So I stumble into this argument again, about Christmas being Saturnalia for Christians, and that sends me to my archives where I finally dig this up (I really need to index this stuff), which I repeat again this year in hopes that repetition will make a dent in ignorance (I'm not holding my breath. "Engines of our Ingenuity" this morning, often a fairly well researched program, repeated most of the baseless nonsense about Christmas trees and Christmas traditions. One day I'll just give up).
First, let's note there's a disagreement over whether Christmas was set atop "Sol Invictii" (per a comment at Salon) or the Saturnalia. The two become interchangeable in these arguments, which is tedious but typical. So:
Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday; Arnobius (VII, 32 in P.L., V, 1264) can still ridicule the "birthdays" of the gods.The first observance was in Egypt, not Rome. I don't know that anyone thinks of Egypt as a hotbed of observance of Roman customs, especially since the Romans didn't do that much to export their religious customs to the hinterlands of the Empire. Beyond declaring Caesar the "Son of God," they pretty much left local religious practices alone. The discussion of the feast at New Advent goes on to conclude (the history is quite complex) that the feast (not the reference to the day of birth) reached Egypt between 427 and 433. Christianity became the official religion of the Empire in 395. About the time the Roman Empire was coming apart, in other words. And this may or may not be wholly accurate, but it is useful in placing Alexandria in historical context:
The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt. About A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria (Stromata I.21) says that certain Egyptian theologians "over curiously" assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ's birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus. [Ideler (Chron., II, 397, n.) thought they did this believing that the ninth month, in which Christ was born, was the ninth of their own calendar.]
In the late 4th century, persecution of pagans by newly Christian Romans had reached new levels of intensity. Temples and statues were destroyed throughout the Roman empire: pagan rituals became forbidden under punishment of death, and libraries were closed. In 391, Emperor Theodosius I ordered the destruction of all pagan temples, and the Patriarch Theophilus complied with his request. One theory has it that the great Library of Alexandria and the Serapeum were destroyed about this time.Not sure just how popular a Christian holiday placed atop a pagan one would have been, even some 40 years after such events.
I mention this not to seal a counter-argument to the prevailing ones, but to point out just how complex history is, and how much we over-simplify it. We rush in where angels fear to tread when we decide we understand history as a simple narrative that only became complex when we arrived on the scene.
Back, then, to New Advent; the Natalis Invictii (not "Sol") was celebrated in Rome on December 25. It reached the peak of its popularity in 276, but the earliest mention of a Christmas observance on that date is in Rome in 354. Given how much of the church was actually operating at a grassroots level (the churches around the Empire were tenuously connected to each other, not bound by the authority Rome now exerts), and, for example, the story of how the people pressed Augustine into service as their bishop (he was not imposed on them by Rome), and that was in the late 4th century, one might well accept that people used to celebrating on December 25 simply shifted their celebration to a new god.
The idea, in other words, that this date was "stolen" or appropriated by church officials, is actually one rooted in pernicious Puritanical anti-Papist thinking. Even the idea that Rome took up pagan practices and therefore such practices aren't "really Christian" is a Puritanical one. If you want to see clearly, take off the blinders.
If anything, Rome settled the date for Christmas on other churches as its authority spread. In the 4th century, as Christmas celebrations were springing up around the Christian world (New Advent details the history for Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople, Cyprus, Armenia, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Alexandria), many of the celebrations were observed in January, not December. Somewhere in there you get the 12 Days of Christmas, a period of celebration we would do well to resurrect.
As for Christmas tree and "pagans," I will be so bold as to quote myself:
The tree is a seasonal decorative item. Rather like the concept of communion, it springs not from some cultural icon co-opted by the new dominance of Christianity in the dark places of ancient history, but from Christian sources: specifically, the Genesis story and the Paradeisbaum inspired by German morality plays and the veneration of Adam and Even in the Eastern church which spread, unofficially, westward.
CHRISTMAS Eve is the feast day of our first parents, Adam and Eve. They are commemorated as saints in the calendars of the Eastern churches (Greeks, Syrians, Copts). Under the influence of this Oriental practice, their veneration spread also to the West and became very popular toward the end of the first millennium of the Christian era. The Latin church has never officially introduced their feast, though it did not prohibit their popular veneration. In many old churches of Europe their statues may still be seen among the images of the saints. Boys and girls who bore the names of Adam and Eve (quite popular in past centuries) celebrated their "Name Day" with great rejoicing. In Germany the custom began in the sixteenth century of putting up a "paradise tree" in the homes to honor the first parents. This was a fir tree laden with apples, and from it developed the modern Christmas tree.
That first connection, to traditional stage decorations, is not to be overlooked. The tree really is just a seasonal decorative item, just as Christmas in America is now just a time of year, with almost no connection to either Christ or the Roman Mass.
As Penne Restad documents it in Christmas in America, the small tree put up in German households on Christmas Eve (feast day of Adam and Eve) became the dominant feature of room-filling tableaus in 19th century America, tableaus complete with landscapes made of dirt hauled in for the purpose (think of Richard Dreyfus in "Close Encounters" hauling in dirt to build the Devil's Tower in his living room. Now cover it with snow....). It was never more than an excuse for decoration, in other words.
There's also the fact that, at best, you are only likely to see "Chrismon" trees in Christian churches, and then only in the worship space of some Protestant churches. You may find a decorated tree in a Christian place of worship, but odds are the decorations are specifically religious symbols, and even then the tree may (or may not) be up near the altar or pulpit. It's a secular decorative item, not a religious "Xmas" item at all.
So the tree we get so manic about now is as American as Santa Claus and 24 shopping days 'til Christmas.
By the way, the earliest reference to a "Christmas tree" in English that I know of is Coleridge's, in the 19th century. There are stories that Prince Albert brought it to England from his Germany, and so it became popular in that country (although Dickens never mentions one), and it became wildly popular, as Restad documents, in America. It couldn't have dated back to pagan days in Germany and gone unnoticed by the rest of Europe until the 19th century.
Our Christmas celebrations are just a mess of traditions. We might as well enjoy them, rather than play amateur scholars and try to dissect them. Most of our attempts to do that betray our prejudices (against the Pope, or against an "impure" Christianity) and our sheer ignorance of history.