The History of Christmas



Introduction

An area in which customs and traditions have very seriously influenced our perception of God's Word, is the celebration of Christmas.

Christmas is the season of goodwill, a time to forget about things for a while, to let your hair down and celebrate. It is a time for family and friends, and for the giving of gifts. It is not, however, a Christian holiday, for it has no Biblical foundation. Historical research shows that various pagan holidays needed to be inculcated into societies that wanted to embrace Christianity. They kept the festivities that were already in place, which was easier than changing people's traditions and customs.

Let us look at how this all began.



Background

The Winter Festivals:

In Europe, before Christianity had reached the Western shores, December was a time of festivals. This was the period of the winter solstice. While it was a time of hardship, it was also a time for celebration and renewal. Various pagan cultures -- Greek, Roman, Teutonic, ancient Egyptian, Babylonian and East Indian -- set aside the winter solstice for rejoicing and festivity in honor of their respective gods. Because the solstice marked the darkest day of the year, the sun gods of many of these cultures were honored -- Tammuz in Babylon, Surya in India, Osiris in Egypt. In other places, the god of agriculture or the chief god was given recognition to help insure a prosperous, healthy year to come.

In addition to the special worship of gods, each culture's celebration included a symbolic tree, tied in with a legend or traditional lore surrounding their gods.

    Rome:

    Perhaps the grandest and most influential of these festivals was that of Saturnalia (the Feast of Saturn), celebrated by the Romans between December 17th and the 24th. It honored Saturn's birth. His name means "plenty" and in addition to being the sun god, he was also the god of grain and agriculture.

    The Saturnalia was a month-long orgy of food and drink, a wild, delirious time in which order was turned upside-down. At the end of the celebratory period, Juvenalia was observed in honor of the children of Rome and representative of fertility.

    Part of the Saturnalia was the tradition of decorating a fir tree with red berries, the fir being a symbol of life and survival because it remained green throughout the winter.

    The Roman upper classes celebrated more soberly in their worship of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun. They considered December 25th to be the holiest day of the year, since this was the date of both the Winter Solstice and the birth-date of Mithra. This god was said to have been born from a rock; shepherds came to worship him as an infant god born in a pastoral field.

    Norse Countries:

    In this part of the world, where darkness reigned more completely during the winter than in other parts of Europe, the people celebrated Yule on December 21st, their winter solstice. A father and his son would find the biggest log they could, bring it home, and set it ablaze. The sparks were said to represent the number of pigs or calves to be born in the spring. Evergreens, symbolic of survival in the winter, were brought inside and decorated, much as the fir tree in Roman culture. For as long as the Yule log burned, usually twelve days or so, the festivities continued. This was also a time when meat was abundant. The older cattle were slaughtered to make room for the younger ones to be kept for later in the year. Here, the Yuletide festival was somewhat spooky -- they believed that demons raged outside, while inside they were safe and warm.

    Germany:

    Their god was named Odin, who could be either vicious or genial. He was believed to bestow special gifts at yuletide to those who approached his sacred fir tree. According to their legends, his nocturnal flights at this time of year determined who would prosper and who would perish in the coming year. The people were terrified of him. It was a frightening season, and they, too, saw the evergreen as an important symbol, which they brought inside, usually in the form of a tree, and decorated.

    Eastern Countries:

    Babylon, Egypt and India also had their gods to whom they offered special celebrations at the time of the winter solstice. In Babylon, they worshiped Tammuz, who was said to be the reincarnation of Nimrod. Tammuz was believed to have sprung from the stump of a dead evergreen during this time of year, and thus the fir became sacred among them. In Egypt, the sun god Osiris was associated with the palm tree, which like the fir, remained in foliage throughout the year. The celebration of India's Surya was held in a similar fashion. Another culture, that of the Druids, is believed to have had its origins in the Volga Valley, which is part of Eastern Russia. These people, a race of priests, recognized their gods by the worship of the oak tree, on which grew mistletoe. They would extract the mistletoe, a parasitic plant, with scythes of silver. They held it sacred, and utilized it in their services.

By the Middle Ages, Christianity had largely replaced the old pagan religions of Europe. On December 25th, the faithful were called to the great cathedrals for "Christ Mass." On the streets, however, the celebrations were still more raucous than religious. Before the 1800s in England, Christmas was more of a carnival, similar to Mardi Gras. As in Rome, all order was overthrown at this time of year. Peasantry was allowed to go to the homes of the rich and demand anything from them, and the wealthy had to comply with those demands.

