Christmas is another seasonal holiday that blends many different customs and beliefs. Possibly, the most popular holiday in the United States, it’s celebrated annually on December 25th.
Many people relate this to Jesus’ birthday, but as you will read, there’s a lot more to it.
Part 1: Ancient Times
Ancient Mesopotamians celebrated their new year with a twelve day festival called Akitu. Their feast (Zagmuk) honored their god (Marduk). This winter tradition meant that, along with the new year, the king must also die. It was only logical.
But these 4,000 year-old Middle East citizens liked their king. To spare his life, they put a criminal in charge for one day. They killed him instead, which meant he could battle with Marduk in the afterlife. The Persians and Babylonians had a similar festival (Sacaea) where slaves and masters traded positions.
In Greece, they celebrated Kronia, which honored their sun god, Kronos. This new year’s festival was similar to Akitu, with feasting and freedom, but was held in the summer.
Around 217 B.C., the Romans started celebrating Saturnalia, which honored Saturn (the Roman equivalent of Kronos) and other deities. It lasted a week (December 17th-23rd) and was basically the craziest party this side of the Mediterranean. Once again, slaves were free. Government, schools and businesses were closed.
Romans decked their halls with garland and holly (the sacred plant of Saturn). They hung gold and silver star symbols on trees. They gave gifts of candles, nuts and fruit. They decorated with wreaths (which also crowned Cesars) and went caroling (a nude prank at the time).
Any of this sound familiar? Well, maybe not the naked caroling.
Here’s the thing, though. At this point in time, the Romans were Pagan, and their holidays were nature inspired. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere (which they are), late December is the time of Winter Solstice. It’s the shortest day of the year and when sunlight is seen least.
In Scandinavia, the sun disappeared for weeks. Scouts climbed mountains awaiting its return. Upon the sun’s arrival, a Yule or Yuletide festival was held, with bonfires, drinking and dancing. Like Akitu, it lasted twelve days. People tied apples to trees as a reminder of spring, and that later became our ornament tradition.
Winter Solstice was celebrated by practically everyone. The vikings had Midvinterblot. The Chinese had Dongzhi. For Japan, it was Toji, meaning “winter’s arrival.” There were celebrations in Russia and Pakistan, as well as Celtic and Hindu cultures. It was all about the Earth spirits and space gods back then.
In the future, it was about teen moms and their immaculate babies.
Part 2: A Savior Is Born
Fast forward to roughly 4 B.C. Mary is visited by an Angel and told she will conceive a child with the Holy Spirit. Being a virgin, that was a difficult situation to explain to her fiance, Joseph. In fact, Jewish law punished unfaithfulness with death by stoning.
But God explained everything to Joseph in a dream, and he was cool with it. There was another challenge, though. Cesar Augustus declared a census of the entire Roman Empire. Mary and Joseph lived in Galilee of Nazareth, but Joseph (a descendant of David) had to register them in Bethlehem (the town of David).
Traveling abroad wasn’t the ideal time for Mary to have contractions, but that’s what happened. Scripture doesn’t give much detail, but it’s commonly believed Mary had no other options than delivering in a stable and laying the miracle baby in a manger. He was named Jesus, as dictated by the Angel, who also shared the news with Shepherds in a nearby field.
Shepherds working outside in December? Nope. Most researches believe Jesus was born in the summer.
A couple years later, eastern Magi (wise men) were asking for the famous boy. A lot of people assume there were three Magi (called The Three Kings) but we can’t confirm that. They were astrologers guided by the Star of Bethlehem (or Christmas Star) and presented Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
All these events combined into the nativity scene displayed commonly today.
And then the little drummer boy showed up, even though he’s a fictional character from a 1941 carol popularized by the Trapp Family Singers. Like, the real Trapp family from which the Sound of Music is based.
Anyway, back to Jesus. He has no last name. Not even Christ. That’s one of many titles, like Immanuel, Jehova, Messiah and the Lamb of God. Christ is Greek for “the anointed one.”
Part 3: Christianity Takes Over
The main difference between Jews and Christians is that Christians believe Jesus was the son of God, and Jews believe he was a great prophet. I wonder what Jesus would say, considering he was Jewish himself. Regardless, Christianity started taking over with Emperor Constantine’s Roman rule.
Pagan traditions were considered “unholy,” and Constantine wanted to erase them with Christianity. However, there wasn’t a closely related Christian holiday with which to blend. Did that stop the Romans? Oh no. You can bet a pair of strapped sandals on that.
In 350 A.D., the Bishop of Rome, Julius I, declared December 25th as the official observance of Jesus’ summertime birth. It was called Christmas, which literally translates to Christ Mass. The weeks leading up to Christmas are called Advent. Today, people still decorate with Advent wreaths (where you light a candle each week in December) and Advent calendars (sometimes filled with candy) to count down the days to Christmas.
So the tree decorating, feasting, caroling and gift giving was swept into the pile with religious services dedicated to Jesus.
All this sounds confusing enough right? Well, just you wait.
