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'Tis The Season: The History of Christmas

Updated on January 1, 2012

Christmas is just around the corner now. 'Tis the season of giving and family. This is the time of year we all settle down and give thanks for what we have and think about those less fortunate. If you're religious this is the holiday where we you observe the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas is a fascinating holiday from it's roots in the Pagan holiday Yule all the way to it's mainstream commercial day of gift-giving it is today.

Christmas is another one of those holidays that is ancient, dating back thousands of years. It has it's origins in paganism and took on a Christian persona during the rise of the Catholic church. It's one of the most popular holidays in the united states today. However if you ask anyone about the history of Christmas, they'll all say "it's Christ's birthday". Most people don't actually know the origins of the holiday. Many of the traditions of Christmas are actually much older than Christ. This hub will cover the history of those traditions and the holiday itself.

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Christmas Before Christ

Before the birth of Jesus Christ, Europeans had winter celebrations of light and birth in darkness for centuries. These celebrations took place during the Winter Solstice on December 21st. In Scandinavia, these celebrations were called Yule, a Norse holiday which recognized the return of the sun. Fathers and sons of this culture would bring home "Yule logs" which they'd burn. Whilst the log burned the Norse people would feast.

Many of the origins of Christmas begin in Pagan Rome. In winter, Romans celebrated a holiday called Saturnalia, which honored the god Saturn. Saturn was the god of Agriculture. This holiday began in the beginning of the week which lead to the winter solstice and continued for a full month. During this time food was plentiful. The Roman social order was also turned upside down for the whole month. Also around this time of year, Romans celebrated Juvenalia. Juvenalia was a feast which honored the youth of Rome.

The idea that December 25 is Jesus birthday may also come from Pagan Rome, as early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Christ. On December 25, Romans celebrated the birthday of Mithra, god of the sun. Mithra was believed to be born of a rock. For many Romans December 25 was the most sacred day of the year.

The Birth of Christ

The birth of Jesus Christ has been celebrated on December 25 since 354 AD. This date was chosen in part to replace pagan worship that was common in those early days of Christianity. By now it is well known that Jesus was not actually born on December 25. It is more likely that he was born sometime in the Spring, possibly between March and May. One thing is for sure, it is impossible for anyone to accurately calculate the actual date.

A Brief History of Old St. Nick

St. Nicholas was born in 280 AD in Asia Minor. He was a priest who later became a bishop and he was the patron saint of children. He was known as the gift giver of Myra. He gave his gifts late at night, so that his identity would be hidden. The children of the day were instructed to go to bed early or else St. Nick wouldn't come. This tradition remains the same till today.

St. Nicholas is the third most popular religious figure after Jesus and Mary. His popularity grew over the centuries and more and more stories sprang up to explain his existence to children. He attained many aliases over time such as Father Christmas and Santa Claus. Though the real St. Nick was a young man when he started his gift giving and he wore a cloak and jeweled gloves, over the years he became depicted as an older man in a red suit with a large belly.

The Symbols of Christmas

Christmas Trees
This is a tradition that dates back way before Christianity. Trees that remained green year round held special meaning to ancient peoples. My people hung boughs of evergreen trees over their doors and windows. They believed that evergreen trees could ward off witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illness. In countries such as Egypt, evergreens represented the triumph of life over death. Druids believed evergreens represented everlasting life. And groups like the vikings hung evergreen boughs to represent their recovering sun gods. Germany is the first known country to decorate evergreen trees at Christmas time. This is the tradition we practice today.

The legend behind Christmas stockings talks about a nobleman who had lost his wife and was left alone with his three daughters. After wasting their fortune on useless inventions, they were forced to live in a peasants' cottage. When it was time for the former nobleman's three daughters to wed, the nobleman was unable to provide dowries to the grooms. One night the daughters hung their freshly washed stockings by the fireplace to dry. St. Nick, hearing of their fathers inability to pay a dowry, decided to drop three bags of gold down the chimney. Each one landed in the stockings. When the family awoke in the morning, they found the gold and had enough money for the daughters to get married. This tradition is practiced all over the world today. Children hang Christmas stockings on Christmas eve, which "Santa" then fills with toys, candy and other small goodies.

