In the northern hemisphere, the Sun reaches the lowest point of its power in its annual cycle at the end of December. The Winter Solstice, the shortest day, falls on 21 or 22 December, and a few days later the days visibly begin to lengthen. To the people of the ancient world, the guaranteed rebirth of the sun meant a time to celebrate vegetation and — especially in northern climates — a time to feast on the remainder of the harvest that could not be stored, and to kill and eat the livestock that could not be fed over the winter. The ensuing lean period would come to an end with the new growth of crops in Spring.
So the 25 December was heralded with feasts and holidays through much of the known world, and this continued into in the centuries following the birth of Christ. Many early Christian theologists, including Origen (c. 185-254), argued that feast days were for pagan gods and that Jesus Christ’s birthday should not be celebrated at all. However, in the fourth century there was a serious schism in the Church that brought the subject of Christ’s nativity to the fore. The discord arose when an Egyptian elder, Arius, began to preach that Christ was not born the “Son of God”, but was born a man who received the Holy Spirit later in life. This heresy was eventually refuted by the Nicene Council, and to back the decision the Church decided that it was particularly important to celebrate the birth of the Son of God — as well as to celebrate Mary as the Theotokos, the Mother of God.
For Emperor Constantine, whose aim seems to have been to unite his empire and its people regardless of religion, and to the Church elders, who wanted to enfold the empire’s subjects under the banner of Christ, the celebration of his nativity would bring joy to the people and help them accept the new religion. No one knew exactly when Christ was born, so why not usurp the pagan holiday on 25 December, for which ritual and festivities had been in place for centuries? This would not only allow the public to continue their happy excuse for a holiday, but the emphasis on it as a Christian holiday would put the pagan celebration into the shade. There was no need to dispense with the pagan trappings of feasting, fire and stars nor, in the north, the celebration of greenery. Jesus could lie snuggly in the manger among the holly and the ivy.
Emperor Constantine thus encouraged the celebration to coincide with the 25 December festivities, superseding the pagan justification for a holiday, and accordingly Pope Julius 1 (r. 337-352) fixed 25 December as Christmas Day. However some Christians — both then and later — were unable to accept the pagan connotations. The holiday was banned in Cromwellian England, and some Protestant sects still refuse to recognise Christmas.
So much for the nativity, but how was Christ to be depicted? At first, statues of Jesus were modelled on the image of Apollo — a beautiful, curly haired youth. After the Christmas Day pronouncement images of Jesus as an infant began to appear, images already familiar in ancient Egypt. There Horus was the god of the rising sun — Ra being the full sun and Osiris the dying sun (Horus was later combined with Ra as Ra-Harakhte, “Horus of the two horizons”). The son of Osiris and Isis, hawk-headed Horus also had an infant persona as Har-pa-khered, or Harpocrates in Greek, and many images exist on both votive statuettes and paintings of Isis with her infant son seated on her lap. Sometimes statuettes of the child were immersed in water, which was then used for blessing and healing purposes.
A calendar based on the cycle of the sun, replacing the former moon calendar, was introduced by Julius Caesar. The Julian Calendar calculated the length of the year as 365 and a quarter days, but unfortunately it overestimated the length of the year by 11 minutes and 15 seconds. This meant that by the middle of the second millennium the calendar was 10 days out, and so in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII deleted the extra 10 days. The new Gregorian calendar was adopted by Catholic Europe, followed by Protestant Europe in stages over the next 200 years. The East held to the old Julian calendar, and so the Orthodox churches continued to celebrate Christmas Day on 7 January.
Meanwhile as Egypt, along with the rest of the Roman Empire, embraced Christianity, their theologians were almost certainly unaware of a startling fact that is well known to us today. This is that the new faith was not the first time Egyptians had turned to worship one god. In about 1353 BC the son of the great Pharaoh Amenhopis III inherited the throne from his father and was crowned Amenhopis IV, ruler of all Egypt. The new king, however, was not content with the old ways and, whether governed by deep theological convictions, a desire to dismantle the power of the priesthood, or a sense if his own omnipotence, made a massive but ultimately short-lived break from the past. He declared that the Egyptian pantheon of gods worshipped since time immemorial was false, and that instead there was only one god, the great sun god Aten. He changed his name to Akhenaten, “Devoted to Aten”, and moved the capital of his kingdom from Thebes further north to Akhetaten, a brand new city that he ordered to be built in the desert near present-day Minya.
Akhenaten saw Aten as a benevolent god, one who cast his rays on Earth as a father enfolds his family in his arms. It is as though this was a forerunner of the loving God of Christianity, whose eye follows all the people and creatures on earth much as the Eye of Horus, the wedjet, had looked on the people for all those centuries. Indeed, Amarna and the belief in Aten crumbled to dust on the death of Akhenaten (ca. 1336 BC), and Horus, god of the dawn; Ra, god of the noon sun; and Osiris, god of the fading sun, resumed their role as lords of creation for another 1,500 years.