Learn how one of the most celebrated holidays came to be! What it stood for and why we celebrated it the way we do. By understanding the origin of Christmas is that we understand our most loved traditions.
Christmas is a worldly phenomenon, a religious celebration, a cultural and commercial event in all homes. Christmas, originally called the “Feast of the Nativity”, comes from the Latin term “nativitas”, which means birth. The celebration is one of the main Christian holidays, celebrated all around the world, commemorating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Christmas is a family centered holiday, which includes a great variety of traditions that have evolved through time in every family and home.
WINTER SOLSTICE CELEBRATION
For hundreds of years Christmas has been celebrated in mid-winter. In Europe, near the winter solstice people celebrated great parties with feasts full of drink and delicious food. It was celebrated upon the longest night, for the darkest days of the year had passed, and better, brighter days were to come.
In Scandinavia, the Nordics celebrated the Yule from the 21st of December to January. Both father and sons would bring massive logs of wood to burn in the fireplace. The holidays which celebrated the return of the sun would last until the logs stopped burning, which could take up to 12 days!
In Europe, the end of the winter was a great time to celebrate in grand manner. The livestock was sacrificed as to not have to feed it during winter, the beer and wine that were fermented throughout the year were finally ready to consume. With plenty of food and drink, this was the best time to celebrate.
In Rome, where the winters were milder than in the North, Saturn was celebrated. The celebration in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, commenced a week before the winter solstice and it lasted a month. During Saturnalia the social hierarchy was turned upside down, food and drink was abundant.
In the winter solstice Juvenalia was also celebrated, a feast to celebrate the children and youth of Rome. In the middle of the Saturnalia celebration, on the 25th of December, the high classes of Rome would celebrate the birth of Mitra. For some romans the celebration of the inconquistable sun, Mitra, was one of the most sacred days of the year.
BIRTH OF JESUS OF BETHLEHEM
In the beginnings of Christianism, Easter was the principal party as the birth of Christ was not celebrated. It was until the IV century that church officials decided to establish the birth of Jesus as an official holiday. In the Bible an exact date for the birth is never mentioned.
Even though there is evidence that the birth of Jesus happened during Spring, Pope Julius I chose the 25th of December. It is believed that he chose that date in an effort to adopt the traditions of the pagan holidays of Saturnalia. This slowly helped spread the holiday, making it more and more popular. By the end of the VIII century, the Christmas celebration extended all the way to Scandinavia.
By the Middle Ages, Christianism had replaced the majority of the old pagan religions, and so Christmas became a part of the year in which the upper classes could pay their debt to society, helping the less fortunate.
CHRISTMAS IN THE UK
In the early 19th century the famous author Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol”, which emphasizes the importance of charity and good deeds towards all humans. A recent movie (The Man who invented Christmas) shows the struggle of Charles Dickens and the process leading to the creation of this story, which would forever change Christmas in the UK. The story was very impactful in the English speaking world and it inspired victorian cultures to adapt some aspects of the holiday.
Another driving factor of Christmas in the UK was the change of family dynamics from authoritative towards a stronger mindfulness of the children’s needs and feelings. The Christmas holiday provided parents with a good opportunity to respond to their children’s wishes without spoiling them.
As Christmas was gaining significance in the English speaking world people increasingly adapted traditions from the Catholic church and other cultures. The english speaking countries mixed many traditions and hence created their own way of celebrating Christmas with traditions such as decorating a tree, giving gifts and sending holiday cards. The UK and the US have, so to speak reinvented Christmas for themselves.