The tension between piety and revelry reached its conclusion with Puritan England, where the holiday was done away with completely. Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans overthrew the king's forces in 1645 in a wave of reform. They vowed to rid England of all that was decadent, especially the English Christmas. In 1652 they outlawed it altogether. Shops were ordered to stay open, churches to stay closed.

In spite of this, people never stopped celebrating Christmas, and changed the names of things to get away with it. In 1656, men of Canterbury passed a resolution that restored the monarchy, and with him (Charles II), Christmas.

In 1620, Separatists arrived on the shores of Massachusetts. In 1659, the Puritans in Boston outlawed Christmas.

The celebrations persisted, however, and in a 1719 almanac is found reference to people's behavior in late December (not to let children run "too much abroad at night").

On December 25, 1789, Congress stayed in session and did not celebrate Christmas, since anything English was no longer in favor with the coming of independence for the Colonies. After the Revolution, there were no holidays for the new country, and people started thinking about how to rectify this.

Eventually, they established a new, American version of Christmas, reinventing it for the whole world in the process.

By 1820, New York was the center of American commerce, with a burgeoning middle class. There was also a lower class of unemployed with emergence of the industrial revolution. Class conflict began; the Christmas season became a time of rioting. The upper classes decided to change the way the holiday was celebrated. Washington Irving wrote stories about Christmas, showing a friendly mingling of classes.

In 1843, Charles Dickens addressed the dilemma in A Christmas Carol. Read widely in both Britain and America, it had a great effect. The story taught an important lesson about greed to the middle class, and encouraged family and charity at Christmas. Scrooge's conversion caused the Victorian to consider his own conversion to generosity. After 200 years of Puritan disapproval, people were rediscovering Christmas, but only because society was ready for it.

An important shift of thought was occurring within the family itself. Prior to the 1820s, family was seen as an "engine of discipline" for training children to work hard. After the 1820s it became an emotional nursery for them, for which Christmas was tailor-made. It allowed parents to lavish attention on their children and not feel guilty about it. It was the beginning, perhaps, of "quality time" within the family. Parents discovered the joy of watching their children's joy when they got presents.

By mid-century, Christmas was everywhere in America, except in church. Most Americans were Protestant; the Protestant Church had ignored Christmas for years. However, the Protestant Victorians longed for official religion on this "sacred" day.

People now had a reason to celebrate Christmas, but were not sure how to do it. Pagan revelry was at this point inappropriate in the Victorian home, but certain ancient traditions seemed perfect for reviving.



Traditions

Most of the traditions in practice during the Christmas season came from antiquity and are pagan in origin. A quick look at the various winter festivals mentioned above reveal what these traditions are, and where they are from.

    Saturnalia:

    The historical writer Tertullian spoke of the practice in Rome of exchanging gifts during this festival. In addition, their celebrations centered around two basic elements -- the unbridled partaking of fermented beverages (wine), resulting in almost constant drunkenness, and sexual depravity. Both were not only accepted, but expected from the participants. And while the more sedate upper classes celebrated Mithraism with more decorum, the absence of wine was unthinkable.

    Yule:

    In addition to the reverence shown the evergreen at the time of the winter solstice were the belief and acknowledgment of small, demonic creatures who roamed freely in the cold winter nights. The warmth and shelter of the hearth were a way to keep these beings at bay.

    Odin:

    His habit, as they believed, of giving gifts, was mirrored by those who worshiped him. The exchange of presents was part of their acceptance of his influence on their lives. Obviously, any gifts received by those approaching the "sacred fir" had to come from some human agency.

    Tammuz:

    The acceptance of Tammuz as the reincarnation of Nimrod was based upon the belief -- propagated by his widow Semaramis -- that while remaining untouched by any man, Nimrod's wife had somehow conceived her son, Tammuz. This was, in the belief of the Babylonians, a miraculous conception that promoted both her eternal purity and the deification of her child.



The Advent of Christianity

At the beginning of the first century, Christianity was emerging as a fledgling religion. Upon reaching the Western lands in the fourth century, it gained a large following and at this time the first celebration of the birth of Jesus began. Prior to this, the believers of the first three centuries celebrated the death/resurrection of Christ only. But by 336 A.D., the Romans had spiritualized the significance of their December festival, calling it the "Feast of the Nativity of the Son of righteousness," setting the date of December 25 as the absolute date of the birth of Christ. The Roman church established December 25 as the birthday of the "son of God" to replace the birthday of the "unconquered sun" in order to win the pagan sun worshipers to Roman "Christianity." Under Roman Catholicism, a special mass was instituted to celebrate the birth of Christ or a "Christ-Mass," later shortened to "Christmas."

