Christmas Traditions—What Are Their Origins?
IN BOTH the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas celebrations rank among the most popular, among believers and nonbelievers alike. In Japan, with its non-Christian Shinto majority, Christmas takes its place alongside other celebrations and has become a time of uninhibited revelry and commercialism. But have Christmas festivities always been so secular? How did this seasonal festival begin?
A look at how Christmas was celebrated in the first millennium of the Common Era helps trace its origin back to pre-Christian sources. Writing in the magazine History Today, Alexander Murray of Oxford University contends that medieval man “fused existing elements of pagan mid-winter rites with the developing theology of Christmas.” How and why was this done?
Peoples of ancient European civilizations observed how the sun appeared to stand still in mid-winter near the southern horizon before slowly regaining height in the sky. This winter solstice (a word derived from Latin words for “sun” and “stand still”) was, according to the Julian calendar, originally dated December 25. These same people found it easy to draw an analogy between the sun and God as the Source and Sustainer of life. In 274 C.E., the Roman emperor declared Sol invictus (unconquered sun) the principal patron of the empire, and this on December 25, thus honoring Mithras, god of light.
About the emergence of Christendom as a new imperial religion, Murray writes: “After much uncertainty, victory would go to [Mithraism’s] main rival, Christianity. But around the year 300 this rival still had to be diplomatic. It was then that the church decided to create a feast for Christ’s birth (Latin: nativitas). (No such feast is included in lists of feasts from the third century, and the new feast is first recorded in a document of 336.)” What date was chosen for this celebration? December 25, the result of “a shrewd and practical decision on the part of the early church fathers,” according to the book Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore. Why so?
Mid-winter was already well-established as a season of merrymaking with the seven-day Roman agricultural festival of fire and light, Saturnalia. Then there was Calends, a three-day feast to celebrate the appointment of Roman administrative officials who served for one year from the first, or calends, of January. Thus, with Saturnalia, Calends, and the Mithraic birthday of the unconquered sun falling within so short a period each year, December 25 became the chosen date for the celebration of “Christ’s Mass” in an appeal to pagan peoples to convert to the Roman Empire’s new state religion.
As time went by, the heathen Germanic mid-winter feast, Yule, reinforced the customs of banqueting and merrymaking, as well as the giving of gifts. Tapers (or, candles), logs, evergreen decorations, and trees became prominent in Christmas celebrations. But, some may reason, the celebration of Christ’s birth must surely have figured prominently among Christians before any subsequent link with pagan traditions. Is this so?
Not Celebrated by Early Christians
The Bible does not reveal the exact date of Jesus’ birth. More than that, “the early Christians did not celebrate His birth,” comments The World Book Encyclopedia. And why not? “Because they considered the celebration of anyone’s birth to be a pagan custom.” Augustus Neander, in The History of the Christian Religion and Church, During the Three First Centuries, agrees: “The notion of a birthday festival was far from the ideas of the Christians of this period in general.”
From this examination, you can see that Christmas celebrations find their roots in pagan customs. As The Economist explains, it was only later that religious “publicists appropriated ‘this festival of light [the birthday of the unconquered sun], for Christ is the world’s light’, and pretended (with a lack of evidence that would not be approved by Truth in Advertising campaigners) that baby Jesus was born in December. That is why Presbyterian Scotland long disdained Christmas, as did lingeringly puritan America until commercial interests recreated it.”
Christmas Traditions Revived
At the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), according to Gavin Weightman and Steve Humphries, authors of Christmas Past, “no British children hung their stockings by a fireplace on Christmas Eve; nobody had heard of Santa Claus; Christmas crackers did not exist; very few people ate turkey on Christmas Day; it was not common to give presents; and the decorated and lighted Christmas tree was hardly known outside the royal court. In fact, Christmas Day was not a very important date in the calendar for any kind of social ritual.” What happened, then, to revive the popularity of Christmas festivities?
“This transformation of old feasts into one short, respectable family event began around the 1830s . . . and was more or less complete by the 1870s, which was when the figure of Santa Claus first appeared in Britain,” states Christmas Past. At the same time, the publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a story of miserly Scrooge’s conversion to the spirit of Christmas, sparked a mood of benevolence toward the poor. The squalid conditions and economic hardships of living in towns spawned by the Industrial Revolution prompted the Victorians to take up a kind of moral crusade that, in the later Edwardian period, was modified to bring charity only to the “respectable” poor.
