The commercial impulses behind Christmas celebrations may date back all the way to the very beginning of the holiday, according to this 2009 Discovery Channel report.
While the exact origins of the Christian take on the occasion aren’t known, said Joseph Walsh, who chairs the Classics department at Loyola College, what is most likely is that the early Christians, living in the midst of the pagan Roman Empire, set out to go head-to-head with the prevailing holidays like Saturnalia and the Calans, the early new year festival.
“It wouldn’t be anything they’d be ashamed of,” Walsh said. “You can almost imagine a meeting of bishops saying, ‘Let’s not dodge — let’s go head to head. Let’s compete in the marketplace. Let’s show our stuff, ’cause we think we’ve got something better for people.’”
It’s also interesting to note, especially in a year that saw many people fall for various “Mayan apocalypse” hoaxes, that the early Christians faced their own share of worries about the end of the world.
“The Christians, meanwhile, in the First Century, beginning of the Second Century, think that the world’s going to end soon — like, Wednesday at noon,” said Walsh. “And so they’re not really worried about festivals and holidays and commemorating events and Jesus’ life, because, ‘Well, we’ve got two weeks to go, or maybe two years, but not very long.’”
The date of Dec. 25 was chosen, one theory goes, as part of an effort to sync Christian celebrations up with the agricultural cycle favored in Rome of those days.
Watch this report on the possible roots of Christmas, originally aired on Dec. 21, 2009, below.