It is Christmas time again. Traditionally, it is a festive time of the year, as streets and homes are decorated and lit up, and countless living rooms have gifts lying underneath beautiful Christmas trees. Children write letters to Santa Claus, and wait in eager anticipation for the day when they can finally unwrap all of those wonderful packages in shiny gift wrap, expecting toys and fun things. Christmas music is being featured on the radio, and Christmas specials are on television. Families are making arrangements to get together and share good meals and good times together.
Many will also go to church services to honor the religious aspects of the holiday, although this has not been without controversy in the long history of the Christmas holiday. Christmas is supposed to honor the birth of Jesus, although the Bible actually does not point to a specific date, one way or the other. Yet, the history of traditions and celebrations for a holy day in and around the date recognized as Christmas in many countries around the world, December 25, in fact predate Christianity. This, in turn, may explain how the birthday of Jesus came to be celebrated on that date.
Historically, the significance of the winter solstice in and around December 25 was not unique to modern-day Christmas, and many of these traditional celebrations in fact predate Christianity itself. This fact was well-known to many Christian authorities themselves. In time, some of these authorities came to believe that it was not in the true Christian spirit to celebrate Christmas at all, precisely because there was so much evidence that the holiday did not originate with Christianity.
In ancient Rome prior to the advent of Christianity, Saturnalia (honoring the Roman god Saturn) was celebrated to mark the occasion of the winter solstice. It started on December 17, would last roughly one week, and featured lights from candles representing the pursuit of knowledge. There were also people singing carols on the streets, as well as gift-giving. Traditionally, the gifts were representative of certain things to be appreciative of. For example, fruit symbolized fertility, candles represented bonfires, and dolls symbolized the custom of human sacrifices.
In Scandinavia during pre-Christian times, the Feast of Juul came at around this time of the year, as well. Fires were lit to represent the sun and to remind everyone of the light and warmth that it provided, which was so crucial for life. This is where we get our own tradition of a Yule (or Juul) log in a fire, which was originally meant to honor Thor. A piece of this log was kept as a symbol of good luck and would serve to kindle the next year’s celebrations in Scandinavia. In much of the rest of Europe where this tradition lived, all of the wood was burned, and the ashes were either used as fertilizer that would be scattered around fields for twelve nights, kept as good luck charms, or used as medicine. In Poland, there is also the ancient tradition of Gody that predates Christianity, but shows many of the same charitable and idealistic attributes, including forgiveness and sharing food.
These are not the only celebrations from the ancient world for the winter solstice, and some of them are centered on figures that bear a striking resemblance to Jesus. In India, Krishna’s birthday was celebrated on December 25, and he was said to have been born of a virgin, to have performed miracles, and to have miraculously come back from the dead. Horus, one of the oldest of the ancient Egyptian deities dating back to 3000 BCE, was said to have been born on December 25 from “The Great Virgin” Isis, the Goddess of Wisdom, among other things. In Persia, believers in Mithras celebrated Dies Natalis Solis Invecti (which translates to Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun), a tradition that dates back to 1200 BCE. Mithra, like Jesus and Horus, was also born of a virgin mother on December 25, and performed miracles. Some other notable birthday celebrations of deities of the ancient world born to virgin mothers on December 25 include Dionysius in ancient Greece (familiar to aficionados of Greek mythology), who dates back to around 500 BCE, and Attis of Phrygia in Turkey, dating back to around 1200 BCE. Attis also shares other similarities with Jesus, including having been crucified, and then resurrected after three days.
Christmas was so tied with many of these holidays that predated Christianity itself that for many Christians following the Protestant Reformation and beyond, including many American Christians later on during the early 19th century, religious observance of the Christmas holiday was considered blasphemous and hedonistic. Attempts were made to abolish it, citing a lack of scripture to support the holiday, and there were suggestions that the holiday closely resembled paganism and ran counter to the Bible. During the Protestant Reformation, many of the traditions of celebrating Christian saints were regarded as idolatry and against the spirit of what was perceived by them as true Christianity, and Christmas was targeted for this reason. Yet, these efforts to get rid of Christmas were never entirely successful, and some of these traditions indeed made it to America. Even when American protestant leaders tried to do away with the Christmas holiday on religious grounds in the early 19th century, they never fully succeeded in getting rid of it.
