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Origins of Christmas & the Christmas Traditions We Enjoy Today

Dan is a family man, having raised two children, and has long been interested in the cultural, political, and social roots of our society.

Many Christmas traditions don't come from where you might think. Read on to learn more!

Many Christmas traditions don't come from where you might think. Read on to learn more!

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, too; 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 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.

How did we ever get to this—with trees, decorations, snowmen, Santa, and, of course, gifts for everyone?

How did we ever get to this—with trees, decorations, snowmen, Santa, and, of course, gifts for everyone?

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 December 25 (nine months later) was the date of His birth. This convoluted reasoning is not accepted universally and there are many other dates proposed—January 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 December 25 seemed reasonable even though what little biblical evidence is available would indicate otherwise (shepherd's flocks are generally in the fold in December, not in the field).

The earliest records of the celebration being held on December 25 give the year as 354, although the feast was already being held on January 6 in the Eastern communities. It spread to Constantinople and Antioch in the late 300s, disappeared for a time, and reappeared in the early 400s. In 530 AD the church commissioned the monk Dionysius Exiguus to formally set the date as December 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?

The adoration of the shepherds, 1622—what the first Christmas was about

The adoration of the shepherds, 1622—what the first Christmas was about

Why Is Christmas on December 25?

As the Roman Empire expanded its 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 December 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?

It took well over a thousand years for Christmas trees to become a part of Christmas.

It took well over a thousand years for Christmas trees to become a part of Christmas.

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 and 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.

This modern druid still wears a wreath of mistletoe.

This modern druid still wears a wreath of mistletoe.

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.

Nativity scenes such as this are of strictly Christian heritage.

Nativity scenes such as this are of strictly Christian heritage.

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.