The Pagan History of Christmas

Everyone loves Christmas. I mean, really we do. As a society and as individuals we love it, despite the stress, irritation, and weight gain it brings. But what do we know about its origins? Sure, we’re told that it’s the celebration of the birth of Christ, but I know I always wondered what in the hell decorating a tree has to do with Jesus being born? Short answer: absolutely nothing. But there’s more than that, and I’m here to tell you all about it.

Let’s start from the word Christmas, as this is one of the few things about this day that actually does have to do with Christianity. The word ‘Christmas’ is combination of Christ’s mass. It comes from Middle and Old English where it was Christemasse and Cristes mæsse. The latter is a phrase dated back to the 11th century. Now, that brings me to the vile word of Xmas. The current church has seen this word as an attack on Christmas. If they’d do their homework, they see that its not so. In ancient Greek versions of the New Testament, the letter X (Chi in Greek) was the first letter of the word Christ. Also, in Rome, the same letter was used as an abbreviation of Christ. So therefore, Xmas is not an attack against any religion, deity, or holiday, but merely ancient shorthand.

Now, lets move on to the date, December 25th. According to the Bible, Jesus was born in Bethlehem when his parents went there to be counted for census and tax purposes, I believe. It also says the shepherds were watching their herds that night. No where does it make any mention of the date. December is the cold and rainy season in the area that was known as Judaea. Earlier in the bible, it is noted in both Solomon and Ezra that the shepherds were not allowed to take the flocks out at night during winter months, so as to protect the livestock. Also, travel on the back of a mule would have been quite difficult for anyone, pregnant or not, during the harsh winter months.  There is a lot of astrological evidence that is pointed out, but an exact month has not been pinpointed. In researching this, the three months most believed months are April, May, or September. But with the current evidence, it may not be possible to ever truly know the month.

The Roman holiday of Saturnalia shares a lot of aspects with Christmas. Saturnalia was not celebrated on the 25th, but the 17th, and lasted until the 25th, with the feast of Sol Invictus. It was an insanely popular holiday that was an all around good time. The holiday closed schools and people made and exchanged gifts. There were also large feasts in Roman homes, in which everyone was equal. Slaves took part in the feasts, were allowed to gamble, and were exempt from any punishment. In an effort to not be persecuted by the Romans, early Christians did participate in some of the common traditions, such as lighting candles and hanging holly and mistletoe. A celebration of the Christ’s birth was first called by Telesphorous between 125 and 136 AD. In 320, the Pope, Julius I mandated that December 25th was Jesus’s birthday. Finally in 325, Constantine made Christmas an ‘immovable’ feast, along with Easter, and Sunday as the Sabbath.

Probably the most Pagan of all of Christmas traditions (oddly enough, the most popular too) is the Christmas tree. Evergreens were revered because of their ability to survive the winter months. Germans and Scandinavians of the Middle Ages used trees outside their front doors to ward off evil spirits. Some historians date the tradition of lighting a tree to none other than Martin Luther. The story goes that he was walking through the woods and was amazed by the way the light hit the snow on the trees and cut a tree down. He brought it home where his family and he decorated it with candles and tinsel. Some trace it to Saint Boniface (patron saint of Germany), saying that he interrupted a pagan sacrifice and crushed the oak tree they were using with his punch and an evergreen sprang up through the remains of the oak.

The controversy surrounding the tree goes both ways. There was a period, specifically during Cromwell’s rule in England, and in the early colonial days of the US, when all usual Christmas celebrations were banned, for being “too pagan”.  To some very fundamentalist Christian sects, the tree is forbidden by Bible and should not be used or celebrated at all. Some of these sects may not celebrate Christmas at all. Cities that have public trees have seen challenges because some secular groups see it as a symbol of Christianity, and renamed the community tree a holiday tree.

Another favorite part of the holidays is gift giving. There are few joys like finding presents for the ones we care about, and watching them enjoy it. The biblical story is that we give each other gifts because the Three Wise Men brought presents to Jesus, shortly after his birth. While this may be the case, gift giving around this time of year pre-dates the birth of Jesus. One of the main tenets of the Roman festival of Saturnalia was exchanging of gifts. Much like today, children were given toys, and other gifts were given depending on the social status of the parties involved. Some gifts would be as simple as pottery or combs, or others as elaborate as slaves, jewelry, or perfume. The Romans would even attach small poems and verses, like a version of early greeting cards.

In conclusion, what Christmas was then, and what Christmas is now, aren’t much different. People getting together, eating copious amounts of food, exchanging presents, and all-around merry-making. Nowadays our holidays are a bit more commercial and the decorations start after Independence Day, but it’s all for the sake of traditions. Traditions are one of the few things that every civilization in recorded history have in common. So whether you believe yours are from the Romans or the Bible, hold them close, and hold them dear. They are one of the most important things we have.

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