16/12/2012 14:09 GMT | Updated 15/02/2013 05:12 GMT

A Weird History of Christmas, Part One - Christ's Birthday or Roman Carnival?

All things considered, the modern Christmas is pretty bizarre. However, this is entirely in keeping with tradition - as far as we can tell, Yuletide has always been a curious head-scratcher. For the historian like me, teasing out what Christmas used to be like, and why it even exists, is a blooming nightmare.

Christmas is here! Time to break out the booze, and the Mariah Carey CD, and the tinsel, and the indigestion tablets! For many, there is no better time of year - even in an increasingly secular world, Christmas dominates our thoughts for weeks at a time. We're bombarded in supermarkets with tinny renditions of yuletide carols and chart-topping flukes; random TV channels suddenly appear, dedicated to incessantly broadcasting mawkish movies about magical snowmen with the power to heal broken hearts, or some such bollocks; and the Radio Times produces an absurdly thick TV guide, goading you into watching Shrek 2 for the hundredth time, while you binge on leftover turkey sandwiches.

All things considered, the modern Christmas is pretty bizarre. However, this is entirely in keeping with tradition - as far as we can tell, Yuletide has always been a curious head-scratcher. For the historian like me, teasing out what Christmas used to be like, and why it even exists, is a blooming nightmare. So much has been written, and so little of it is supported by evidence, that you end up with a jumbled mash of wishy-washy blather. So, this blog will attempt (and inevitably fail) to point out what we know, and what we don't know, about the earliest origins of Christmas. It will then demean the whole thing with some poorly-executed jokes.

Right, then. Let's start with some easy ones first - the obvious clangers you'll have probably encountered at school nativity plays. According to the Bible...

i) Jesus was NOT born in a stable; it was more likely a family friend's guest room, though some have suggested a cave was possible. It definitely wasn't a Travelodge.

ii) Mary and Joseph did NOT travel on a donkey.

iii) There's NO suggestion Mary gave birth immediately after arriving in Bethlehem.

iv) There was NO innkeeper.

v) There were NO Three Kings of the orient. The 'Magi', or wise men, are mentioned in the plural but we don't know how many there were.

vi) There were NO animals present at the birth (see i) - this was a charming medieval invention by St Francis of Assisi.

vii) The wise men arrive to see NOT a "baby" but a "child" - so it may have taken them more than a year to come say hi.

viii) The Baby Jesus may have cried, he may not have cried. We don't know.

ix) Jesus' birthday is NOT mentioned, but it's unlikely to be 25th December, seeing as the shepherds are in the fields with their flock. Many scholars argue for September, some others for March.

x) Oddly, Jesus was likely born BEFORE 4BC (when King Herod the Great died)... or in 6AD, when there is evidence of a Roman census, and Herod's son, also called Herod, was ruling. Either way, this makes something of a mockery of the concept of BC.

So, if it's not in the Bible, why do we hold Christmas celebrations on December 25th? These days, you're likely to hear a lot of authoritative-sounding rhetoric arguing that December 25th was the winter solstice in the old Julian calendar, and that consequently this witnessed the Roman festival celebrating the sun god, Sol Invictus. This much is true. However, before you start thinking the Christian Church cynically replaced a god's' birthday with Jesus' birthday, we have a hurdle to clamber over. While Easter and Halloween do appear to have been deliberately plonked on top of pre-existing pagan holy days, this Roman festival was only established in 274 AD, many years after a Christian theologian, Hippolytus of Rome, had already claimed Jesus was born on December 25th.

Hippolytus was following a commonly-established Jewish tradition for prophets, who seem to have possessed a divinely-installed self-destruct button that ensured they handily dropped down dead on their birthday, or on the anniversary of their conception. Frankly, I wish my expensive Sennheiser headphones were Jewish, as they have literally just crapped out a week after their warranty expired... but I digress. Seeing as Jesus was crucified on 25 March, that must also have been the date of his immaculate conception - so, a nine month gestation would have seen him pop out on... yes, you guessed it, December 25th. So, even though it's factually wrong, there's a theological logic, of sorts, at work here.

