Carols ring out, twinkling lights sparkle on rooftops, and families gather. Christmas is near, and people all over the world are counting down the days until Dec. 25. Some who do it in a secular spirit look forward to holiday parties and Santa's treasures. Others take a more religious view, focusing on the celebration of Jesus' birth -- but not his birthday.
Records do not exist for Jesus' birth, and biblical clues are conflicting, but scholars are certain he wasn't born in December. Bethlehem is chilly and often rainy then, and shepherds are not in the field.
The Bible suggests that Mary and Joseph were headed to Bethlehem in order to register for a census and pay taxes in the city of Joseph's origin. Fall would have been the most logical time for such a census and taxation to take place -- when the farmers were flush and finished with work.
Fall is also a time of harvest festivals and celebrations, and it's a time when Israelites would make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem for Sukkot, a weeklong celebration that follows Yom Kippur. Homes and inns would be overflowing with family and friends gathering to honor the harvest and join in religious ceremonies. It would be a time when a too-full inn might have only their stable to offer as lodging to a young expectant couple.
Two other festivals encourage Israelites to gather in Jerusalem: Passover and Shavu'ot. These happen in the spring and inspire some thought that Jesus was a spring baby. This theory would coincide with the shepherds tending their flocks in the fields at night, because spring lambing would require around-the-clock observation.
More detailed clues appear in the book of Luke, where the pregnancy of Mary's cousin Elizabeth is detailed. Luke writes that Mary conceives during her cousin's sixth month of pregnancy and that her son is born six months after Elizabeth's. The date of Elizabeth's conception can be narrowed down to June, Mary's to December, and the ultimate birth of Jesus to September.
But if Jesus was an autumn baby, why do we celebrate his birth in the darkest days of winter? According to the Rev. Julianne Lepp, a Unitarian minister educated at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, it has ties to pagan traditions.
"The early beginnings of Christmas have direct roots in the winter solstice celebration that took place at Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture," Lepp explains. "When Christianity was introduced to the Roman Empire in the early fourth century, the church allowed the Saturnalia tradition to continue, but concluded the weeklong festival with a day dedicated to the birth of Christ, or Christ Mass, better known today as Christmas."
In fact, Emperor Constantine was a Christian convert who sought to combine pagan worship and Christianity. Mithraism and other pagan religions honored the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice, and it married well with the Christian birth of the holy son. Rome first celebrated the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25 in A.D. 336, and Pope Julius I made it official in A.D. 350.
"In seeking the return of the light, we seek to restore balance," Lepp says. "It is an age-old quest of restoring our tired hearts and rekindling joy in the darkest of nights. It is the real hope of the season."
This hope is reflected in the pagan traditions that remain dear at Christmastime. Yule logs burn brightly under mantels festooned in holly -- both customs that come from the Scandinavian celebration of solstice. Candles burn as they have since Saturnalia festivals when they were given as gifts to chase away darkness. Wreaths, pagan symbols of life everlasting, decorate front doors. Colorful ornaments recall the fruits, nuts and cookies that were once hung on evergreens in honor of the tree spirits that triumphed over winter demons and maintained green luster throughout the winter.
Santa's sleigh may stem from a Norse myth of Freyja, who rewarded good deeds with gifts doled out from her stag-drawn chariot in the days following the winter solstice. And Santa himself is a warm and shining light that emerges in the darkest days of the year to bring joy around the world -- just as the sun is beginning its re-emergence into the Northern Hemisphere's coldest days.