Pope Liberus introduced the Nativity on December 25th, AD 354. The choice of this date was principally aimed at diverting the Romans from the unsavory worship of idols. However, by the 5th Century, the event was so popular that it began to mark the beginning of the ceremonial year. This continued until the 11th century, when Advent was introduced. From Rome, the December 25th date as the birth of Jesus Christ spread to the whole western world, but the Eastern church did not observe this until much later. The church in Jerusalem knew nothing about the December 25th observance of Christ's birth until the 6th century A.D. Thus Christmas, with December 25th as a mass for Christ, began in the church in Rome, and not in the Bible.

Once the practice of celebrating Christmas was established, the multitude of pagan traditions was brought in to eventually become a permanent part of this celebration. A side-by-side comparison of how the pagan rituals and practices translated into the Christian celebrations is as follows:

 Pagan Tradition (Winter Solstice) Christmas Tradition
Evergreen/Tree Worship (Babylon, Rome, Norse Countries, Germany, Egypt, Druidic Culture) - decorated with gilded nuts, balls to symbolize the sun, red berries Christmas Tree - decorated at first with apples to symbolize Eden, later with gold/silver balls, berries, red ornaments, garlands
Gift-Giving - practiced in Rome to promote geniality and goodwill of the season; the practice of Odin to bestow gifts Christmas Presents - the magi; St. Nicholas in the Middle Ages; Santa Claus
Odin - demonic sprites; the nocturnal flights of Odin who knew who had been good or bad, and gave gifts accordingly Santa Claus - St. Nicholas; Santa's elves (Santa himself is called a "jolly old elf" by Clement Moore); Santa's flights on his sleigh to give gifts based on who had been good or bad
Drunken Revelry - an integral part of the Saturnalia Christmas Parties - at the least, not complete without eggnog (rum-based drink) and alcoholic toasts
Mistletoe - tied in with Druidic tree-worship Mistletoe - its true purpose mostly forgotten, but still used as an excuse for what, during the earlier days of Christmas celebrations, was considered indecorous behavior
December 25th - the day on the Roman calendar of the winter solstice December 25th - adopted by early Christians to hide their celebrations under the cover of the pagan festivals taking place at that time of year

There are yet other traditions now associated with Christmas that were established during more recent times. While not specifically pagan in origin, these are, for the most part, non-biblical. They are, in fact, totally commercial in concept and intent.

    Santa Claus:

    As has been shown, there already existed in certain cultures a belief in a gift-giving deity. He did not, however, bear much resemblance to the benevolent, jolly Santa of our present cultures. Santa Claus as we know him had his beginning with the Turkish St. Nicholas mentioned briefly above. In Holland he became known as Sinter Klaus, a semantic change of "Saint Nicholas." The immigrants from Holland brought their tales of this gift-giver to America. This caught the imagination of Clement Clark Moore, a minister in New York City. In 1822, he wrote a poem for his children about a good-natured saint who came down the chimney on Christmas Eve. Moore dreamed up Dasher, Dancer, and the rest of the reindeer, along with the entrance down the chimney. At first he was embarrassed by the poem, fearing it was too frivolous for a man of the church. In the beginning, he did not admit to its authorship, but eventually did when it became clear that every child in America was scanning the horizon for reindeer on Christmas Eve.

    When Christmas had become a lucrative time of year for retailers in America, they brought Santa to life as a real person to further boost sales. He has been showing up in department stores since the mid-1800s.

    The image of Santa Claus as we know him today was actually the result of an advertising campaign by Coca-Cola in 1931. Dressed in the Company's colors -- red and white -- they depicted Santa drinking a Coca-Cola. This image has been used extensively since, and is used by Coca-Cola in their seasonal advertising to this day.

    In 1939, Robert May, a copywriter at Montgomery Ward, wrote a promotional children's book to bring shoppers into the store, thus giving Santa his own sidekick. It was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The book was soon followed by the famous song, a cartoon, and many other incarnations of the story. Rudolph brought the holiday full circle, as it were. It was exclusively for children now, who alone understood the meaning of this "enchanted" day.

    Christmas Cards:

    The giving of Christmas Cards can be traced to the 15th century when people sent each other leaflets expressing good wishes. These were followed nearly a hundred years later by printed versions sent by merchants to their customers.

    In the 19th century an English man named John Calcott Horsley sent the first greeting card to Sir Henry Cole. Amazingly, this was met with some shock by workers who denounced its depiction of a family celebrating Christmas! This was not to stop the giving of cards, for it rapidly became commonplace to send Christmas cards.

    The Poinsettia:

    In 1828, Joel R. Poinsette, America's Minister to Mexico, brought back a red plant that seemed perfect for the new holiday. It was named after him and is known as a poinsettia.

