"Why", you may occasionally ask yourself, "is Christmas celebrated on December 25?" After all, shepherds in the Middle East certainly aren't watching their flocks by the nights of early winter. Any serious Biblical scholarship would reveal that the Nativity must have happened in the springtime; a wonderful time for any mythology surrounding renewal. So whence this celebration four to five days after the solstice?

Competition. Marketing. And I'm not referring to the banal winning-over of brand loyalty for simple consumer goods. No, this was a contest for a purportedly loftier prize: eternal salvation. The religious marketplace of early fourth century (CE) Rome hosted several big players. You had your Christians (still persecuted somewhat and not overwhelmingly popular), your standard pagan Romans (devotees of Jupiter, his family and all that good stuff), and your Mithraists (followers of the Persian sun god Mithras).

Mithraism was the bee's knees in Rome; the emperor Aurelian had proclaimed it the official state religion in 274 CE. This presented a problem for the Christian hierarchy. How to gain market share? After all, they had the one true faith and the people simply had to know!

Marketers from antiquity down have known the power of a good party with a visible sponsor. In fact, the pagans already had one (Saturnalia). So did the Mithraists: Natalis Solis Invicti, the birth of the Unconquered Sun. Both of these festivals occurred in December, with Natalis Solis Invicti traditionally being celebrated on the 25th of the month. Christian market research, which consisted of looking out the window and noticing the revelling masses of Rome, revealed that late December appeared to be a popular party season.

Co-opt, co-opt, co-opt. This is the mantra of any new player on the scene who wants to be hip. Find out what the kids are into, and sell it back to them. "You crazy Mithraists like to get down on December 25, huh?" said the Christians. "Tell ya what: why celebrate the birth of the sun, when we can go one better and celebrate the guy who made it?" Of course, early Christians being a rather dour lot, their first instinct was to go with a somber mass. Specifically, they called it Christ's Mass.

Lo and behold, it worked pretty well. One party's pretty much as good as another, and this new Christ's Mass thing did a good job of getting the word out. In fact, the emperor Constantine himself converted to Christianity in 337 CE, and Christ's Mass became an official state holiday.

Conveniently ignored in all of this was the fact that early Christians had no solid idea of when, exactly, their Christ had been born. They were pretty sure it wasn't really December 25, but that date was just so durned convenient! Besides, it was precedent for a great trend. Most of the major Christian holidays thereafter would "happen" to coincide with whatever pagan festival future converts might have been getting down to.

So, this Christmas, open your presents. But, then, give a little nod to Mr. Sol up there; after all, this was his birthday first.

With thanks to two years of middle school Latin class, and Charles Panati's book Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things

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