Origins of Christmas and the Christmas Traditions We Enjoy Today
Finding the Origin of the Christmas Holiday
Pinpointing the origin of the holiday we call Christmas isn't an easy task, for there are many considerations to take into account. Is there an actual date we can point to? Is the holiday a conglomerate of earlier celebrations, all mixed into one? How trustworthy are the researchers giving opinions on the subject?
Important days and celebrations such as Christmas never remain static. Details vary from location to location, and as people travel and mix, these details mix as well. Time changes things as well; holidays evolve as time passes, often becoming something they were never intended to be.
One of the biggest problems with finding the origin of Christmas is that it is a very important religious observance, with all the emotional baggage that comes with that. The vast majority of researchers giving opinions on the subject have a deep emotional attachment to it. It seems that everyone either desires to show that it is a secular, pagan, or Christian holiday, that Christians should observe the day or that they should not, and that the Christian concepts embodied in popular concepts are real or not.
With that thought in mind, let's look at what we do know, and what conclusions can be drawn from factual history.
The Origin Of Christmas
"Christmas" is derived from "Christ" and "mass" - Christ's Mass. This term is almost exclusively used by the Catholic church and there is no doubt that that is where it originated. But when? Why? How?
The entire question began with the Christian historian Sextus Africanus, who somehow calculated the date of Christ's death as March 25. "Knowing" that all old testament prophets died on the anniversary of either their birth or conception Sextus decided that March 25 was the date of the conception and thus Dec. 25 (nine months later) was the date of His death. This convoluted reasoning is not accepted universally and there are many other dates proposed - Jan. 6 is common, as are dates in March or April. The bottom line is that no one knows the date of Christ's birth, but at the time Dec. 25 seemed reasonable even though what little biblical evidence is available would indicate otherwise (shepherds flocks are generally in the fold in December, not in the field).
The earliest records of the celebration being held on Dec. 25 give the year as 354, although the feast was already being held on Jan. 6 in the Eastern communities. It spread to Constantinople and Antioch in the late 300's, disappeared for a time, and reappeared in the early 400's. In 530 AD the church commissioned the monk Dionysius Exiguus to formally set the date as Dec. 25 and proclaim that date as a celebration of the birth of Christ, but why was this date chosen above others that were even more widely used?
Why Is Christmas on Dec. 25?
As the Roman Empire expanded it's territory, one of the techniques used to keep subjugated peoples happy was to incorporate their holidays into Roman ones. People everywhere put great importance on holidays, particularly religious ones, and Rome had no objection to creating more.
Christian leaders knew this, and learned well from it during their crusade to convert the world. The holiday of Halloween is the result of Christianity creating a new holiday to coincide with much older ones. At the time, Saturnalia was a very popular holiday in the area, and a little further north the Germanic people celebrated the birth of Mithra - the god of light and loyalty whose cult was spreading among Roman soldiers.
It seems very likely that, given that no one had an actual date for the birth of Christ, Christian leaders chose the date of Dec. 25 intentionally to coincide with other popular "heathen" holidays. It was a tried and true method of collecting converts and extending influence over the population.
Both of the then current celebrations had at least some similarities to what Christianity thought of as "good" - family, friends, giving, etc. Both were a large stumbling block to conversion as locals have a way of hanging onto their celebrations. Both contained aspects that Christianity found objectionable - worship of other gods - but perhaps the excesses of Saturnalia could be curbed.
Even though the date was chosen with an ulterior motive, that doesn't mean that the historical roots of Christmas came from either of these pagan celebrations. That would depend on what happened to the concept over the years - did the earlier festivities "take over" Christmas? Are older traditions now more important than the original meaning of Christmas?
Saturnalia was a Roman celebration with many aspects. Often presented as a time of great excess including gluttony and sexual excesses including rape and gambling there was more to it. Gift giving was a part of Saturnalia, as was role playing and to a lesser degree "guising".
Yalda was the celebration of the new year, held on Dec. 25 just after the winter soltice. It was also a celebration of the birth of Mithra. Activities during the celebration including eating (what holiday doesn't?), staying up late, gathering with friends and family, and telling stories or reading poems. Before the advent of electricity it often included lighting the yard with candles.
Origin of the Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree may be the most visible tradition of Christmas, at least in America. So where did it come from?
What We Know
Most pagan religions were naturalistic and worship or veneration of natural things was common. In particular, both Saturnalia and the traditions of Mithraism included decorations using evergreen boughs. Pagans would likely have been aghast at cutting a tree for the simple purpose of decorating a home or room, but boughs were a different story.
Evergreen plants were also used in celebrations of the winter solstice in general. Retaining their color and life, they symbolize the lengthening days and return to warmer times very well and fit right in with the ideas behind the various winter solstice celebrations. It would have been perfectly natural for the pagans converting to Christianity to keep this symbol of good times to come during their Christmas festivities, just as they had in centuries past.
Legends From Christianity
There are several legends obviously originating from the church that concern Christmas trees.
St. Boniface, while walking through the woods one day, found a group of Pagans about to cut down an oak tree in order to continue with a human sacrifice. Enraged, St. Boniface felled the mighty oak tree with one blow, but when it fell it split open at the base and a small fir tree was revealed, growing inside and reaching for the heavens. The pagans immediately lost their pagan ways and converted to Christianity, and that's how Christmas trees started.
Martin Luther, while walking through the woods one day, spied a beautiful tree, adorned with snow and glistening in the light. Entranced, he took home the small fir, set it in the house and decorated it with lit candles to show his children how beautiful it was. And that's how Christmas trees started.