Part 4: The Santa Clauses
Meanwhile, in Turkey, Bishop Nicholas of Myra decided to get charitable. During Christmas, he spread his wealth by throwing gifts into the windows of poor families. He put coins in people’s shoes and stockings, which were commonly hung above he fireplace. This generosity made him the patron Saint of children, Saint Nicholas. When translated, that becomes Sinterklaas or Santa Claus.
He died on December 6th, which is now his feast day. The night before, kids traditionally set out their shoes for coin collection.
Hey, and remember the Scandinavian Yule festivals? They also worshipped the Norse god, Odin. Like Zeus, he was the King of gods, with long white hair and a long beard. Odin, however, rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances in the air. Children put carrots or straw near the fireplace for Sleipnir to eat. As a reward, Odin exchanged the food with gifts.
Over the years, these figures morphed into Santa Claus and his reindeer. Although, the Pagan-Christian transformations weren’t the same in every country. In Norway and Denmark, “Santa” looks like a garden gnome called Nisse or Julenisse (Yule Nisse). In Sweden, he’s Tomte, a humanized Yule Goat. Tomte isn’t the only goat either.
In some European countries, they believe Santa went good cop-bad cop with a punishing counterpart. One of them, Krampus, is a snake-tongued goat-man that hit mischievous children with a switch (small whip) and ate them.
Christians weren’t huge fans, as you can imagine. In the 1500’s, England stopped worshipping St. Nicholas all together and replaced him with Father Christmas. That translates to Pere Noel in French. Yes, Noel means Christmas.
In many other European countries, Protestants switched the story of the “gift-bringer” to the Christkindl (Christ Child). They changed the date of gift exchanging from St. Nicholas Day (December 6th) to Christmas Eve.
Later, the image of Christkindl (baby Jesus) somehow transformed into a blonde angel woman, now known as the Christkind. Mispronunciation in the U.S. turned Christkind to Kris Kringle, which is currently associated with Santa.
And remember how ancient people celebrated Winter Solstice for twelve days? Well, so did Christians. The Twelve Days of Christmas start on December 25th and end just before Epiphany, the Twelfth Night. Epiphany is January 6th and typically celebrates God’s manifestation in Christ or the Magi’s gifts. The night before is also when La Befana delivers gifts to Italian children.
La Befana is an old woman who rides a broomstick to deliver gifts or coal. She wears a shawl and is covered in the soot of people’s chimneys. She’s like an Italian Santa witch. An Italian Sandwich? No, the first one.
Let’s talk about less complicated things.
Part 5: Modern Traditions
The full Christmas story is a rocky, winding road. The holiday was banned in the 1600’s by Boston Puritans, who thought it sacrilegious. The ban lasted a full 22 years. However, in the 19th century, Christmas was back in full-swing.
British royalty started decorating Christmas trees, and by 1840, all of Britain followed suit. Three years later, Charles Dickens wrote the classic tale, “A Christmas Carol.” That same year, Sir Henry Cole created the first commercial Christmas card in London. There was also Clement Clark Moore’s famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which is also called “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It was written a century before Robert L. May created “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Literature wasn’t the only festive fad. In ancient times, the Norse and Celtic Druids held mistletoe sacred. The Druids would cut branches and hang them over doors for protection against evil spirits. People eventually kissed under the mistletoe as a sign of goodwill. In the 18th century, the act became a promise to marry. (It’s ironic because mistletoe is actually a poisonous parasite.)
Since the 1600’s poinsettias, said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, have been associated with Christmas in Mexico.
Since the 1800’s people have baked gingerbread houses, which are inspired by “Hansel and Gretel.” Gingerbread men, however, date back to Queen Elizabeth I, who served gingerbread cookies to dignitaries in their likeness.
In 1607, the first eggnogg was made in Virginia. In 1670, a German choirmaster bent sugar-sticks into the shape of a shepherd’s cane. In the early 20th century, these “candy canes” got their stripes.
Santa went through some changes too.
In 1869, a poem by George P. Webster mentioned Santa living at the North Pole. The poem featured illustrations by Thomas Nast, portaying Santa as fat and jolly as opposed to saintly and wizardly.
Around the same time, American authors began writing about Mrs. Claus, specifically the poet Katherine Lee Bates. In the 1930’s, Coca-Cola hired illustrator Haddon Sundblom to increase their winter sales. His illustrations immortalized Santa’s red robe, which had also been purple, green, and blue.
Basically, we’ve been nuts about Christmas for centuries.
Christmas’ roots can’t be traced to one specific event. It is a fluid and evolving holiday celebrated by Christians and secular communities alike. In a sense, Christmas was reinvented. Since its wild, raucous past forbade it initially, America had to reaffirm its merry intentions.
Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870 and has continued to be a family-oriented celebration of good will.
Of course, the commercialization is off the charts, selling 30 million Christmas trees and 1.9 billion greeting cards annually, while grossing roughly 50 billion in Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales. But we spend out of love.
In the end, it doesn’t matter your beliefs or traditions, because we can all dig the spirit of Christmas.