Most of us seem to take Christmas for granted. And regardless of our religious beliefs and lack thereof, I get the sense that for most of us, it’s just a yearly festivity that comes and goes, without paying more than a mere thought as to where it came from. I guess I’m here to remedy that, inspired by my own ignorance; I’ll be taking a look at the history behind the celebration, and how it has evolved and flourished over time.
For the northern hemisphere, it seems that this winter solstice period has long been celebrated in multiple cultures for multiple reasons. The Egyptians did it, the Romans did it, the Celts did it, the Norse did it, and most other Europeans too. They celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter, and rejoiced, as the worst of the winter was now behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight. At this time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking. And seeing as religion permeated the scene, many traditions and cultures would attach sacred worship to this event too.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from his illness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes, which symbolized for them the triumph of life over death.
Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. They knew the solstice meant that soon, farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs, and hung fertility symbols on trees to worship Bacchus, the Greek Dionysus. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or “the birth of the unconquering sun,” was another Roman festival that took place in this time, falling on December 25th.
In Northern Europe the Druids, priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life.
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire.The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year. They also thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Sunna.
(Yule is the ancient name in the Germanic lunar calendar for the winter festival corresponding to December and January. The word has Gothic origins, but English speakers are most familiar with yule through associations dating to its original use. For example, the yule log, as in the lyric “See the blazing yule before us,” was originally a real tree limb or trunk, but now makes an appearance at Christmastime as a cake shaped like a log. This is why this festivity period is commonly referred to as yule, yuletide, or variations thereof.)
The Caucasian European worshiped the evergreen tree as they were amazed by its ability to stay green during the winter. They decorated their houses with anything green that they could find. They used the word “geol” derived from the word “yule” or phrase “Yuletide Season” to signify sun worship during the time of the winter solstice.
We can clearly see here that the solstice celebration was just as wide-spread as Christmas is nowadays. And they had good reason to celebrate too. So how different is the Christmas today from its origins? Well, surprisingly, not that much. We still usually celebrate this festivity indoors, with a crackling fire, family, and plenty of food and drink. There are two main differences (arguably less important) in the celebration today. The first is that we give many gifts throughout the celebration, which as far as I know, wasn’t practiced by ancient and older cultures. The second difference would be that the celebration is largely secularized. It extends to nothing more than a family get together and an exchange of gifts. Which of course, isn’t inherently bad, but it makes you wonder how much more meaningful past celebrations would be with the attachment of the religious.
The Christ in Christmas is also important to mention. Not only because it’s the main reason many people all over the world celebrate Christmas, but also because it’s part of the name too. The date is related to a Jewish tradition that people died on the date of their conception, which would place Jesus’ birth at nine months after His death, ie. December 25th.The First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D further cemented this idea, creating the Festivity of the Nativity. The anniversary of the Incarnation of God. Christianity already existed largely in the Middle East at the time, and the custom spread to Egypt by 432, and to England by the end of the sixth century. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia. Both Western and Eastern churches celebrate Epiphany or Three Kings Day 12 days after their own respective Christmases. This is the day it is believed that the three wise men finally found Jesus in the manger, and the official end of the Feast of the Nativity. With the spread of Christianity and westernization of many older cultures, Christmas has become the primary celebration of the winter solstice.
With the celebration and its history under wraps, I thought it would be good to address a symbol which has come to prominence in Christmas. Santa Claus. The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back to a monk named St. Nicholas who was born in Turkey around 280 A.D.. St. Nicholas gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick, becoming known as the protector of children and sailors. St. Nicholas first entered American popular culture in the late 18th century in New York, when Dutch families gathered to honor the anniversary of the death of “Sint Nikolaas” (Dutch for Saint Nicholas), or “Sinter Klaas” for short. “Santa Claus” draws his name from this abbreviation. In 1822, Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore wrote a Christmas poem called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” more popularly known today by it’s first line: “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.” The poem depicted Santa Claus as a jolly man who flies from home to home on a sled driven by reindeer to deliver toys. The iconic version of Santa Claus as a jolly man in red with a white beard and a sack of toys was immortalized in 1881, when political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore’s poem to create the image of Old Saint Nick we know today.
I’d like to wrap this up by referring back to the title of this article. It’s really all three. It began as a mostly secular or generic celebration, and then was embraced by other religions and festivals that occurred at the same time. Having done this small research, I do find myself understanding “all the hype,” some would say, that surrounds the celebration. It’s certainly warranted. With that, let’s go into this festivity with a clear mind, a full stomach, and plenty of friends and family.