Finding the Origins of Christmas

Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding...

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Tracing the Roots of Christmas

It is a long road back to the first Christmas. The route is not direct, nor free from obsta­cles, nor is it clearly marked. Many will stand at the crossroads and beckon us down strange and confusing byways.

Without looking back to the pages of legend and history, we are inclined to make the Christmas story read too simply. If someone were to ask you, “What is Christmas?” would you answer:

“Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, our Savior on December 25. At this time gifts are freely dis­tributed and we tell children that they come from a mythical Santa Claus-a pleasant and harmless old fellow who comes with reindeer from the North Pole and descends the chimney to place Christmas gifts in stockings and on a highly deco­rated tree.”

We give but small thought to the gospel story; we care less that there is controversy over the exact day and year. We shun the idea that all these observances are not of his­torical Christian origin.

Interesting Whether Fact or Fantasy

However, should we care to take some of the byways of thought we would be sure to find facts hidden beneath fic­tion. We hesitate to say which statements are true and which are not. Let’s not make an immediate two-item classi­fication-the true and the false. Let’s think of these histori­cal facts and these fancies as traditions of Christmas-a part of our storehouse of culture-interesting whether true or fictitious.

Christmas is, indeed, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Holy Babe of Bethlehem, who grew into the Christ, the founder and center of a religion which proclaims one of the foremost philosophies of human conduct; perhaps it is the destined religion for the world.

The roots of Christmas observance, however, go deeply into the folklore of the Druids, Scandinavians, Romans, and Egyptians. What we may read of Christmas in ancient days finds its full flower in the past and present customs of our ancestral homes in Europe. There is not an American home that does not color its Christmas with some European observ­ances-gift-giving, trees, greenery, food, games, or ritual.

Christmas is today’s name for the Yule, or Jul of the northern Europeans, the Noel of the French, the Noche-buena of the Spanish, the Weihnachten of the Germans, and the name given by the Roman Catholic Church to the Christ Mass, the feast in honor of the Nativity of Jesus. Sometimes Christmas is written “Xmas” because “X” is the Greek equivalent of “ch,” and, therefore, is taken to represent the word “Christ.”

The Beginnings of Christmas

Since earliest times many of the inhabitants of the world have observed that there is a period during the year when “the days begin to lengthen and the cold begins to strength­en,” and others express it, “when the earth began to waken under the kiss of light, when new hopes rose in frozen hearts.” It was the Winter solstice when the sun, parent of fertility, began to rise over the world with renewed vigor and power after having been at the lowest point in the heavens. Some old opinions were that in Winter the sun actually stood still for forty days, based, no doubt, on the presence of the Mid­night Sun. The northern people considered the sun as a wheel which alternately threw its glow upon the earth and away from it. This sun wheel was known as hweol and, per­haps, from this was derived our word “yule.”

The Festival of Lights

Hanukkah menorah, known also as Hanukiah.

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To the Jews this period was the Festival of Lights or Dedication, called Hanukkah or Chanuckah. Jewish history relates that in 165 B.C. a large force of Maccabees met and vanqui’lhed an army of Syrians. Judas Maccabeus entered Jerusalem with his army and found it a place of desolation. Maccabeus began the work of purification and on the 25th day (note the similarity to the 25th of December) of Kislev it was finished and a sacred light was lighted. In their de­struction of the temple the sacred oil was practically ex­hausted, but they did find a jar which they judged would burn for one day. Miraculously, it lasted eight days. Therefore each year the Jews decree that the eight days previous to December 25 be celebrated.

The first night two tapers are lighted. One is known as  the torch. The second night a third candle is added and so one for each night until the eighth day. That is why a true  Jewish Hanukkah candelabrum has nine arms. Even to this  day some of the orthodox Jews make their own candles from beeswax, for they dislike the manufactured ones.

Werewolves and Valkyrie

In Scandinavian countries great fires were kindled to defy the Frost King. These early peoples gathered around the fires to warm themselves and to quaff great horns of mead, looking forward to the breaking of the ice when their ships might again embark. They spent their time telling strange stories and considered the period as being the time of the longest nights, when men were transformed at will to savage beasts, Werewolves-fierce, ravishing, and thirsty for blood; also Valkyrie, maidens who searched for souls and conveyed them to Valhalla. These strange spirits were heard in the winds and in the passage of birds. They are familiar to us i the Wagnerian operas of the ibelungen Ring-Das Rhein gold, Die Walkiire, Siegfried, and Die Gotterdammerung (The Twilight of the Gods).

Druid Mysteries

Flight Of The Solstice Dawn
Image by tarotastic via Flickr

The Druids observed this season in their great roofless temples which are ranked as one of the Wonders of the World At Stonehenge and Avebury in England, torches blazed an strange ceremonies took place dealing with the cutting of the cabalistic Mistletoe.  At Carnac another marvelous sanctuary was constructed. Thousands of white columns are grouped . three great avenues open to the sky. We wonder just what was the belief of the Druids who left mute evidence of a stirring religion.

