The origins of Christmas
Written by Gabe
Christmas is so ingrained in Western (and partly even global) culture that we don’t really question it - it’s viewed as something very natural, as something that routinely happens each year. It’s such a normal occurrence that nobody really stops to think about it. However, to an observer unaccustomed to modern culture, such as a denizen of the stone age, the whole tradition could seem rather bizarre - why do we celebrate the birth of the supposed son of God by giving each other gifts and eating gingerbread? What do all those trees and wreaths have to do with it?
Image: Frankfurt, sborisov, britannica.com
What led to Christmas in its present form? Let us start with a bit of history for context. During Christianity’s earliest three hundred years of existence, Christians frowned at the celebration of the birthdays of martyrs and saints. The first recorded Christmas festival took place in 336CE. However, while it definitely was observed in the following years, it was overshadowed by other holidays until roughly the 9th and 10th centuries CE.
Christmas became especially prominent in the High Middle Ages (11 - 13th centuries). At this point in time, it was heavily associated with alcoholism, promiscuity, gambling and other forms of “misbehavior”. Due to this, celebrating it was even banned in several places, such as Great Britain in the 17th century. It later started acquiring a positive image during the nineteenth century, thanks to the contributions of writer Charles Dickens, among others. However, various dictatorships and totalitarian regimes banned Christmas throughout the twentieth century, such as the Soviet Union. Even today, celebrating Christmas is prohibited in several countries, such as Tajikistan, Brunei, and, until recently, Saudi Arabia.
December 25th as the birthday of Jesus
Image: The last supper, britannica.com
Despite it being a very common claim that Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ birth, there is little to no evidence suggesting that to be the case. The New Testament of the Bible itself doesn’t contain any concrete references to the specific time and year Jesus was born.
Depending on the country, Christmas Eve is even celebrated on different days - December 24th/25th in Europe and the West but the 6th of January in various Orthodox countries, since they still use another calendar for their religious ceremonies.
One possible reason for the current celebration date of Christmas could be the ancient Roman cult of the sun god Sol Invictus - the holiday of his rebirth was celebrated exactly on the 25th, and was preceded by festivals called Saturnalia, dedicated to the head god of the Roman pantheon, Saturn. The Saturnalia even involved gift-giving and feasts, amongst other things. Furthermore, December 25th was even considered the time winter solstice happens among the Romans, signifying a symbolic “rebirth” of the sun.
Another hypothesis states that the Roman emperor Constantine, responsible for the officialisation of Christianity in the Roman Empire, set the official date for Christmas on December the 25th so as to weaken the pagan religions that celebrated at a similar time.
A third alternative is that 25th December as the birth of Jesus was inferred from the writings of Roman historian Sextus Julianus Africanus, who thought that Jesus was conceived on the 25th of March, which would lead to his birth roughly nine months later.
However, none of these possibilities are in any way conclusive, and we may never know the definitive answer to why exactly we celebrate his birth at that specific time.
The Christmas Tree
Image: Christmas tree, Contunico © ZDF Enterprises GmbH, britannica.com
Long before the existence of Christmas, trees and wreaths were used as symbols of immortality in ancient Egyptian and Hebrew cultures. European pagans typically worshipped trees, especially in Scandinavia. Even after Europe became Christian, this tradition remained a part of the culture of various countries.
The “modern” Christmas tree was most likely started in Germany during the 16th century. It was based on the tree from the Garden of Eden, from which Adam and Eve ate the Fruit of Knowledge.
It was often accompanied by a “Christmas pyramid,” which was decorated by figurines and stars. Eventually, the two objects merged into what we’d consider a Christmas tree.
In the following few centuries, the Christmas tree spread all over the Western world.
Image: gifts under a christmas tree, Kelvin Kay, wikipedia.org
The tradition of gift-giving may or may not have originated in the Roman Saturnalia festivals, which included it as well, and coincidentally occurred just before today’s Christmas Eve.
When Chrisitianity became more common in the Roman Empire, it was connected to the gifts the Three Wise Men gave to Jesus at his birth.
In many countries, giving gifts is also associated with December the 6th and Saint Nicholas.
Image: Odin, in his guise as a wanderer, Georg von Rosen (1886), wikipedia.org
The internationally-known legendary figure Santa Claus is based on a mixture of several mythological and folklore figures. The first of them is Saint Nicholas, a bishop from Myra, in today’s Turkey, and was known for his generous gifts to children. The second is the British Father Christmas, who originally was an icon for the Christmas spirit and merriment and had no heavy associations with gifts. Surprisingly, the Germanic god Odin is also an influence - in fact, Santa’s signature robes and white beard, among other traits, are direct remnants of the Norse deity. Odin was one of the beings associated with Yule, an old pagan Germanic festival that happened at roughly the same time as Christmas today.
Brittanica.com, “Christmas Origin, Definition, Traditions, History, & Facts.”:
Wikipedia.org, “Santa Claus.”
Nationalgeographic.com “The History of How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus.”
Theweek.co.uk, “Which countries do not celebrate Christmas?”
Theatlantic.com, “Why Do People Give Gifts on Christmas?”
Nationalgeographic.com, “Why do we have Christmas trees? The surprising history behind this holiday tradition.”
Wikipedia.org, “Christmas gift.”
Britannica.com, “Christmas tree: Tradition, History, Decorations, Symbolism, & Facts.”