Cheryl Lawrie, in Saturday’s Age (“Away with the Manger”), drags up that old furphy:
Historians largely agree that the celebration of Christmas came about just after Constantine had made Christianity a recognised and privileged religion within the Roman Empire. Religious leaders were looking for a way to make Christianity more widely accepted among the populace, so they adopted an existing mid-winter festival and layered it with Christian meanings.
Yes, its the old “ancient-pagan-festival-masquerading-as-pious-Christian devotion” myth mixed with the “Constantine-created-Catholicism” myth.
In fact, Cheryl, “historians largely agree” that the impetus toward celebrating Christmas in the 4th-6th Centuries depended, not upon Constantine, but upon the definitions of Christological dogma from the first four ecumenical councils (Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon). The Council of Ephesus, which approved the designation “Mother of God” for Mary likewise saw an increase in Marian devotion.
Of course, there are plenty who will point out that Christmas is just the pagan winter solstice festival and that Marian devotion looks suspiciously like the devotion to Athena (which was also popular at Ephesus in pre-Christian days). And here is the only thing that Cheryl and the historians largely agree on: the early Christian missionaries were canny evangelisers. Long before the word “inculturation” was invented, they were doing it.
And for those of you scandalised at the “pagan” history of Christmas, I challenge you to find something from Christianity (other than the Gospel itself) that was entirely invented by Christianity alone. The Gospel has the remarkable effect of “baptising” the things of this world, causing a rebirth and renewal into a new reality. Finitum capax infinitum. And that, to be sure, is at least one aspect of Christmas, is it not?