Roman Saturnalia

Two holidays, the Brumalia and Juvenalia, of ancient Rome were merged to form one great celebration in honor of the Italian deity Saturnus, who taught the arts of agricul­ture and was dedicated to welcoming the germinating impulse of Jature. It was called Saturnalia and is older than Roman recorded history. These celebrations lasted throughout the years until purified by the Christians.

It was during the reign of Saturnus that peace, happiness, and innocence abounded and was, indeed, the Golden Age of Italy. Gradually things went from bad to worse and many of the original purposes were transformed into unrestrained orgies. The Saturnalia was not a day but a season of celebration from December 17 to 24; then on January 1 came the Calends  of January and both periods were given up to revelry.

In early Roman days a pontiff stood in front of Saturn’s temple and exclaimed, “Saturnalia! Io Saturnalia!” The word spread from mouth to ear along the Forum and through  the streets. The fetters of convention became loosened. The people gave themselves up to a wild joy. During this period the people and the senate were expected to present ew Year’s gifts to the emperors. It is related that Augustus had a nocturnal vision requiring that the people annually pre­sent money to him. When Caligula came to the throne he appeared on the porch of his palace on the Calends of Janu­ary and received gifts of all descriptions.

The period was characterized by “processions, singing, lighting candles, adorning the house with Laurel and green trees, giving presents; the men dressed as women or mas­queraded in the hides of animals.” Rich and poor were equal and there was no distinction between free man and slave. The courts were closed and nd one was convicted of a crime. Slaves mocked their masters and were allowed to wear a pointed cap as the sign of rank, but today employed as the sign of a fool. The free-born Romans celebrated less boisterously by giving gifts and it is to the merriment and bestowing of favors at the Saturnalia time that we owe our common Christmas practice.

When Augustine and his fellow missionaries landed in Britain 592 A.D. they found December a festive month. By 742, Pope Zacharius had sent out an edict prohibiting the participation of Christians in the heathenish customs of the season.

Egyptian Holiday

Even the early Egyptians celebrated this Midwinter festival. They claimed that Horus, son of Isis, was born at the close of December. The Palm was a Midwinter symbol.

Mithras and Feast of Sol Invictus

The followers of Mithras called this period the Feast of sol inviclus, representing the time of victory of light over darkness. Mithras, as a divinity, was worshiped in the centuries imme­diately preceding and following Christianity so that the idea of Mithraism fitted nicely to the idea of Christ being the Sun or Light of the World and the religion and practices soon merged into the early Christian customs.

When Christ Was Born

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The definite date of the birth of Christ has been fixed by church councils who gained their knowledge from the historical records of that period. The people of Christ’s day did not regard Jesus as the Messiah of God from birth but merely thought of Him as becoming the Christian’s God when He was 30 years old, at the time when the Holy Spirit descended on Him at the baptism in the Jordan. St. Mark and St. John both begin with that event as being the first one of importance in Christ’s career. The principal holy days in the early church were: Christmas (the birth of Christ), the Epiphany (the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem), Good Friday (day of crucifixion), Easter (day of resurrection) and Ascension Day followed by Pentecost (when the Holy Spirit descended upon the infant church with tongues).

Christendom did not begin to date its years from the birth of Christ until almost 550 A. D., when the method was introduced by Dionysius Exiguus, a learned monk of Rome.

In the third century the western countries came to think of Christ as a God from birth, each of the four gospel nar­ratIVes testifying to this. This thought spread through the Mediterranean regions but never reached the Far East.

To the early church Christmas from the start “bore the mark of being of Roman creation.” Between December 25 and the Roman Calends were twelve days which gradually came to be revered as Twelve Holy Days.  Centuries later they were called Twelve Nights.  Days were not reckoned by the early Germans but nights were.

St. John Chrysostom, writing in 386 says that Julian made an extensive investigation of the correct birthday of Christ and found that the Western churches all considered December 25 as the Nativity date, although the Eastern churches claimed January 6.  There were scattering opinion that the birth of Christ should be observed on April 20, May 20, March 29, and September 29.

St. Chrysostom writes, “They called this December 25 the Birthday of the Invincible One (Mithras); but who was so invincible as the Lord? They call it the Birthday of the Solar Disc; but Christ is the Son of Righteousness.”

Julian, basing his opinion on the majority, went ahead and decreed December 25 as the Nativity date for Christ.  This was readily accepted by most churches because it has always been a holiday of some sort, as we have shown above – the Winter Solstice, the Jewish Feast of Lights, the Roman Saturnalia, and the Scandinavian Yule.  Nevertheless, the Armenians did not accept December 25 until after the World War.  During these centuries they retained January 6 as the Christmas celebration time.

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