Professors Explore Christmas Roots, Mystery of God
Date published: Dec. 22, 2016
In its dedication to both the Western heritage of liberal arts and the Christian intellectual
tradition, the University of Dallas has much to celebrate with the advent of the Christmas
season. Both the Western and Christian intellectual traditions have greatly shaped
this period in which we rejoice each December.
The customs and traditions that surround our Christian feast in celebration of the
birth of Jesus Christ are drawn from many sources throughout history, be they pagan,
classical, Christian, or otherwise. The traditions, celebrations and images associated
with Christmas are many; among the most iconic are the practice of gift-giving, the
figure of St. Nicholas and the display of a nativity scene. First and foremost, however,
is the date: Dec. 25.
Classics Professor Paolo Asso, Ph.D., explained that an important festival in ancient
Rome took place in late December and was a precursor to Christmas celebrations. This
festival, Saturnalia, shares two important parallels with the Christian celebration
that we know today: the time of year and the tradition of gift-giving.
“The scholarly consensus is that gift-giving originates from a custom associated with
the festival of the Saturnalia in the ancient Roman world,” said Asso. “Between Dec.
17 and 23, the ancient Romans celebrated a harvest festival in honor of Saturn, the
Roman god of agriculture.”
Affiliate Assistant Professor of Theology Father Thomas Esposito, O. Cist., noted
that the Romans celebrated Dec. 25 as the birthday of the sun god “Sol invictus” or
“The symbolism of the sun triumphing over darkness is very much incorporated into
the Church’s celebration of Christmas,” said Esposito. “In the Vatican necropolis,
a room contains a second century mosaic that appears to depict Christ as Apollo driving
his sun-chariot. Another hypothesis is that Jesus is depicted as the Sol Invictus!”
Saturn and Sol invictus aside, Asso explained the timing of our Christmas celebrations
with Biblical evidence.
“Since Catholic doctrine indicates that Jesus was incarnated on March 25, eight days
before the Kalends of April, he must have been born nine months later on Dec. 25,”
said Asso. “The time of his birth was ‘corrected’ into the time of his conception,
synchronizing his birth with the harvest festival.”
However, regardless of the date, Christians did not begin to celebrate Christmas until
about the fourth century. Incidentally, one of the strongest modern images of Christianity
lived during this time period: St. Nicholas.
Esposito mentioned that St. Nicholas helped to solidify the gift-giving tradition
— which the Romans so valued during Saturnalia — within a Christian context.
“The tradition of gift-giving still lingers in our understanding of Santa Claus, which
is a condensed and English-ized version of ‘Saint Nikolaus,’” he said. “Various legends
are associated with him, but the most beloved one is that he threw three bags of money
through a window to allow three daughters of a poor man to have a wedding dowry rather
than fall into prostitution.”
The figure of St. Nicholas has become both a spiritual and secular image of Christmas
— and is also familiar at the University of Dallas. Professor of History Thomas Jodziewicz,
Ph.D., for example, has proudly served as “Santa” for UD Christmas parties for over
Another tradition that is cherished at UD is that of the nativity. The wooden figures
that grace the lawn in front of the Church of the Incarnation remind us not only of
Christ’s birth, but also of one of the most influential saints in Medieval Europe.
As Esposito explained, the idea of a nativity dates back to A.D. 1223, when St. Francis
of Assisi constructed a nativity scene with animals and a manger for the Italian town
“The animal lover in him perhaps wanted to express the idea that all of nature has
been awaiting its God, and they adore Him at His birth,” explained Esposito.
Jodziewicz described the nativity scene as one of his favorite Christmas images, which
enriches the season of Advent in preparation for Christmas.
“I enjoy the ‘tension’ of anticipation as the great day comes closer and closer and
the wonderful context of the Advent season for a renewal of prayer and a sacramental
life,” Jodziewicz said.
Though the nativity is unquestionably of Christian origin, Esposito noted that there
is “ample evidence” to suspect that Christians indeed adapted some pagan religious
traditions — such as those of Saturnalia — that we now recognize as belonging to the
“You would have further evidence of Christianity ‘baptizing’ whatever is true or valid
or helpful in those pagan traditions and can lead to God,” he said. “This is the idea
behind Justin Martyr’s ‘seeds of the Word’ teaching — many philosophers before Christ
had partial insights into the truth about God, and the Incarnation of Christ brought
the fullness of truth and insight into the mystery of God.”