I am recycling a post I wrote on December 25, 2006.
This information may stun Christians but it comes from Christian researcher Hugo Rahner, brother of Karl Rahner, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. He wrote that in 354 CE a calendar entry for December 25 listed the birth of Christ along with the birth of the sun.
Following pagan example, Christians bowed to the east to honor the rising sun. Church Fathers accepted this, calling Christ the true sun, the light coming into the darkness, the "Dayspring from on high." Up to modern times, the preferred place for the altar in Catholic churches was the eastern side of the building, the side of the rising sun.
Light imagery sprinkled in our Christian liturgy—such as “Light from Light” in the Nicene Creed—also honors pagan solstice celebrations. And references to holiness “from on high” reflect pagan cosmology, which imagined gods and goddesses living up in the heavens. Sun gods were popular then, and pagans accepted Christ as one of them. They called the Lord’s Day of Christians the Day of the Sun, giving us the name “Sunday.”
The first celebrations of Christmas did not happen on December 25. They began on January 6, today the feast of Epiphany in the West. That used to be the winter solstice until a calendar adjustment moved it to December 25 and a later adjustment to December 21. This is the reason our Christmas comes a few days after the solstice. Eastern Orthodox believers still celebrate Christmas on January 6.
Not all Christians celebrate Christmas. In American colonial times, Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, and Presbyterians opposed the festivities because of their pagan origin. As this history suggests, the date of Christmas has no connection with the day Jesus of Nazareth was born. There is no possible way to know what that was. But believers aren’t the only ones who thrill at the story of an exceptional child born in humble surroundings.
During my childhood, Christkindchen, the Christ Child, brought Christmas. (Pronounce the German words with a short i.) When kids in school noticed that the Santas in town were fake, I wondered how they could ever have believed they were real. Our family miracle was much more believable.
We celebrated Christmas through most of January, reveling in Christmas music by singing and harmonizing with piano and radio. In my youth it was still possible to hear the sacred music of the season after Christmas Day, and I miss that.
Why do people stop Christmas music and throw out the tree on the day after Christmas? Apparently there’s no point in celebrating any longer when spending for presents is over. Commerce has spoiled what used to be a sacred time of year. Media reports on Christmas are all about earnings. What a distance we have come from observing the holy course of nature and a holy birth!
I suspect many of us hate the buy-and-spend frenzy but don’t know how to stop it. As more people get sick of the commercial merry-go-round, I hope they will find the courage to withstand materialistic pressures and to give in meaningful ways.
Do we hear outrage over this sacred season being exploited for money? No, we hear complaints about saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” As if Christians were the only ones with festivals around the winter solstice!
If we really cherished Christian values, we would joyfully include all religious traditions in our celebration. Spiritual meaning is what makes Christmas taste good.
We can make the good taste last. Let’s stop buying useless junk that degrades nature and reflect on the precious child inside every human being.