Let There Be Light

Although it is a matter of some dispute why Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25, it surely has something to do with the pagan celebration of the Unconquerable Sun—a festival started by the emperor Aurelian in 274 to honor the Syrian sun god. We know that by the early fourth century there was in Rome a holy day to honor the True Sun of Justice. In the cultural background of Christmas is the winter solstice, the day when darkness begins to give way to light. That the old pagan reverence for the returning sun still lingered in the Roman imagination is clear from an exhortation St. Augustine of Hippo made in one of his Christmas sermons: “So, brothers and sisters, let us keep this day as a festival—not, like the unbelievers, because of the sun up there in the sky, but because of the One who made that sun.”

The customs of Christmas in the West have developed over many centuries. The Christmas crib, an idea generally attributed to Francis of Assisi, dates back to the thirteenth century. The singing of carols goes back at least as far as the fourteenth. The festive use of evergreens and Christmas trees became common in English-speaking countries after Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, brought the custom from his native Germany in the middle of the nineteenth...

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About the Author

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.