Long ago, "Paradise Plays" were used to show pagans about Adam and Eve. An evergreen tree was used, adorned with apples, as the only prop in the play. While this was true, the story has it that this, too, was how Christmas trees began.
Although boughs and cuttings were often used in ancient history the use of a decorated tree did not become popular until the 17th century, and the concept was (and still is in some cases) frowned on by some Christian believers as "heathen".
The most probable scenario is the "replacement holiday" in reverse; the ex-pagans wanted to hold onto their cherished traditions continued to decorate with evergreens, and Christians were absorbed into the tradition. New legends and tales were necessary to provide evidence that it is actually Christian, but it never was and isn't today.
The History of Kissing Under the Mistletoe
One of the more charming traditions of Christmas is that when a couple walks under any of the sprigs of mistletoe found hanging everywhere during the season they simply must pause and exchange a kiss. What does this have to do with the birth of Christ? Where did this curious and endearing custom come from?
In times long past, in the time of Druids, enemies that met under the mistletoe in the forest must lay down their arms and have a truce until the next day.
According to Norse legend, Balder was the son of the sun god and Frigga, goddess of love. Loki convinced the blind god of winter, Hoder, to shoot an arrow made of mistletoe, which struck and killed Balder. Eventually Frigga managed to revive Balder with her tears; tears which turned into mistletoe berries. In her joy Frigga kissed everyone that passed under the tree on which the mistletoe grew.
There are others; mistletoe has been revered in many pagan religions. Never in Christianity, though, and this is one tradition that comes purely from pagan origins with hardly any influence from Christianity.
Nativity Scenes During Christmas
Pagans had no similar traditions or beliefs at all. Legends and tales of children born in with livestock exist, and the gods often interacted with humanity to produce children, but the nativity combines all of these with the birth of the only God in a story that is unique to Christianity..
The nativity is a purely Christian concept - it does not come from pagan beliefs anywhere.
The History of Santa Claus
The Santa Claus myth is a little different than many of the others in that there is a definable origin.
It all started when a Monk known now as St. Nicholas was born in 280 AD in the town of Patara in what is now Turkey. St. Nicholas was well known for his piety, generosity and kindness and many legends eventually grew around him.
One story has it that St. Nicholas once gave a poverty stricken man money to keep him from having to sell his daughters into prostitution. Other reports are that he gave away his fortune in small gifts to children, although this one is probably an offshoot from Christmas itself with little truth.
The popularity of St. Nicholas spread to the point that by the year 450 churches were being named for him and by 800 he was officially recognized as a saint. Over the centuries his popularity continued to grow and more and more stories appeared about him. The Dutch pronunciation of Sinter Klaus is probably what gave rise to the current name of Santa Claus, but whatever the details, St. Nicholaus is the origin of the modern Santa Claus.
That's not to say that there haven't been changes along the way - a nearly two thousand year time span guarantees that there will be. Few of the changes make much sense, and most are purely fiction - the idea that Santa is a short, portly man comes directly from the poem by Clement Moore in 1822 that was eventually titled "'Twas the night before Christmas". Santa's sleigh and flying through the night behind reindeer came from the same source. Moore's poem was never intended to be taken factually or to contribute to the myth, but it has become an integral part of Christmas for millions of people - a good example of how traditions can evolve and change.
Rudolph plays a part in Santa, too, but from a different source. Rudolph was born in a fun story penned by Robert May in an effort to gain customers to Montgomery Wards. Once more, a simple children's tale took on a life of it's own and today there are few people that don't know of Rudolph, the red nosed reindeer.
Even Santa's image is rooted in the commercial world. Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, drew the first recognizable Santa in 1822, and continued to draw Santa over the next several decades. Along the way Santa's coat changed from tan to the bright red we all know today. In 1922 Coke began a long running advertisement campaign showing Santa drinking Coke and the image of Santa became firmly cemented in folklore.
Origin of Christmas—The Final Story
This article has been incredibly difficult to research for the reason given early on - everyone seems to have an axe to grind. Dozens and dozens of sources were consulted, ranging from the Catholic encyclopedia to Judaism Online to Wikipedia to blogs by ordinary people that have seen or heard rumors they wanted to either confirm or deny. Nearly all sources, it seems, leave out anything that doesn't agree with either promoting Christmas as originating from Christianity or as originating from Pagan ceremonies and beliefs—whichever the writer wants to believe. Nevertheless, certain conclusions can be made.
- Christmas was started by the Christian church in the third century for the stated purpose of celebrating the birth of Christ.
- The church intentionally chose the date to coincide with other pagan festivals, but had no intention of accepting the pagan rituals into their celebration. Although the date was chosen for the express purpose of enticing pagans to convert, Christmas was always intended to be a strictly Christian concept.
- Like every other long lived celebration, Christmas has seen many changes; it has evolved over the centuries. Some of those changes did indeed come from pagan beliefs, some came from the church, some came from commercial interests and some no doubt arose simply because people liked the idea.
- It must also be recognized that Christmas continues to evolve and change. The last 50 years has seen a huge increase in the commercial aspects of Christmas along with a decrease in the importance of the Christian heritage of the season. Like the Christian holiday of Easter, only time will tell what it will become in the future.
If you, like so many others, are concerned as to whether you should celebrate Christmas as a Christian I can only offer my own thoughts in an article about the meaning of Christmas rather than its origins. Meaning, and Christmas, is what we make of it. While the history and origin of Christmas will inevitably contribute to that meaning it is not all there is to consider.
Knowing the Pagan origins of some traditions, will you celebrate Christmas?
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Dan Harmon