Christmas is a very popular holiday around the world. Even in Japan, where there are relatively few Christians, Christmas is a huge holiday. Non-Christians take advantage of this holiday, often spending money, exchanging gifts and decorating trees, even though they don’t believe in Jesus, for whom the holiday was named. But, as many people probably know, Christmas didn’t start out as a Christian holiday. Various ancient cultures, from the Babylonians to the Celts, held celebrations around the time of the Winter Solstice, and many of the holiday traditions come from the pagan traditions of Saturnalia in ancient Rome and Yule across Scandinavian and other Northern European countries.
When the Christians started trying to win converts, they found it much simpler to absorb some of these long-standing traditions into their own. Indeed, in early Christianity, Easter was the more important holiday. But many pagans weren’t into abandoning the set feasts (but probably didn’t object to adding a new feast), so Pope Julius I decreed that Christians should celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th. Many Christians figured that it was reasonably appropriate to celebrate around the solstice, and comforted themselves with the idea that celebrations of the return of the sun’s light and a lengthening of days was a perfectly legitimate time to celebrate the birth of Christ, who is the “light of the world”, banishing the spiritual darkness of sin and death.
My the Middle Ages, Christmas had become a day of duality. In the morning, the faithful congregated for worship, and in the evening the festivities turned into something resembling a drunken rout. The poor went to the homes of the rich, demanding food and drink. The rich began viewing Christmas as the time to repay their society by providing a little for the less fortunate, giving rise to traditions of charity at this time of year, as well as — to some degree — holiday tipping.
We know Santa Claus from the description Clement C. Moore provided in his poem, “A Visit From Saint Nicholas”, which was published as The Night Before Christmas. Saint Nicholas is believed to have been a bishop in what is now Turkey. He was known for his generosity, especially to children. He became a very popular saint, and eventually received his own feast, celebrated on December 6th. Gift giving and charity were the hallmarks of this day, and children could expect to have shoes and socks filled with treats and gifts.
The popularity of Saint Nicholas day faltered, except in a few Northern European countries. Saint Nicholas was brought to the Americas with the Dutch, and eventually the Dutch Sinterklaas became Santa Claus. Moore’s poem helped transform him from the almost-solemn religious figure into the more secular “jolly old elf”, and Coca-Cola completed the job in its early advertising. (In The Netherlands, children still leave wooden shoes to be filled by Saint Nicholas early in the month of December.)
Origins of other Christmas traditions
Other Christmas traditions include the Christmas tree, mistletoe and holly. Here are brief overviews of their meaning:
- Christmas Tree: In Northern Europe, evergreens were pagan symbols if everlasting life. Adapting this symbol to Christ, who overcame death, was a fairly natural progression. Decorating the tree is thought to have arisen from a popular Medieval play depicting the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Fir trees hung with apples were used in this play, which ended with a prophetic forecast of a savior, making this play especially popular around Christmastime. Popular legend states that Martin Luther added candles to his home’s fir tree after being inspired by the way starlight twinkled through the branches of trees outside.
- Mistletoe: Mistletoe was a sacred plant to many European cultures, including the Celts and the Scandinavians, who believed it had magical properties to ward off evil, and to encourage fertility. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was associated with Frigga, the goddess of love, and it is possible that our tradition of kissing under the mistletoe comes from ancient rites of fertility.
- Holly: Holly berries were anciently thought to be food for the gods. Additionally, holly was thought to ward off demons and other evil. It’s ability to stay green and fresh during the harshest winter meant that holly was seen as divine. It is little surprise that legends connecting Jesus Christ and holly sprung up, including the tale that holly grew out of his footsteps, and connecting holly with the symbolism of the crown of thorns and drops of divine blood.
There are dozens of additional Christmas holiday traditions, with interesting stories. Can you think of other Christmas traditions?