THE HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS
Its hard to believe that the day we celebrate as Christmas had it’s roots over 4000 years ago.
Many of the traditions of Christmas actually began 2000 years before Christ was born. Of course it was not called Christmas then. Wouldn’t that be something if people celebrated the birth of our Savior so many centuries before his birth? But alas, I’m afraid that was not the case.
In ancient Mesopotamia, the people, who believed in many Gods, believed that there was a chief God, Marduk, who, at the arrival of the new year, would do battle with the monsters of chaos. To assist their God, they held a twelve day festival called Zagmuk. Our tradition of the twelve days of Christmas began so many centuries ago that it seems so impossible, but true. They had some other traditions that did not survive, there was one that involved the sacrifice of a person so that the life of the King could be spared.
Similar festivals were held by the Persians and the Babylonians. It was called Saccea and involved the slaves and their masters changing places for the length of the festival.
The early Europeans were extremely superstitious and believed in evil spirits and ghosts along with a variety of other supernatural beings. When the Winter Solstice got closer and closer, the days got shorter while the nights got longer and colder. People were afraid the sun would not return so in many areas special celebrations were held to welcome it back.
In the Scandinavian areas, the sun would completely disappear for many days. After about thirty-five days, they would send scouts to the mountaintops to watch for the sun. When they saw the first bit of sunlight, they would return and notify the community. Then it was time for a festival. The name of that festival was “Yuletide.” There was a special feast prepared and served around a fire burning with the Yule log. They would also set massive bonfires to celebrate the Sun’s return. In some areas, people would apples to the branches of trees as a reminder that spring and summer would return.
Does any of this sound familiar?
The Greeks held a festival much like the Persian/Babylonian festival but in their case they would assist their God Kronos who would go to war against Zeus and his Titans. Since this war, as well as the Mesopotamia war of Gods, was fought every year, I have to assume that neither side won. As we look around at our world today, one would have to wonder if Chaos wasn’t the ultimate winner.
The Romans conducted a festival called Saturnalia to celebrate their God Saturn. The festival lasted from the middle of December until January 1. Included in their celebrations were big festive meals, masquerades in the street, visits to friends and the exchanging of good-luck gifts called Strenae. During the celebration the people would yell out “Jo Saturnalia.” The would deck their halls with garlands of laurel and green trees were brought in and decorated with lit candles. Like the Persians and Babylonians the masters and slaves would trade places for a some period time.
Does that sound anything like Christmas time in our day?
As Christianity began to have influence on the Roman Rulers, they complained that such a festive time was an abomination for them because the festival was to honor a pagan god. They demanded that the “Jo Saturnalia” be abandoned and a solemn and religious holiday replace it to celebrate the Birth of their Christ child. The did not want cheer and merriment to muddy up the importance of their newly declared holiday.
Imagine what Christmas would be like today without “HO,HO,HO.”
As Christianity spread and became more organized, the leaders were alarmed at the continuing celebration of pagan deities by their new converts. The church forbid any kind of festive celebrations but were unable to enforce their law. They backed off and decided to allow a much tamer and sober celebration of their design, one fit to honor the Son of God.
It appears, from centuries of research, that the Christian Christmas was invented to compete against any pagan celebrations during December. The twenty-fifth was sacred to the Romans and to the Persians religion of Mithraism, which was the main competitor to Christianity then.
The Christian Church, over the course of centuries, was eventually successful in stealing the merriment, lights, gifts, and joy that they found so distasteful, form the Romans and making it part of the Christian celebration. This is the Christmas we still celebrate, but I fear we have forgotten the purpose of the celebration.
The actual date of the birth of The Christ Child has never been, and never will be, accurately established. In 350AD, Julius I, Bishop of Rome, arbitrarily chose December 25 for the observance of Christmas.
In our own country, the early settlers of Massachusetts felt that Christmas Day was simply a pagan celebration taken over by the early Christians. In many of the colonies, members were asked not to celebrate Christmas Day but to continue working. Most complied and some celebrated behind closed doors. Finally, in the early 1700s they declared that they were completely done with the “silliness” of Christmas and for over 100 years, Christmas was not celebrated in Massachusetts. It was forbidden.
In the 1830s, the Dutch and English were becoming a much larger portion of the population and with them came their own opinions and celebrations. Christmas was restored by the new comers.
Many of the early settlers to America feared that the Christmas celebration had regressed to the point that in was indistinguishable from the old Roman celebration. They wanted a holiday set aside to celebrate the birth of Christ, not a pagan holiday with no meaning and no reverence to God. They feared that the business leaders of early America would find a way to turn Christmas into a tool for making money and keeping the lower classes under control. They did not want commercialism to invade the Christmas celebration.
How are we doing on that?