Practicing Christmas

Christmas time has come once again and before any of us get carried away with presents and the merry-making we are always reminded that the true spirit of the season isn’t in the material gifts we receive and the sumptuous feasts we gladly indulge in but the birth of the lord and savior Jesus Christ.

However, is that accurate to say? How much of Christmas and the auspicious date of December 25 really has anything to do with the baby Jesus?

No one knows what day Jesus Christ was born on but most Bible scholars can readily admit that it was most likely not on December 25. From the biblical description, most historians believe that his birth probably occurred in September, approximately six months after Passover in relation to the birth of his relative and prophet John the Baptist. It is also very unlikely that Jesus was born in December, since the bible records shepherds tending their sheep in the fields on that night in the book of Luke. This is quite unlikely to have happened during a cold Judean winter. So why do we celebrate Christ’s birthday as Christmas, on December the 25th?

The answer lies in the pagan origins of Christmas. A number of people are already aware that there are some parts of the Christmas traditions that are pagan in origin. However, they all stop short of saying that the entire celebration was originally pagan, and some of the traditions we do today were once banned for those reasons.

In ancient Babylon, the feast of the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25. Raucous partying, gluttonous eating and drinking, and gift-giving were traditions of this feast.

In Rome, the Winter Solstice was celebrated many years before the birth of Christ. The Romans called their winter holiday Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the God of Agriculture.

Saturnalia, was a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17-25. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.

The ancient Greek writer poet and historian Lucian (in his dialogue entitled Saturnalia) describes the festival’s observance in his time. In addition to human sacrifice, he mentions these customs: widespread intoxication; going from house to house while singing naked; rape and other sexual license; and consuming human-shaped biscuits (still produced in some English and most German bakeries during the Christmas season).
In the 4th century CE, Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival hoping to take the pagan masses in with it. Christian leaders succeeded in converting to Christianity large numbers of pagans by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians.

The problem was that there was nothing intrinsically Christian about Saturnalia. To remedy this Pope Julius I declared in the year 350 that Christ’s birth would be celebrated on December 25 which is the concluding day of the Saturnalia festival. There is little doubt that he was trying to make it as painless as possible for pagan Romans to convert to Christianity. The new religion went down a bit easier, knowing that their feasts would not be taken away from them.

Christians had little success, however, refining the practices of Saturnalia. As Stephen Nissenbaum, professor history at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, writes, “In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.”

In January, they observed the Kalends of January, which represented the triumph of life over death. This whole season was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. The festival season was marked by much merrymaking. It is in ancient Rome that the tradition of the Mummers was born. The Mummers were groups of costumed singers and dancers who traveled from house to house entertaining their neighbors. From this, the Christmas tradition of caroling was born.

The Reverend Increase Mather of Boston observed in 1687 that “the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.” Because of its known pagan origin, Christmas was banned by the Puritans and its observance was illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681.

In northern Europe, many other traditions that we now consider part of Christian worship were begun long before the participants had ever heard of Christ. The pagans of northern Europe celebrated the their own winter solstice, known as Yule. Yule was symbolic of the pagan Sun God, Mithras, being born, and was observed on the shortest day of the year. As the Sun God grew and matured, the days became longer and warmer. It was customary to light a candle to encourage Mithras, and the sun, to reappear next year.
Huge Yule logs were burned in honor of the sun. The word Yule itself means “wheel,” the wheel being a pagan symbol for the sun. Mistletoe was considered a sacred plant, and the custom of kissing under the mistletoe began as a fertility ritual. Hollyberries were thought to be a food of the gods.

The tree is the one symbol that unites almost all the northern European winter solstices. Live evergreen trees were often brought into homes during the harsh winters as a reminder to inhabitants that soon their crops would grow again. Evergreen boughs were sometimes carried as totems of good luck and were often present at weddings, representing fertility. The Druids used the tree as a religious symbol, holding their sacred ceremonies while surrounding and worshipping huge trees.

In fact variations of the Christmas tradition exist in almost every pre-Christian culture.

The Ancient Egpytians honored their Sun god Ra with palm leaves and evergreens. It was also a tradition for the Saturnalia where Romans decorated their houses with evergreen boughs. The Vikings of Scandinavia believed that the evergreen was the tree of the Norse Sun god Baldur.
Even the exchanging of gifts has roots in the Saturnalia wherein t he emperors compelled their most despised citizens to bring offerings and gifts during the Saturnalia (in December) and Kalends (in January). Later, this ritual expanded to include gift-giving among the general populace. It was for this reason that the custom of gift-giving was banned by the Church during the Middle Ages, before they used it to their advantage by giving it a Christian flavor by re-rooting it in the supposed gift-giving of Saint Nicholas.

Christmas (Christ-Mass) as we know it today, most historians agree, began in Germany, though Catholics and Lutherans still disagree about which church celebrated it first. The earliest record of an evergreen being decorated in a Christian celebration was in 1521 in the Alsace region of Germany. A prominent Lutheran minister of the day cried blasphemy: “Better that they should look to the true tree of life, Christ.”

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