Well, it’s that time of year again. The time of year where we put trees up in our living rooms and decorate them with pretty baubles and sparkly lights. The time of year where we wrap boxes in garish paper, top them with bows or wrap them in ribbons and put them under that tree. It’s the time of year when children wait in breathless anticipation to hear a tinkle of a sleigh bell or a whisper of merry laughter as Santa makes his visit while, downstairs, Mom and Dad sneak a kiss under the mistletoe while they put all those presents out for the kids. It’s a time for happiness and cheer, a time when all of humankind can come together in peace. That’s right. It’s Christmas.
But why do we have these traditions? Where did they come from? How did they come to be so ingrained in our holiday celebrations?
Let’s first look at the origin of the word “Christmas”. The word “Christmas” comes from the Old English word Crīstesmæsse, which translates to “Christ’s Mass”. The earliest recorded use of the word “Christmas” in relation to the winter celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth was in Rome in the mid-4th century. And until the 4th century there was no set date for celebrating Christmas. It wasn’t until Pope Julius I set the date for December 25th in 350 AD that it became common practice around the world to celebrate Christmas on this day (1). In modern times, the practice of using Xmas instead of Christmas has popped up. While some people have decided to become offended by this – saying that this is akin to taking the “Christ” out of Christmas – this is actually a proper way to keep Christ in Christmas. A little-known fact is that the letter X (chi) is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ (2).
One of the most recognizable symbols of Christmas is the tree. And whether you put up a fake tree or a real one, most of us engage in the time-honored tradition of putting one up and decorating it. But where did this tradition originate? People have been putting leafy green vegetation in their homes on the winter solstice (the shortest day and longest night of the year) for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes to symbolize the triumph of life over death (3). Early Romans marked the solstice with a festival called Saturnalia. Part of this celebration was to decorate their homes and temples with evergreen boughs to symbolize the return of their crops and fields (3). And in Northern Europe the Druids decorated their temples with evergreens as a symbol of everlasting life (3).
The first appearance of the Christmas tree as we know it is in Germany in the 16th century when Christians began bringing decorated trees into their homes. And when German settlers came to Pennsylvania in the 1830’s they brought that tradition with them. Christmas trees were seen as a pagan symbol in the United States and not considered an acceptable decoration for Christmas until the 1840’s due to the influence of Puritan religious leaders who forbade anything “pagan” from entering the sacred celebration of Jesus’ birth (3). In 1846, Queen Victoria and her German husband were drawn standing around a Christmas tree. Because of Victoria’s popularity among her people, the tradition soon caught on in England (3).
And what would a Christmas tree be without all those wonderful presents underneath? Pagans in Rome exchanged gifts during Saturnalia, most often toys, edible treats or candles. In the 4th century, after Pope Julius I declared that Christmas was the day Jesus was born and made it a holiday, Christians adopted the tradition of gift-giving and used the story of the Magi who brought gifts to Jesus on the day of his birth to separate the tradition from it’s pagan roots (4).
And, of course, there’s the jolly fat man in the red suit who brings all those presents. As most of us already know, the Santa legend is based on a real person. St. Nicholas was a Turkish monk who was born sometime around 280 AD. It is said that Nicholas gave away all his inherited wealth and traveled around the country helping the poor and sick (5). In fact, the name “Santa Claus” comes from St. Nicholas’ Dutch nickname “Sinter Klaas” (5).
Every year we Christians begin our annual litany of the War on Christmas. We rail against anyone saying Merry Xmas or Happy Holidays, claiming that the secular world is trying to push Jesus out of Christmas. But if we look back at the history of many of the traditions we hold so near and dear to us we see that Jesus had nothing to do with any of them – in fact most of these tradition were around for thousands of years before Jesus was even born – and that most of our most sacred traditions are pagan in origin. In fact, in Jeremiah 10:3-4 Jesus warns against the cutting and decorating of trees. And it’s probably not a coincidence that Pope Julius I chose to make the official Christian Christmas celebration on December 25th, a time when most pagan civilizations traditionally celebrated their solstice holidays. The month of Jesus’ actual birth is widely debated, with most scholars torn between summer and fall (6).
The bottom line is this – whether you celebrate Christmas or Saturnalia or Yule we can all agree that Christmas is a time of joy. A time for families and friends to come together and make merry. A time to reflect on the year past and make plans for the one that is coming. So instead of trying so hard to deny the historic roots of some of our favorite traditions, let’s drop the argument and take Christmas for what it is – a time of love, joy and the hope for peace on Earth.