, but eating special foods, and drinking with friends, has always played a central part. It brightens up the long dull winter season. Think how long and bleak winter would seem without it!

Our customs show the wide variety and origins of our present winter solstice celebrations ...

Why December 25?

For millennia, the promise of spring and summer has been more important than we can easily imagine today. Perhaps that is why early cultures introduced evergreen decorations (laurel or holly) into their homes – they are hope-filled symbols of life in the winter gloom.

In ancient Egypt the birth of the god Horus, the son of Osiris and Isis, was celebrated on December 25.

In the Roman world, there was the Saturnalia, the festival of Saturn, the god of harvests. Originally this took place on December 19 but it was extended for seven days. It was the merriest festival of the Roman year. All business stopped. Slaves were given temporary freedom to say and do what they liked, and certain moral restrictions were eased (the modern equivalent being the office party). The holiday concluded on December 25 with a great feast, when presents were exchanged. In addition, towards the end of the Roman empire, there was the celebration of the birth of the Unconquered Sun (natalis solis invicti), on December 25 of course.

The god Mithras had a large following in the empire, particularly amongst the military. After midnight, on the first moment of December 25, the Mithraic temples would be lit up, with priests in white robes at the altars, and boys burning incense, similar to what happens today in Roman Catholic churches. At sunrise the priests would declare: “The god is born”.

Mithras was the principal Persian deity by the 5th century BCE. He was rock-born of a virgin goddess on December 25 and shepherds were the first to learn of his birth. He came from heaven and redeemed believers from their sins.

Among Celtic and Germanic tribes, the winter solstice was held in veneration from earliest times. And for Norsemen, too, the time had a special meaning. Their deities were active on earth from December 25 to January 6.

Trees and Logs

A tradition which stems from the old Norse custom of burning oak logs in honour of the god Thor is the yule log. It survives today as a chocolate-covered cake for Christmas teas.

Originally a log was placed on the fire as the yule log. It was one of the most important parts of Christmas Eve. It burnt throughout the night, and it was held to be unlucky if the fire went out. On Christmas Day morning the log was replaced by a young fir tree to represent rebirth.

From this tradition may stem the idea of decorated Christmas trees brought to Britain from Germany in Victorian times.


Mistletoe was a sacred plant for the Druids, while for Romans it was a symbol of peace. Enemies were supposed to discard their arms and declare a truce under it; hence the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.

Greetings Cards

These date from the 1840s and became popular from the time of the introduction of stamps and the penny post.

Father Christmas

The jolly fat man with long white beard, in a red outfit and shiny black boots, who gives presents, is the result of a collection of traditions.

Father Christmas, a character from medieval mummers plays, has merged with St Nicholas, the Christian patron saint of children, to become Santa Claus. His sleigh was first shown by illustrators in the 1860s.

Christmas Abolished

Onto deeply loved festivals Christians superimposed the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. The word ‘Christmas’ means the day on which a mass is said for the soul of Christ. The takeover is often brazen, and it is extremely unlikely that Jesus was born on December 25.

In fact in 1652 Christians decided to scrap Christmas altogether and passed a law forbidding any observance of it. The festival was restored in 1660.

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Created : Sunday, 1998-01-18 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :