The Christmas You Never Knew
Christmas is a holiday that is celebrated all around the world. Many people use it to celebrate Christ's birth, while others just simply enjoy the positive holiday. The history, however, speaks a lot louder than its present.
As many people are aware, Christmas is not actually the day Jesus was born. The Bible is not clear as to when this event took place, so in early Christianity, the birth of Christ was never a focus point. In the first few centuries of the religion, Easter and the celebration of the resurrection was the main holiday.
It was not until the fourth century when church leaders began to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Although some evidence would point to his birth being in the Spring, Pope Julius I decided on December 25th in an attempt to combat, absorb, and takeover the traditions of the Saturnalia Festival.
Initially, Christians recognized December 25th as The Feast of Nativity, and the custom spread to Egypt and eventually to England by the end of the sixth century.
Many of the traditions and icons of Christmas have foundations in old European festivals. It was very common for people to celebrate in the middle of winter for long periods of time. Well before the arrival of Jesus, Europeans celebrated the light and approach of longer, brighter days, and they celebrated the birth of children during the cold and dark winter time as well.
Many people loved the winter solstice for the sole reason that it helped bring hope during a harsh period of the year, and it helped them to begin focusing on the upcoming longer days and sunlight.
In Scandinavia, Norwegians celebrated Yule from December 21st through to January. In a moment of tradition, fathers would take their sons to the woods and chop up logs. They would return home with these large logs and set them ablaze as a recongnition of the return of the sun. The people would feast and feast until the log burned out, which could easily last nearly two weeks.
In Germany, people believed in and honored the god Oden during the winter holidays. Germans have a long list of gods and creatures in their history that are meant to terrify and correct. Oden was no different. They believed Oden would make night-time flights around the areas and observe his people. It was then that he would decide who was naughty or nice. Because of this, many Germans decided to stay inside and hide.
In Rome, the winters were not nearly as severe as they were in places like Norway, Germany, and Finland. They celebrated Saturnalia, a holiday honoring the god of agriculture, Saturn. This celebration would begin roughly a week before the Winter Solstice and would continue for an entire month. It was a bizarre time where everyone would eat and drink, and the social order was flipped upside down. For the entire month, slaves were masters, peasants controlled the city, and the homeless were given everything.
Also during the Winter Solstice, Romans celebrated Juvenalia, a feast to honor the children of Rome. Members of the higher classes would celebrate the birth of Mithra, the god of the unstoppable sun, on December 25th. Mithra, who was an infant god, was recognized as one of the most powerful gods of Rome, and because of this, some Romans considered December 25th to be the most sacred day of the year.
The Rise of Christmas in Europe
Around the end of the eighth century, Christmas had spread all the way up to Scandinavia. Church leaders believed that holding Christmas in the middle of the Winter Solstice would increase the chances of Christmas's popularity, and they also decided to give up on how to celebrate the event. The church leaders saw this as a victory of sorts, so they did not mind that different areas were implementing their own cultural traditions in Christmas.
By the time Europe approached the Middle Ages, Christianity had basically taken over the other religions and dominated the area. On Christmas day, most Christians would attend the church service in the morning, and then go on crazy, drunken rampages as they attended city-wide festivals that were outside of the church's control.
In many ways, church leaders succeeded in replacing the popular pagan celebrations of the time with Christmas, but it did not stop society from participating in activities that made the Winter Solstice holidays so entertaining.
Christmas Traditions and Iconography
Many symbols and icons we use today have roots and origins in many of these European holidays and practices.
Wreaths and Christmas trees have roots in Saturnalia and other Winter Solstice practices. Decorating and giving presents were traditions in Germany and in Rome. Even the star icon used in Saturnalia is eerily similar to the star used to adorn the tops of Christmas trees. It was also common practice to decorate areas with garland and snowflakes to symbolize the snowfall. Kissing under the mistletoe began in Norse mythology, and it involves one of our favorite Norse-to-Marvel gods, Loki.
Many other traditions came straight out of Germany. Not necessarily religious traditions, but cultural ones that parents and elders used to control children. Things like candy canes, the modern day Christmas tree, gingerbread figures, advent candles, and the ball ornaments among many others find their roots in old German traditions.
The image of Santa Claus also comes from numerous different resources, and not just simply a cheerful representation of Saint Nicholas of Myra. Santa traditions and ideas come from Oden, Krampus, and a comical image of Saint Nicholas called Sinter Klaas. Santa's hometown being the North Pole is also a tradition hidden deeply within the Winter Solstice holidays.
The Christmas of Today
The Christmas we know today is a culmination of numerous traditions, cultures, and ideas. It is also the result of the Catholic church attempting to erase all earthly pagan religions. Christmas is in many ways a sculpture of the best humanity has to offer and the worst.
It is a holiday with so many roots that it is hard to subject it to one religion. Despite that, Christmas has also brought immense joy and love to many families around the world. It is seen as a time to embrace, a time to give, a time to feast, and a time to remember. The history may tell one story about the holiday and the motives of its leaders, but the modern day tradition tells a different story as well.
Christmas may not be the perfect holiday that many portray it to be, but it is still an amazing tradition that has done so much good for so many people for a very long time.
No matter what you believe or hold dear to your heart in this season, my wish is for you to find peace in this time. Be with your family and friends and be merry. Smile to those around you and spread cheer. Give to the needy and spend time with the lonely.
Christmas is what you make of it, so make it a good one. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!