Christmas is the time of the year when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and along with Easter is their most important event in the Christian calendar. In the 21st century the Christmas holiday season has become popular outside of the Christian faith, with many Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and even Muslims adopting the holiday aspect of Christmas.
Whilst Christ was born a little over two thousand years ago, the traditions of Christmas time go back a lot further, in fact the birth of Christ was superimposed onto older pagan ceremonies and traditions that go back at least to ancient Mesopotamian civilization and perhaps even further back to the first human settlements.
One of the oldest traditions such as burning the Yule log, a somewhat less popular tradition these days but still the subject of numerous carols or Christmas cards, dates back to the earliest times and was important to pagan people for symbolizing the birth of the Sun God and the end of the winter months. Different ancient cultures had different ceremonies, some would dance and sing around the log, others would huddle in their homes until the threat of evil Gods had passed.
To truly understand the history of Christmas we need to look at the entire holiday rather than just the day of the 25th of December, for example the 12 days of Christmas, the Yule log, caroling, giving gifts, street processions, and seasonal holiday meals are all activities that pre-date the Christmas holiday season.
The 12 days of Christmas immortalized in a song of the same name was originally a Babylonian festival held around the winter solstice when the god Marduk, who was the supreme deity of the Babylon city-state, would battle the demons of the underworld for 12 days and nights until the sun returned.
The Roman festival of Saturnalia is believed to be derived from the Babylonian festival but was characterized by feating and debauchery, and a switching of roles between rulers and the ruled, in fact for the entire month of January Rome was often ruled by peasants whilst the aristocracy pretended to be their slaves and servants. The entire city would close for the month to allow everyone to participate.
At the time of the early Christian Church, the Roman Empire ruled most of the Mediterranean shores including the Holy Land. Religion was paganist and every part of the empire had its own Gods and celebrations, and if they were colorful enough these would often be adopted in other parts of the empire. Temples to new divinities would spring up regularly, almost fashionably.
Many Christians believe the 25th of December to be the actual day of Christ’s birth, in fact historians and Church leaders are divided on this with many believing Joshua (Yeshua in Ancient Hebrew) of Nazareth, now known as Jesus Christ was actually born in the month of March. In pre-Christian times the 25th of December coincided with the Babylonian celebration of Mithra’s birth, and in the Roman calendar was the first day of the Saturnalia festival.
In the 4th century the Roman Catholic Church had become concerned that the festival of Saturnalia and the celebration of Mithra’s birth weren’t showing signs of diminishing so it was decreed that the period would be known as the 12 days of Christmas beginning on the day of Christ’s birth and ending on the day of epiphany. In 350 AD Julius I, Bishop of Rome, settled on the 25th of December as the official date for celebrating Christ’s birth.
During the medieval ages feasting and dancing during the 12 Days of Christmas showed some signs that the Church hadn’t in fact been terribly successful, and whilst the switching of roles was long consigned to the history books, other aspects such as debauchery amongst the working classes was very much alive and well.
The most enduring image of Christmas for many people, and certainly most children is the idea of Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, or Papa Noel bringing gifts and presents to good boys and girls all over the world. This too is an idea from Saturnalia that predates the birth of Christ and which the Catholic Church unsuccessfully tried to banish in favor of a more austere and reflective Christmas.
A more appealing story of the history of giving gifts at Christmas time comes from Bishop Nicholas of Myra who is the patron saint of children. Bishop Nicholas was never known to give gifts at Christmas time, instead he gave gifts when he noticed a need, for example the gold coins he threw in the window of the poor man’s home so that his daughters would have a dowry for their wedding.
After his death Nicholas was elevated to sainthood with December the 5th becoming his Saint’s day, and it is on this day in many parts of Europe that children receive some of their gifs, in countries like the Netherlands and Germany this used to be the day that children received all of their gifts until English traditions of gift giving on the 25th became better known.
Decorating the tree is a popular Christmas tradition that has it’s roots in Germany, some say that Martin Luther himself decorated a tree at Christmas time, but it wasn’t until Queen Victoria married her German Prince Albert that decorating the tree became popular in England and then the US.
In pre-Christian times people from Scandinavia and Germany would hang apples and candles from trees at the winter solstice as a reminder that spring would return soon. The tradition survived in Germany but at one time the practice had to be banned because the practice of cutting off the top of the tree to decorate decimated Germany’s forests.
German villagers used to make hand-made decorations and blown glass baubles for their trees, but some historians believe this tradition stems from Roman times and the festival of Saturnalia when Romans would decorate trees.
Kissing under the Mistletoe is an ancient tradition from Northern Europe, enemies who passed one another under the mistletoe were required to lay down their arms for a day, but in modern times the tradition states that a man and a woman who meet under the mistletoe must kiss, and can do so without being disloyal to their spouses.