What ultimately clinched it was the rule of Emperor Constantine. When Christianity became the state religion the church now had the power to Christianize pagan beliefs and practices. And so the church took over December 25, not to worship the sun but to worship the Son of righteousness.
Because the Christian celebration of Christmas got fixed on December 25, northern hemisphere countries, where Christianity first spread and became established, developed Christmas customs and practices reflecting central and northern Europe’s climate. Besides snow, the Christmas tree, formerly a Central European pagan symbol, got connected with Christmas. Some claim that Martin Luther himself began the custom of adding candle lights to an evergreen tree. The Christmas tree came to England with the marriage of Queen Victoria to the German Prince Albert, and English influence brought the Christmas tree to America.
Christmas falls in winter only for those of us in the northern hemisphere, but today the majority of the world’s Christians live in the southern hemisphere where December is summer. “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” is only dreaming in the tropics. I’ve seen the incongruity of connecting Christmas with snow after one Christmas in Southern California and one in Hawaii. So I’m sure Christians in the southern hemisphere develop their own customs for Christmas without reference to snow.
Interesting how what began as a strictly religious observance got colored by the climate of the people who celebrated that observance, until we sometimes don’t seem to be sure whether we are celebrating the birth of Jesus or our northern latitude winter.
Marlin Jeschke is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion at Goshen College. In 1968-69 he received a fellowship in Asian Religions, spending five months at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and five months traveling in Muslim countries of the Middle East and Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia. His “The American Religious Landscape” broadcast can be heard every Sunday at noon on FM 91.1.