The use of decorative wreaths began long before Christianity. In Rome, wreaths were hung as a sign of victory. Germanic peoples gathered wreaths of evergreen as a sign of hope in the coming Spring, during the long and dark winter months. These traditions remained as Christianity rose in Europe. By the 16th century, Christians hung wreaths as a sign of Advent hope in Christ. Traditionally, wreaths are made of evergreen (sometimes embellished with flowers and berries) with four candles and a fifth in the middle. The four surrounding candles are usually either white or violet and the fifth is usually a rose color. One candle a week is lit until Christmas. The fifth is lit on Christmas eve.

Poinsettia is a red, star-shaped flower. This is a favorite Christmas flower in the United States. This flower was brought to the States over a hundred years ago by Joel Poinsett, the first ambassador to Mexico. In Mexico there is a legend that accompanies the Poinsettia. In this legend, we are told about a little girl named Maria and her brother, Pablo, who were very poor but always looked forward to the Christmas festivals in their little village. Each year the village Church set up a large manger scene. The children were saddened by the fact that they had nothing to give the church for the baby Jesus. One Christmas Eve, Maria and Pablo picked some weeds on their way to church and decided that this would be their gift to baby Jesus. They placed the green plants around the manger scene and miraculously the top leaves turned into red petals and manger became surrounded by beautiful star-like flowers. And so the Poinsettia became a Christmas symbol.

Mistletoe is actually an aerial parasite that lives off of the tree it attaches itself to. It has no roots of its own so without a host tree, it will die. Mistletoe was sacred to many pagan peoples including: the Norse, Celtic Druids and North American Indians. Druids would cut Mistletoe from Oak Trees with a golden sickle and catch them before they hit the ground. They would then give individual sprigs to the people, who would hang them above their doorways as protection against thunder and lightning. It's also believed that placing a sprig of mistletoe in a baby's cradle can protect them from goblins. In ancient times if enemies met under a hanging mistletoe in the forest, they had to lay down their weapons and call a truce until the next day, making Mistletoe a symbol of peace and creating our tradition of kissing under the mistletoe as a sign of friendship and love. Later in the 18th century, the exchanging of kisses between a man and woman under the mistletoe, was a promise of marriage. Also if an unmarried woman stood under a mistletoe, she could not refused to be kissed. If she remained un-kissed, she would not marry the following year.

Holly was used at Roman Saturnalia to honor the god, Saturn. The Druids wore sprigs of Holly in their hair when they went to watch the priests cut down the mistletoe. They believed Holly was meant to keep the world green and beautiful during the winter months. Holly is a symbol of peace and joy, similar to the mistletoe. It's believed to frighten away witches and ghosts. Placing holly on your bedpost is meant to bring sweet dreams. In England, farmers placed sprigs of holly on and around their beehive at Christmas Eve. They believed the bees hummed in honor of the birth of Jesus Christ. The use of Holly at Christmas time was merely adopted into the Christian religion during a time when (ironically) Christians were persecuted for their beliefs.

Yule Log
Yule was a feast celebrated in Northern Europe, to honor Odin. Odin was both the god of death and the god of ecstasy and intoxicating drink. The sacrificial beer left for Odin became known as the Christmas ale and food and drink were left on the tables after Christmas for the Yuletide ghosts. In Northern Europe, the Yule log represented fruitfulness, productivity and good health. The Yule log would be cut down and burned. Some cultures decorated the log and some didn't. A Yule log was kept burning anywhere from twelve hours to twelve days. It was believed that the log brought beneficial magic into the house. It was also believed that the as long as the log burned, you were protected from witchcraft. When the fire went out, a piece of log was kept to light the fire the following year.

Skylar Spring © copyright 2012


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