Here is an interesting snippet of history with roots extending all the way back to ancient Egypt.
The earliest original Egyptian calendar consisted of 12 months of 30 days each. Apocryphally it is said that after some major disaster (unspecified) the Egyptians figured that the annual inundation of the Nile was moving through their calendar, creeping up by an average of five days each year. So they added to their calendar five extra days (epagomenes) that “the gods have given us”–bonus days, if you will, that became the Roman Saturnalia. A time for joyous celebration and the giving of gifts, the festival eventually ran from December 17 to December 24. One of the final days of this intercalary holiday was the Day of Misrule, when slaves were served by their masters; in the military context, officers waited on privates.
Later, the Caesars being what they were, Julius extended his namesake month by a day to guarantee his own eternal life; ol’ Augustus was not to be outdone and mimicked Julie.
Then finally Augustus added a further day every four years, to make up essentially the calendar we have today, which actually dates from 25 BCE. Of course Pope Gregory played with the days of the months and altogether screwed them up pretty horribly in an attempt to get rid of the extra five days of “heathenish” festivities. The Saturnalia was noted for its parties and its gift-giving practices, but the early church vigorously stamped all that out as well.
An even more drastic reform was the French Revolutionary calendar, instituted in 1793. It decreed the Egyptian 30-day months, each with three ten-day weeks. Every single day in that calendar’s year had its own specific individual name, keyed to nature and to agriculture. It restored the five “extra” days and the festivals associated with them, including the Lord of Misrule. At the same time the French invented the 10-hour “day” with 100 minutes in each hour and 100 seconds in each minute.
All this was much too pagan for the Catholic church. After the Concordat of 1801, France was required to revert to the old Gregorian calendar. But …
Back to Christmas
In 354 CE Pope Liberius added Christmas-as-nativity to the Catholic church calendar. He chose December 25 as a day to become holy after the blowout of Saturnalia. In Rome it had been the day of the sun god Sol Invictus anyway; thus the church tied itself into the Roman system. It did again what it has always done, taking over an old festival, plagiarizing and renaming it to sanitize it and make it worthy.
Only with the Reformation did Protestants rid the church of all that Catholic stuff and gift-giving. So the nativity was abolished in Scotland in 1563 and in England in 1640. Only in the 19th century in New York did some of the celebration come back and St. Nicholas, patron saint of New York, became the patron saint of Christmas.
In “History of New York” Washington Irving described how Sinterklaes rode through the sky behind a horse and wagon to deliver presents to children. Around 1821 the horse and wagon gave way to reindeer and a sleigh. In 1823 Charles Clement Moore wrote his famous “A Visit from St. Nicholas”; it was he who named the reindeer and made them eight in number. Still the nativity had not come back.
In 1860 President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law a bill making Christmas a civil holiday; there was still no mention of the nativity, or for that matter of creches.
In the 1860s cartoonist Thomas Nast set the modern image of Santa Claus. The color red became standard only when Coca-Cola used that Nast image and dressed Santa in an outfit of Coca-Cola red.
Every time we ourselves look at a creche now, we think of the tales of the goats used in live nativity scenes : The goat that ate Baby Jesus. The goats that refused to stop copulating on the Night. The goats that made rather a mess of the straw. We retain these images to lighten our personal atmosphere and to neutralize some of the sanctimonious gasping piety.
Of course only two of the “gospels” mention the nativity; so really it’s a 50-50 chance that you’ve been a good Christian or a bad Christian by believing in the nativity. Since we’re pagan/Wiccans, we don’t have to worry about that aspect.
So we hope you had a wonderful Saturnalia. Of course we don’t know whether the goats prefer Pampers or Huggies. What would Baby Jesus have worn? Does anybody else smell incipient schism here? There’s hope.