    The Christmas Tree:

    The origins of the tree have been explored above, but its acceptance in today's culture occurred only recently. Its part of the winter celebrations may have remained exclusively in the Northern and Germanic traditions were it not for the marriage of Queen Victoria in 1840 to her cousin, Prince Albert of Germany. He brought his German ways to Windsor Palace, including the annual Christmas Tree. In 1848, the London Illustrated News published an engraving of the British Royal Family standing by the first Christmas tree most English had ever seen. In just a few years, a decorated fir could be found in almost every English home at Christmas. Americans embraced the Christmas tree as quickly as the English had. Its connections to the Old World was, in fact, one of its strongest selling points. This acknowledgment of ethnic origins was their justification for including the tree in their traditions.

    The Candy Cane:

    Never a part of any pagan or Christian festival or belief, the candy cane came into existence during the 19th century. Many years ago a candymaker had an idea. He wanted to show, through the candy he made, that Jesus Christ was born among us, lived and died to save us all. So, by the use of color and shape, he produced a piece of candy that told the story of Jesus from Christmas to Easter. The result was the candy cane.

      Colors - The white stripes on the candy cane represent the pure, sinless life of Jesus Christ. The small red stripes represent the suffering he endured before he died. The large red stripes represent the blood of Jesus Christ, which he shed for the redeeming salvation of the world.

      Shape - The candy cane is shaped like a shepherd's staff, reminding us that Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd. Turn it upside down, and it is the letter "J," the first letter in Jesus' name.



The Origin Of The Twelve Days Of Christmas

One final, beloved Christmas tradition should be explained -- the singing of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." An examination of its origin explains much about this song, which for most seems to be no more than the depiction of an overly-lavish giver to his love.

People often think of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" as the days preceding the festival. Actually, Christmas is a season of the Christian Year that lasts for the twelve days beginning December 25 until January 6, the Day of Epiphany. This is when the church celebrates the revelation of Christ as the Light of the world, and recalls the journey of the magi.

From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not allowed to practice their faith openly. During that era someone wrote "The Twelve Days of Christmas" as a kind of secret catechism to be sung in public without the risk of persecution.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" is, in essence, an allegory. The song has two levels of interpretation -- the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of the church. Each element in the carol is a code word for a religious reality. The "true love" represents God, and the "me" who receives these presents is the Christian (a Catholic in this case).

The hidden meanings are as follows:

    The Partridge in a Pear Tree: Jesus Christ, a tree, as a gift from God.

    Two Turtle Doves: The Old and New Testaments, another gift from God.

    Three French Hens: Faith, hope and love C the three gifts of the Spirit that abide (I Corinthians 13).

    Four Calling Birds: The four gospels, which sing the song of salvation through Jesus Christ.

    Five Gold Rings: Recall the Torah (Law), the first five books of the Old Testament, also called the "Books of Moses."

    Six Geese A-Laying: The six days of creation.

    Seven Swans A-Swimming: The sevenfold gifts of the spirit (I Corinthians 12:8-11, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, I Peter 4:10-11).

    Eight Maids A-Milking: The eight beatitudes.

    Nine Ladies Dancing: The 9 fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

    Ten Lords A-Leaping: The Ten Commandments.

    Eleven Pipers Piping: The eleven faithful disciples (excludes Judas).

    Twelve Drummers Drumming: The twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed.

The lament of many Christians today is Christ has been eliminated from the season in favor of commercialism and greed. But was Jesus Christ ever really a part of it? Biblically, there is no place for the savior in our celebrations of Christmas, since the word "Christmas" itself never appears in the Bible. His birth was momentous, yet in no way marked by wild revelry, demonic deities or tree worship. The time of his birth has more accurately been placed in the early fall, when shepherds would in fact have been out in the fields -- December was simply too cold, and by that time, these shepherds would long since have sheltered their flocks (usually by October).

While we may no longer worship trees or believe in the ancient gods, we still celebrate Christmas. Although we have the freedom to enjoy the festivities of the season and be surrounded by a general feeling of family and good will, yet it is good to be knowledgeable of where these traditions and beliefs began.



Bibliography

Books:

The Curiosities of Popular Customs - Walsh, p.242

Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days - Urlin, p.222

The Mystery Babylon Religion - Woodrow, Ralph, pp.149-154

The Catholic Encyclopedia - Vol.3, pp.724, 725, 727, art. "Christmas"

The Encyclopedia Americana - Vol. 6, p.623

The Golden Bough - Frazer, p.471

 

Video:

Christmas Unwrapped: The History of Christmas - presented by the History

Channel, 1998