Where Did Christmas Come From?

Unless your name is secretly Ebenezer Scrooge, Christmas time is easily one of the most joyous times of year. The shopping plazas are lined with golden lights, service clubs are having tons of drives for the needy, the night air becomes a little more brisk and the radio stations are playing Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas is You” every hour it seems. With all the modern commercialization of the holiday put aside (along with the myth of Santa Claus and his diligent elf helpers), the Christmas season is seen by many as a time of charity, well wishing and peace and is full of many special customs that we take part in, year in and year out. For the religious amongst us, Christmas season is seen as a time to reminisce on the advent of Christ, who was born in Bethlehem and came as the Messiah of all people. However, the burning question on some persons’ minds is this: when did all these traditions begin, and what was Christmas like when it just began?

Saturnalia Celebrations

Saturnalia celebrations in Greece

The traditions that we accept today as hallmarks of the Christmas season such as decorating spaces with Christmas trees and lights, the exchange of gifts, seasonal parades and floats and holiday feasts all took place centuries prior to the coming of Christ. The ancient Greeks once celebrated a festival known as Saturnalia, in recognition of their god, Saturn. Festivities would begin in mid-December and end on January 1. December 25 was called the “Birth of the Unconquerable Sun” where the Sun was believed to rise from its death on the winter solstice. The ascent would be accompanied by the visiting of friends for the exchange of gifts of good luck, as well as street masquerades. Lavish Banquets would take also take place on this day, with halls being adorned with green laurels and garlands and decorated with it candles. Evergreen trees would also be decorated with trinkets and small pieces of metal.

As Christian faith spread throughout Rome (a few centuries after Jesus’ birth and death), Christian leaders became enraged at the fact that these Saturnalia customs were still being practiced, and believed this merriment would be more suitable when celebrating Christmas. For years, therefore, the customs were prohibited by Roman law until about 375 A.D. when Julius I, a Roman bishop, declared December 25 as the official day for the observance of Christ’s birth and allowed the practice of older customs such as feasting and the exchange of gifts to celebrate this holiday. This day was chosen as it was close to the winter solstice, which was already widely viewed as a time of revelry and also allegedly to compete with a large Roman cult known as Mithraism that held that day sacred. This decision therefore allowed for the successful transfer of Saturnalian customs to Christmas celebrations.

These traditions are still carried out today, and have become a part of the Church’s celebration, with its pagan origins have been long forgotten. Many of the original customs for the holiday’s inception are still being practiced today. This just goes to show that even if the times change, the spirit of the holidays is steadfast in our hearts.

Written by Jeanelle Irvine
Edited by Liam Neath