A writer in Britain’s Catholic Herald observes: “Gradually, with increasing general affluence, many of the unfortunate aspects of the middle-class Christmas ritual have become widespread. Simplicity and generosity have been overtaken by competitiveness and oneupmanship. The homely feasting which was once a genuine treat has been replaced by orgies of over abundant heavy food. Families are forced by this new tradition to spend days together whether they like it or not, playing games which some of them despise, watching television some of them hate, cutting out contact with neighbours and outsiders at the one time when goodwill and general friendliness are supposed to reign.
“And if one says this, if one ventures to criticise either the commercialism or the mere social conventions of it all, one is labelled a Scrooge. To my mind Christmas has gone horribly wrong in recent years.”
Whether you agree with this assessment or not, what can happen in your neighborhood at Christmastime?
Christmas—A Hazardous Time
Do you find that some people use this occasion to overindulge in eating and drinking? Does drunken, rowdy behavior disturb the peace of your community? Although many sincere people demonstrate outstanding kindness and consideration at Christmas, their efforts do not prevent the damaging of family relationships so common at this season.
You may well ask then, ‘Why does Christmas produce such excesses of bad conduct?’ Basically, because it is unchristian, pagan. Can you imagine Christ being pleased with that? Hardly. Indeed, in frank terms, the Bible reasons: “What fellowship do righteousness and lawlessness have? Or what sharing does light have with darkness? Further, what harmony is there between Christ and Belial [Satan]?”—2 Corinthians 6:14, 15.
A Different View
During this Christmas season, you may well receive a visit from one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. You will observe that they do not join in Christmas celebrations. Perhaps you are concerned about their children, believing that they, most of all, miss out on the festivities. But in an interview in the Southampton (England) Southern Evening Echo, a Witness father of two offered this reassurance: “‘They honestly don’t feel they are missing out, I promise you,’ says John. ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses are very earnest in promoting happy family life. So as well as giving many presents to our children throughout the year, we give them something much more valuable [, namely,] our time and love.’”
Certainly, such genuine love and interest contribute much to happy family life. So instead of following Christmas traditions of pagan origin, would it not be better if everyone honored Jesus by displaying a true Christlike spirit to relatives, friends, and acquaintances, yes, and to strangers too, the whole year around?
[Box/Picture on page 14]
FATHER CHRISTMAS, ALIAS SANTA CLAUS
Father Christmas has been described as “the most successful promotion story since Jesus Christ.” But who was he? According to The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain, he has been “known as a vague personification of the [Christmas] season since at least the 15th century . . . and appears in approximately his modern garb in a woodcut of 1653: but ‘Santa’s’ Christmas Eve visits, his habit of descending chimneys to fill stockings (or, more ambitiously, pillow cases) and his reindeer-drawn sleigh all derive from that melting pot of traditions, the USA. His character there was blended from European legends about the 4th-century St Nicholas of Myra (who saved three maidens from prostitution by a surreptitious midnight gift of dowry money, and who as Sinte Klaas filled the shoes of Dutch-American children on 6 December, his feast day); the German-American Krisskringle (who rewarded good and punished bad children); and Scandinavian or Russian tales about North-Pole-dwelling wizards. . . . This composite American Santa quietly recrossed the Atlantic during the 1870s: since when, his reputation apparently undamaged by numerous commercial impersonators, he has increasingly provided a purely secular focus for ‘the children’s Christmas’.”
[Box/Picture on page 15]
Prominent among Christmas decorations are holly, ivy, and mistletoe, described as “magical plants bearing fruit in a dead season.” But why these particular evergreens? Although some believe that red holly berries represent Christ’s blood and its prickly leaves symbolize the “crown out of thorns” that Pontius Pilate’s soldiers placed mockingly on Jesus’ head, pagans viewed the holly’s shining leaves and berries as a masculine symbol of eternal life. (Matthew 27:29) They looked on ivy as a feminine life-symbol of immortality. Holly and ivy together became their fertility symbol. Mistletoe’s pagan associations are still so strong that the book The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain states: “No church decorator will tolerate it—except at York Minster.” Most well-known of all evergreens is the Christmas tree, long featured in German traditions and popularized in Britain by Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, and which became the focus of Christmas family celebrations. Since 1947, Norway’s capital, Oslo, has sent a gift Christmas tree for display in London’s Trafalgar Square.
[Picture on page 16]
Norway’s annual Christmas tree gift to Britain