Once upon a time I was Christian, specifically I was a devout Born Again Baptist. Yes, I have read the Bible from cover-to-cover six different times. I can still sing a number of hymns from memory, as well as modern Christian songs, and I can quote Bible verses and Church history at you better than some ministers I've met through the years (though certainly not all). Long before I ever even conceived of converting, when people would say "Christ is the reason for the season" it irked me, because even then and as a Christian I knew that it simply wasn't true.
Now that I am Pagan (specifically Heathen) it especially irks me, since so many people who say that phrase do so while they rage for their Christian rights on the winter holidays while running roughshod over the rights and beliefs of countless other people and religions out there. Every year there's some new boycott enacted by outraged Christians because a store clerk didn't wish someone a "Merry Christmas" or a particular store didn't use the words Merry Christmas in their advertising. The Christian values American Family Association has been known to call for boycotts in the past, and this year they've already blacklisted Dick's Sporting Goods for perceived snubs against "Christmas" this year.
So why the confusion?
In the earliest days of the Christian Church, Pagan Romans were the elite powerhouses of that ancient world, and most Christians numbered among the lowest of the social classes in the empire. So when the Roman Empire celebrated their festivals, the Christians in the Empire got a bit of a break as well.
Many Pagan cultures have had various forms of celebrations around this time of year. In Ancient Rome, the celebration of Saturnalia spread in popularity. Saturnalia was a time to eat, drink, and be merry while honoring the Roman God Saturn. The festival was characterized with a modest type of role reversal where slaves could get a little taste of what it might be like to be at the other end of the social ladder. The one-day festival spread into a multi-day affair lasting for about a week, roughly correlating to our December 17-23. While work was still being carried out, this was a festival that the slaves and servants really loved as they were able to have a break, and their masters got a bit of a glancing lesson about the work the servants did for them.
There was also another celebration around this time of the year in the ancient Roman Empire. Mithraism worshiped a Sun deity (Mithras), and his key celebration was on December 25th, an observance called the "Nativity." What I find fascinating about Mithraism is that it began in Persia, was transported by Alexander the Great's Greek soldiers into Europe, and then was spread even wider by the Roman Empire itself. Through the years there appears to have been a certain level of bleed-over between the Saturnalia festival and the Mithraic festival.
Favored by Roman Emperor Commodus (161-192 C.E.), Mithraism certainly had wide spread influence. Of course, everything changed when Emperor Constantine converted in 313 C.E. and Christianity suddenly went from a marginalized religion of the minority to a mainstream religion. While the tide of destruction that Christianity brought to Pagan practices and temples was briefly halted during the reign of Emperor Julian, who tried to restore Pagan practices and issued an edict for religious freedom, after his death the machine of destruction continued.
Yet despite early Christianity's attempts to wipe out the Pagan celebration, the people enjoyed it too much and kept practicing it. Eventually the church decided that instead of fighting it, it would be smarter to assume power over the festival and slowly Christianize it. But Christ was not born at this time of the year. The American Presbyterian Church puts Christ's birthday sometime in the autumn.
A 5th century Syrian writer had this to say about the change: "It was the custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same 25th of December the birthday of the Sun, at which [time] they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and festivities the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true nativity [of Christ] should be solemnized on that day."
Of course, the irony is that this church edict is against the dictates found in biblical passages. Christians should be familiar with prohibitions against Pagan practices. The Bible states: "Hear what the LORD says to you, people of Israel. This is what the LORD says: Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them. For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good" (Jer. 10:1-5).