By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 8 December 2015)
The modern Christmas celebration, which occurs on December 25, is associated with a number of customs, including decorating trees, exchanging gifts, attending church services, and having large festive meals with family and friends.
The origin of Christmas can be traced to various pagan midwinter celebrations. Ancient peoples throughout Europe celebrated the turning point of the year, after which the days grow longer and lighter. These celebrations included the German Yule; the Celtic Winter Solstice celebration; and the Roman Saturnalia, which was held in honour of Saturn, god of agriculture, time, wealth, and liberation. In all cases, the December holiday included feasting and drinking. In Rome, schools and businesses were closed, and slaves became masters. People exchanged gifts such as candles, dolls, and caged birds, and there are accounts of the wealthy paying a month’s rent on behalf of those who were unable to afford it. Saturnalian entertainments, described by the Roman poet Statius, included female gladiator fights; the release of flamingos; and the crowd being showered with fruits, nuts, and sweets.
Some historians believe that December festivals arose because people needed cheering up in the darkest depths of winter. The harvest was done and they were bored, cold, and (in some cases) hungry. Having something to look forward to kept everyone from going mad.
Christians later adopted the midwinter celebration, but adapted it to their own religion, with Pope Julius I selecting December 25 for Christ’s birthday, despite evidence that Jesus was probably born in the spring. This was a smart move, as it would have been impossible to suppress the popular festival. The Roman Emperor Caligula had failed in his attempt to simply confine the festivities to five days, which indicates the degree to which people loved the midwinter holiday. While it could not be eliminated, it proved easy to co-opt.
The celebration was renamed Christ’s Mass in honour of Jesus (later shortened to Christmas), and it soon took hold among the Christian population. However, it continued to manifest as a blend of pagan and Christian traditions, with celebrants first attending church and then cutting loose at wild parties. Some of the old pagan role reversal customs persisted as well. For example, poor people would knock on the doors of the rich, demanding food and drink and committing acts of mischief against those who refused.
The Puritan Christians banned Christmas for a number of years during the 1600s because they objected to its pagan roots and wild partying. Although the ban was lifted before the end of the century, Christmas did not become an official holiday in North America until 1870, when it was recast as a peaceful family celebration rather than a time of raucous, bawdy partying more akin to a Mardi Gras festival. Charles Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol, also helped to re-establish Christmas as a time of charity.
Today, Christmas is both a Christian and a secular holiday, though many people who identify as pagans celebrate the Winter Solstice, which falls between December 20 and 23 each year (it varies from year to year, but always occurs on the shortest day of the year).
For more articles about Christmas history and traditions, as well as gift and Christmas craft ideas, visit the main Christmas page.
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- Time. (n.d.). Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Christmas. Content.Time.com.