However, while the dating of the Nativity is probably nothing to do with Sol Invictus, the customs of Christmas seem irrefutably influenced by another Roman festival, Saturnalia. The god Saturn was a pretty big deal to the Romans, and, despite initially beginning with only one day to his name, by the 1st Century AD he had managed to wangle himself a week-long celebration in his honour, lasting from 17 December until (possibly) the 25th. Saturnalia was famous for copious feasting, excessive boozing, light-hearted pranks, big gatherings of family and friends, and the exchange of gifts. These pressies could be lavish, like a particularly buxom slave girl, or they could be intentionally crap. As a joke, the poet Catullus received a compendium of shit poetry from his mate Gaius Licinius Calvus - the ancient equivalent of buying someone a Jeremy Clarkson book.

Saturnalia also witnessed the collapse of traditional social order, with slaves and the poor suddenly elevated to befit the company of their masters. These unfree chattel might swap clothes with their owners, drink their wine, and share their food (though they'd still have to cook it, first!) Meanwhile, the wealthy were expected to offer financial support to the poor, and abandon all work-related business, in a Scrooge-like abandonment of their normal values.

It's pretty obvious that much of what we think of as a Christmas custom was already being practised two thousand years ago, before the Church had even established itself as a dominant force in Roman society. How cultural elements of Saturnalia might have snuck into the Christian celebration is unsure - it's worth noting that for much of the 4th Century AD, Christians and Pagans lived next door to each other in a bustling, multicultural city; they probably shared in each other's lives much more than we imagine. As history makes so abundantly clear, Christianity's lone God soon-after vanquished Rome's over-stuffed pantheon of of deities, and the first official Roman Christmas was recorded in 354 AD. Yet, in 449AD a Christian calendar writer called Polemius Silvus was still including Saturnalia in his writings, noticing it was formerly associated with Saturn, but this was no longer the case. Does this imply the festival had evolved into a secular knees up, held alongside Christmas? It's hard to know what to believe, but the bad news is that as we enter the Middle Ages, things get murkier than a swimming pool filled with gravy...

While Christians were happily establishing their new calendar, based on complex calculations and a lot of date fudging, meanwhile another sort of Paganism was still cheerfully bumbling along in Northern Europe. The Saxons appear to have referred to the end of the year, spanning November to January, as 'Giuli'. On the day of the winter solstice - December 25th - it appears they held a feast called 'Modranecht', or 'Geol', which venerated Mother Nature's fertility. That said, our evidence for this comes from the Venerable Bede, who was a Christian monk writing in a time when Paganism was already more unpopular than an album of Megadeath songs covered by Cliff Richard. So, can we really trust him? Dunno.

Similarly, our knowledge of Viking custom is more detailed, but equally problematic. Sources, such as the Saga of Haakon the Good, reveal that a 'Jul' (Yule) feast on the solstice involved the sacrifice of animals, and the sprinkling of warm animal blood on all the guests' faces - frankly, I'd much rather see that in a John Lewis Christmas advert instead of a sentimental Snowman going shopping . While we're on the subject of pressies, other Norse writings suggest that the Vikings were also into gift-giving at 'Jultid' (Yuletide), though these poems were written a couple of hundred years after Paganism died out, so they might be as historically accurate as Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' portrayal of Henry VIII in The Tudors.

So, to sum up, then. Christmas is a Christian festival, held coincidentally on the same day as a Roman pagan one, and - seemingly sporting ancient Roman customs from a separate pagan festival - it takes place during another Germanically-inflected festival called Yuletide. All of these myriad influences seem to have jumbled together in the Middle Ages, and gradually evolved into what we now think of as Christmas. You can read about the weird British Xmas customs of the past in Part 3 of this blog; but first - if your head doesn't hurt already - why not check out Part II, where I'll be trying to untangle the relationship between Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Odin and Jesus. Oh, and some amazing dude called Captain Christmas, who sounds awesome!