Christmas in some form has been celebrated for 2,000 years. Christmas, at least as it is known in the Christian world, has origins that may surprise many. Particularly since the early 20th Century Christmas has become very much a secular family holiday that is celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike. (in secular life, the mythical figure Santa Claus, or Kris Kringle, plays a central role) Even if you have an idea that Christmas has deeper roots than what might be seen on the surface, some of the traditions may come as a surprise.
This is the story of Christmas.
Try the activities at the end of this book!
Cover image: A Victorian Christmas Carol by Thomas Kinkade
Christmas, or the ‘mass of Christ’, as we know it is relatively recent. The term comes from Old English Cristes maesse, “Christ’s mass.” (first written in 1038) However, Europeans celebrated light and dark over the winter solstice centuries before Jesus of Nazareth was even born, happy that days would get longer with more daylight. The Norse, in Scandinavia, celebrated from December 21st into January. The holiday is often known as ‘Yule’, a Scandinavian, Germanic or Anglo-Saxon celebration feast of the winter solstice.
Ancient Origins of Christmas
Celtic and Gaelic tribes celebrated as well. Fathers and sons would light a huge log, known as a yule log, and feast until it burned out, which could take up to 12 days. For most areas in Europe this was a good time to celebrate. The climate didn’t allow for agriculture, and animals that couldn’t be fed for the rest of the winter were slaughtered for the feast. Wine and beer that was made would be properly fermented and ready to consume.
In ancient Rome, Saturn was the god of agriculture, and thus the name Saturnalia for its festival. From as early as 217 BC there were public Saturnalia banquets. (below left) From a week before the winter solstice and lasting a month, Romans ate and drank and threw the social order out of whack. Schools and businesses closed and, more surprisingly to us today, slaves and peasants were masters of the city. Juvenalia was also celebrated at the time, to honour children. Further, Mithra, the god of the ‘unconquerable sun’, was celebrated on December 25th and for many Romans the more important celebration. (bottom right)
Ancient Origins of Christmas
Did you know... those who lived in primarily modern-day Germany feared the god Oden and stayed indoors. Oden flew through the night and would choose who would prosper and who would perish.
For early Christians, Easter was celebrated, not Christmas. It wasn’t until the 3rd or 4th Century Common Era that officials decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Pope Julius I chose December 25 as the date of the celebration, which historians suggest was done in an attempt to absorb Romans who celebrated Saturnalia into the Church. Who wanted to give up a good party? It was referred to as the ‘feast of the Nativity’. In England, it was first noted as ‘Christ’s Mass’ rather than "midwinter’s mass.” Choosing December was likely a strategic time. Shepherds wouldn’t be tending their flocks in winter, right? By the end of the 8th Century the celebration had spread as far as Egypt, England and Scandinavia.
Jesus’ Birth Wasn’t Celebrated in the Beginning
Greek and Russian orthodox churches celebrate 13 days after December 25th, as they believe the three kings would have arrived in Bethlehem and found Jesus at that time. They call the celebration ‘Epiphany’ or ‘Three Kings Day’. Celebrating over the winter solstice gave the church a greater chance for the population to embrace Christianity. It is true that by the Middle Ages in Europe Christianity had replaced most pagan beliefs.
Still, after attending church on Christmas, many Europeans would go out on a drunken binge, and in some places even chose a local beggar to be the ‘lord of misrule’ and subject themselves to their whims. In others, the poor would go to the homes of the wealthy to demand food and drink, and pull pranks if not properly satiated. This was deemed some form of paying a debt to society.
What was the celebration ‘Epiphany’ or ‘Three Kings Day’? Learn more in the video!
Did you know... ? The very date of the birth of Jesus Christ is not known, though December 25th is the assigned date and conspicuously close to the winter solstice. Sextus Julius Africanus assigned the date in 221 CE and it became widely accepted.