On 25th of December, Christmas is observed throughout the world. As a cultural celebration, it is a peculiar mix-part myth, part magic and part religion.
Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ: Joseph went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being with child.
It was while they were there; the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. She brought forth her first born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
The Christmas festival lasts for twelve days from 25december (Jesus birth) to 6 January (Epiphany). The story is simple: Jesus is born; angels announce his birth to shepherds in the fields and he is visited by three Magi (wise men from the East), who offers him gifts. The significance of these events for Christians is their belief that Jesus is ‘the Son of God’, the Messiah sent from Heaven to save the world from sin.
In the first few centuries AD, Christmas as such did not exist the Christian Church only celebrated the festival of the Resurrection (Easter). According to a Roman almanac, Christmas was being celebrated in Rome by 336 AD. In 354 AD Pope Liberus instituted the Nativity on 25 December.
After Christmas was established in the East, the baptism of Jesus was celebrated on Epiphany, January 6. In the West, however, Epiphany was the day on which the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus was celebrated.
The reason Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25 remains uncertain, but the most probable reason is that early Christians wished the date to coincide with the various pagan festivals, which celebrated the winter solstice.
The winter solstice (22nd December in the northern hemisphere) has traditionally been a time of celebration in most cultures. The lengthening daylight is seen an affirmation of the continuing cycle of the seasons, the beginning of the end of unproductive winter and the precursor to the growing seasons. The symbolism of the solstice light emerging from darkness (i.e. truth emerging from ignorance) provided the basis for many explanatory renewal myths.
In ancient Greek mythology, the Halcyon Days (a two-week period of calm and goodwill) fell at the time of the winter solstice. During this time, according to myth, the Gods calmed the seas so that kingfishers (who were thought to nest on the sea) could lay and hatch their eggs.
In the Roman world, the Saturnalia (17th December) was a time of merrymaking and the exchange of gifts. Romans also celebrated the ‘birthday of the unconquered Sun’ during the winter solstice. December 25th was also regarded as the birth date of the Iranian mystery God Mithra, the Sun of Righteousness.
In pagan times, in the Roman New Year (January, 1st), houses were decorated with greenery and lights and gifts were given to children and the poor. From Northern Europe came German and Celtic Yule rites, which were cobbled onto the pagan/Christian traditions when the Teutonic tribes penetrated into Gaul, Britain and Central Europe.
Food and good fellowship, the Yule log and Yule cakes, greenery and fir trees, gifts and greetings, all commemorated different aspects of this festive season. Fires and lights, symbols of warmth and lasting life, have always been associated with the winter festival, both pagan and Christian.
Christmas has come to regarded as the festival of peace and goodwill, when families are reunited, houses are gaily decorated and gifts are exchanged. The exchange of gifts had been a part of the season since Roman times and was not specifically linked to Christmas until the Middle Ages, when legends surrounding the humble generosity of Saint Nicholas, a 4th century Christian leader from Myra (in modern day Turkey) came to be associated with Christmas.
The proximity of his feast day (6 December) to Christmas probably caused the two events to be linked. Saint Nicholas gradually transformed into Santa Claus. The fat, Jolly, red-clad, white bearded Santa of today is really a 20th century invention, a creation of Haddon Sundblom, who created him in this image in 1931.
Other modern creations Ebenezer Scrooge, the Little Drummer Boy, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, holly and ivy – have all become essential components of the way Christmas is celebrated throughout the world. And although each of these new characters and symbols takes us further and further from the Christian story of Christmas, nevertheless each one of them illustrates an aspect of the true Christmas message peace, generosity, humility and goodwill to all.
The history of Christmas dates back over 4,000 years. Many of our Christmas traditions were celebrated centuries before the Christ child was born. The 12 days of Christmas, the bright fires, the Yule log, the giving of gifts, carnivals (parades) with floats, carollers who sing while going from house to house, the holiday feasts and the church processions can all be traced back to the early Mesopotamians.
Many of these traditions began with the Mesopotamian celebration of New Years. The Mesopotamians believed in many Gods and Marduk was their chief God. Each year as winter arrived it was believed that marduk would do battle with the monsters of chaos. To assist Marduk in his struggle, the Mesopotamians held a festival for the New Year. This was Zagmuk, the New Year’s festival that lasted for 12days.
The Mesopotamian King would return to the temple of Marduk and swear his faithfulness to the God. The traditions called for the King to die at the end of the year and to return with Marduk to battle at his side.
To spare their King, the Mesopotamians used the idea of a ‘mock’ King. A criminal was chosen and dressed in royal clothes. He was given all the respect and privileges of a real king. At the end of the celebration the ‘mock’ king was stripped of the royal clothes and slain, sparing the life of the real King.
The Persians and the Babylonians celebrated a similar festival called the Sacaea. Part of that celebration included the exchanging of places, the slaves would become the masters and the masters were to obey.
Early Europeans believed in evil spirits, witches, ghosts and trolls. As the Winter Solstice approached, with its long cold nights and short days, many people feared the Sun would not return. Special rituals and celebrations were held to welcome back the Sun.
In Scandinavia, during the winter months the Sun would disappear for many days. After thirty-five days scouts would be sent to the mountaintops to look for the return of the Sun. When the first light was seen, the scouts would return with the good news. A great festival would be held, called the Yuletide and a special feast would be served around a fire burning with the Yule log. Great bonfires would also be lit to celebrate the return of the Sun. In some areas, people would tie apples to branches of trees to remind themselves that spring and summer would return.
The ancient Greeks held a festival similar to that of the Zagmuk/Sacaea festivals to assist their God Kronos, who would battle the God Zeus and his Titans.
The Roman’s celebrated their God Saturn. Their festival was called Saturnalia, which began in the middle of December and ended on January 1. With cries to ‘Jo Saturnalia!’ the celebration would include masquerades in the streets, big festive meals, visiting friends and the exchange of good luck gifts called Strenae (lucky fruits).
The Romans decked their hall with garlands of laurel and green trees lit with candles. Again the masters and slaves would exchange places. ‘Jo Saturnalia!’ was a fun and festive time for the Romans, but the Christians thought it abomination to homer the pagan God. The early Christians wanted to keep the birthday of their Christ child a solemn and religious holiday, not one of cheer and merriment as was the pagan Saturnalia.
As Christianity spread, they were alarmed by the continuing celebration of pagan customs and saturnalia among the converts. At first the Church forbids this kind of celebration. But it was of no avail. Eventually it was decided that the celebration would be tamed and made into a celebration fit for the Christian Son of God.
Some legends claim that the Christian ‘Christmas’ celebration was invented to compete against the pagan celebrations of December. The 25th was not only sacred to the Romans but also to the Persians, whose religion Mithraism was one of Christianity’s main rivals at that time. The Church eventually was successful in taking the merriment, lights and gifts from the Saturnalia festival and bringing them to the celebration of Christmas.
The exact day of the Christ child’s birth has never been pinpointed. Traditions say that it has been celebrated since the year 98 AD. In 137 AD the Bishop of Rome ordered the birthday of the Christ Child celebrated as a solemn feast. In 350AD another Bishop of Rome, Julius I, Choose December 25th as the observance of Christmas.