Some folklore came with the Dutch from the Old World to the New World in the form of the legend of Sinterklaas, a man who wore red clothing and sported a full white beard. He was modeled after the 3rd century Greek St. Nicholas, who lived in what is presently Turkey. This St. Nicholas was famous for giving gifts to children and serving as their protector. He was the best-loved of all of the saints from the Middle Ages, and the day of his death was recognized as a holiday in his spirit, which was known as St. Nick’s Feast day. It was held on December 6 and was widely celebrated across Europe for hundreds of years on that day, with giving gifts to children being one of the main traditions.
Christmas was not a holiday that was widely celebrated early in American history, when the nation was fighting to gain its independence. However, that changed slowly over the course of time. Early in the 19th century, American author Washington Irving expanded on the original stories of the Dutch Sinterklaas, and produced the image and idea of the modern-day Santa Claus, flying over the city and giving gifts to all good children. An anonymous poem entitled The Children’s Friend came out in 1821, roughly 10 years after Irving’s stories were published, and became the first to mention the idea of “Santeclaus” as a magical character that rode on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. This in turn inspired an Episcopalian scholar, Clement Clarke Moore, to write his poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, which is now better known as The Night Before Christmas.
The St. Nicholas Society was formed in the 1830s to try to clean up the drunken streets of New York City by focusing on a holiday where well-behaved children could receive gifts. The idea took off, and it was not long before the acceptance of the symbol of Jolly Old St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, wearing a red fur suit and going down chimneys to give gifts to good girls and boys. He eventually became the iconic face of modern-day Christmas.
December 25, the day recognized as Christmas, also has had some memorable historical events take place through the centuries. It was on this day that George Washington famously crossed the Delaware River to launch his surprise attack against Hessian troops who were busy celebrating the holiday, and thus were caught unaware and unprepared. Nearly a century and a half later, on another continent and during another war, there was another very memorable piece of history that was made. In 1914, during the Great War (better known now as World War I), soldiers from both sides held a temporary truce from the fierce trench warfare in order to celebrate Christmas together. Soldiers from both sides that had been trying to kill one another just hours before took a brief respite on that day to recognize the holiday, before returning back to the harsh realities of war immediately afterwards.
Christmas is celebrated in different ways around the world. In India, the nation’s Christians will decorate mango or banana trees, and light oil lamps to place on flat roofs. In Japan, there is a tradition of going to KFC. In the Czech Republic, carp is the major meal for Christmas, a tradition dating back to the 11th century. Some people in Ukraine will decorate their Christmas trees with spider webs. In Le Marche, a town in northwestern Italy, there is a witch, La Bafana, who follows Santa Claus two weeks after Christmas and flies around on her broom bringing presents to little children. In the Swedish town of Gävle, a 30-foot “Yule” goat made of straw is erected as a holiday tradition and, also another holiday tradition there, kids will try to burn it down. Sometimes they are successful.
Christmas has spread throughout much of the world as well. The holiday has spread to some countries that are not traditionally Christian nations, such as Japan and Vietnam. In these places, however, the religious aspects of the holiday have largely been stripped, and it is a holiday of consumerism, of buying gifts for other people with little to no religious significance behind it. Indeed, it is not only in countries outside of the Christian tradition where excess consumerism has taken over the holiday. Some people in traditionally Christian countries have found it disturbing that consumerism has run so rampant, and feel that too often, the deeper meanings and charitable message of Christmas has largely been lost in popular society under a crush of consumerism.
Still, despite the excessive consumerism, as well as the possibility that Christmas traditions and history predate Christianity, the Christmas tradition continues, even if it means different things to different people. Indeed, celebrations for this time of the year, the traditional winter solstice for the northern hemisphere, are far older and more widespread than many realize. Many of these traditions date back thousands of years, and spread literally around the globe. Perhaps it should serve as no surprise then that many holidays are crunched into such a small amount of time, including Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day, and Three Kings Day. In the modern-day celebrations of Christmas, whatever it has come to mean in popular society, there is continuity in the fact that people do take time out to celebrate around the winter solstice, even if the extensive history of such celebrations remain obscured in history.
By Charles Bordeau
Telegraph – The real story behind the 1914 Christmas truce
Telegraph – Christmas truce: ‘A day unique in the history of the world’
Photo by Jan Fidler – Flickr