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For the period of the year in which it is held, it is indebted to pagan sources. This time of the year--following the harvest, and centering about the winter solstice (shortest day of the year), when the days again begin to lengthen--has almost universally been a period of festivity and religious significance in the northern hemisphere ages before the spread of Christianity.
Regarding the date, most commentators agree that from many points of view, no date could be more unlikely to be that of Christ's birth. There is no month in the year in which respectable ecclesiastical authorities have not confidently placed the birth of Jesus. The date is undeniably pagan: even Catholic authorities admit that. The Encyclopedia Britannica (1949, article "Christmas") says--
"CHRISTMAS (the 'Mass of Christ') ... Clement of Alexandria (about 200 AD) mentions several speculations on the date of Christ's birth, and condemns them as superstitious... The exact day and year of Christ's birth have never been satisfactorily settled. When the Fathers of the Church in AD 340 decided upon a date to celebrate the event, they wisely (!) chose the day of the Winter Solstice, which was firmly fixed in the minds of the people, and which was their MOST IMPORTANT FESTIVAL."
The Encyclopedia Americana (1946, article "Christmas") says the same--
"CHRISTMAS, the 'Mass of Christ'... In the 5th century the Western Church ordered it to be celebrated forever on the day of the old Roman feast of the Birth of Sol (the Sun)... Among the German and Celtic tribes, the Winter Solstice was considered an important point of the year, and they held their chief festival of Yule 1 to commemorate the return of the burning-wheel (the sun)."
And Everyman's Encyclopedia says--
"CHRISTMAS (the Mass of Christ)... It is certain that the time now fixed could not by any possibility have been the period of Jesus' birth. The choice of this season was probably due to the general recognition that the Winter Solstice was the turning point of the year."
THE PAGAN FOUNDATIONS
It was during the period of the ascendancy of the Roman Empire that Christ-Mass originated. Consequently we find that pagan Roman customs played the major part in fixing its date and characteristics. Its general season, however, was later found to coincide with important religious superstitions of the north European barbarians (who also worshipped the Sun and marked the Solstice), and this too played a large part in its development. Alfred Hottes, Christmas Fact and Fancy --
"The roots of Christmas observance go deeply into the folklore of the Druids, Scandinavians, Egyptians and Romans."
The Chambers Encyclopedia records--
"Many of the beliefs and usages of the Old Germans, and also of the Romans, relating to this period, passed over from heathenism to Christianity."
R.J. Campbell, in The Story of Christmas, declares--
"There are not a few popular observances associated with the Christmas season which have NOTHING TO DO with the Christian religion and the birth of Jesus. Most of these observances are older than Christianity, and some of them--it must be confessed--are NOT OF VERY ELEVATED ORIGIN."
William Auld, in Christmas Traditions, notes--
"There are the green garlands, the marvelous trees, the mystic fire and lights, and customs many...still clustering about the great midwinter feast--all of which descend to us from the PAGAN CHILDHOOD OF THE RACE."
T.G. Crippen, in Christmas and Christmas Lore, confesses--
"The Feast of the Nativity rather incorporated than supplanted various heathen festivals. It was therefore only natural that RELICS OF HEATHEN PRACTICE should survive as traditional customs."
The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics confirms this--
"MOST of the Christian customs [related to Christmas] now prevailing in Europe, or recorded from former times, are HEATHEN customs which have been absorbed or tolerated by the Church. The Christian feast has inherited these customs from two sources: Roman and Teutonic PAGANISM."
And the Catholic Encyclopedia (note the source) admits--
"There is NO DOUBT that the original Christian nuclei attracted PAGAN accretions."
The Schaff-Herzog Religious Encyclopedia similarly says--
"There were non-Christian elements present in the origin of Christmas. The giving of presents was a Roman custom. The Yule-tree [modern 'Christmas Tree'] and the Yule-log are remnants of old Teutonic NATURE WORSHIP."
All these sources, be it noted are friends of Christmas. They are not exposing its corrupt background: they are rather glorying in it. They regard its heathen-Catholic origin as a delightful and intriguing asset. We find exactly the same picture in standard, independent reference books. The Encyclopedia Britannica says--
"Many current customs date back to pre-Christian origins: among them are Christmas decorations. The Romans ornamented their temples and homes with green boughs and flowers for the Saturnalia [Dec. 17-23] ... The Druids gathered mistletoe and hung it in their homes; the Saxons used holly and ivy.""
The Everyman's Encyclopedia declares--
"The practice of decorating churches is pagan in its origin."
And this is from the Encyclopedia Americana--
"The holly, the mistletoe, the Yule log and the wassail bowl are relics of pre-Christian times...The Christmas tree has been traced back to the Romans."