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The Origins and Early Traditions of Christmas

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  • The Origins and Early Traditions of Christmas

    Recently, I've had a number of people ask me what I know about the origins of Christmas. So I did some digging, and I thought there might be some that would be interested in what I found.

    The Origins and Early Traditions of Christmas
    By "Historian"

    In some of the earliest churches of the “old world,” the leaders were unable to agree as to when Jesus, The Christ, was born. Some celebrated His birth in January, others in April, and still others in May. However, during the 4th Century AD, Pope Julius ordered the churches under his leadership to celebrate “The Christ Mass” or Christmas, on the 25th of December. Pope Julius also decreed that The Christ Child was born “...on the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve.” The following, according to historians, is a brief description of how and why Pope Julius arrived at his decision.

    From the very earliest of recorded history, people in almost every part of the world have regarded the Winter Solstice (now pinpointed as the 21st of December), as a very critical time of year. The people of the ancient Roman Empire were no different, and like others, they watched with growing alarm as the sun appeared for shorter and shorter periods each day in the month of December. Then, after the 21st of December, they witnessed what could then have been considered a miracle of the world’s rebirth as the sun remained visible for progressively longer periods each day. The ancient Romans attributed this yearly miracle to Saturn, their god of seeds and sowing, which won a yearly battle with the dark malevolent forces, which could have, as they believed, destroyed the earth with eternal darkness. They celebrated Saturn’s victory over these malevolent forces with a festival called Saturnalia.

    Saturnalia began in early Roman times as a one-day celebration during which, friends and relatives exchanged gifts. Later, it evolved into a three-day event, and by order of Augustus Caesar (68 BC- 14 AD), Saturnalia was officially celebrated over the course of seven days from December 17th through December 23rd. During this week of celebration, all public business was suspended. The Roman Senate, schools, and courthouses were closed down and executions, declarations of war, and animal sacrifices to the Roman gods were postponed. As part of the celebration, in an attempt to show that everyone was considered equal in Saturn’s sight, Roman men and women dressed in clothing of the opposite sex, and slaves were given privileges for a full day which were usually reserved for Roman citizens.

    The Roman people engaged in such licentious behavior during the weeklong festivities of Saturnalia, that after Christianity started emerging as a dominant faith in the Roman Empire, the early Christian leaders tried to have the celebration banned. When they were unsuccessful, it was then that Pope Julius set the date of The Christ’s birth four days after the Winter Solstice and adopted many of the Saturnalia festival’s customs. It has been documented that since the Christmas celebration had become much like that of Saturnalia, people in the “old world” accepted the new holiday, as well as the religion to which it was related, in far greater numbers than they had at any other time since Christianity began.

    In 597 AD, when Pope Gregory sent Augustine to England as the first Christian missionary to that country, he instructed him to do nothing that would antagonize the people. He was also instructed not to destroy the pagan temples, but to convert them to Christian churches when it became time to do so. Augustine was also admonished not to do away with any of the more popular customs that had been associated with the old pagan religious practices, but incorporate them into the Christian religion. Pope Gregory’s admonition to Augustine sprang from his belief that if the people were allowed to retain their accustomed “...outward joys, then they (would) more easily accept the true inward (Christian) joys.” Pope Gregory’s instruction were carried out, and when King Ethelbert, whose wife was already a Christian, allowed himself to be converted, large numbers of people under his rule in England followed his example.

    The Christmas season then became known in England as the “Yule-tide” after Jul, a Saxon winter festival. The Christmas celebration then evolved so that it began on Christmas Eve on December 24th and ended 12 days later on January 6th, or the Epiphany, the day that it was said that the three wise men visited The Christ Child in Bethlehem. During these twelve days of Christmas, the people of England celebrated with much the same wild abandon in which the Romans had celebrated Saturnalia.

    In the early 17th Century, as the Christian religion evolved, this now “un-Christian” behavior during the Christmas season, combined with the manner in which the date of The Christ’s birth had been chosen centuries before, irritated English Puritans. Eventually, since they controlled the English Parliament in the 1640s, the Puritans passed a law banning the celebration of Christmas entirely. In the “new world,” the newly established Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony followed the lead set in England and would not allow Christmas to be celebrated in their Puritan colonies. It would not be until 1856 that Christmas became a legal holiday in Massachusetts.

    Traditions Inherited from Ancient Rome

    As part of Saturnalia, the ancient Romans set up evergreen trees in their homes, which they decorated with candles, brightly colored objects, and images of Bacchus, their god of wine, animal life and vegetation. Brightly wrapped gifts, placed on the boughs of these evergreen trees, were later given out to friends and relatives. Later, as Christian leaders adopted some of the pagan customs as part of the Christmas celebration, they substituted the images of Bacchus hung on the trees, for those of The Christ Child.

    In early times, Greeks and Romans used laurel as an emblem of both peace and victory. Later, Christians adopted the laurel, using it during the Christmas season to decorate the windows of their homes. For a period of time, they even fashioned large laurel wreaths decorated with holly to place on the front doors of their houses so that passers-by would know that those living in the house had become Christians.

    On the last night of Saturnalia, the ancient Romans lit huge logs in their homes, which they kept burning from sundown until dawn. The early Christians adopted the custom and dragged the taproot of hardwood trees into their homes on the day before Christmas, to the accompaniment of singing and dancing. The log would be lit at sundown and the people then began singing, dancing, telling stories, eating and drinking all night until sunrise. No other lights were allowed in the house while the log was burning, and if the fire went out before daybreak, it was believed that every person in the household would have bad luck for the entire year. Later, when the English adopted the custom, the huge piece of wood became known as the “Yule-log.”

    Kissing under the mistletoe also originated in Rome during the Saturnalia celebration, and has changed very little in it’s practice to reaffirm the friendship for each other in the coming twelve months when two people meet underneath the bunches of mistletoe which were hung over every doorway in the house. This practice has faded in popularity in recent years, as it is now known that the white mistletoe berries can be fatal to pets and small children if swallowed in sufficient quantity.

    Origins of the Christmas Stockings

    There are several versions of how the custom of hanging up stockings at Christmas Eve began. One of the most interesting versions comes from Italy. There, it is believed, that there was a legendary old woman known as La Befana, a childish corruption of Epifania, the Italian word for Epiphany. Tradition has it that she was cleaning her house when the three wise men came by on their way to Bethlehem to pay homage and bring gifts to The Christ Child. When her neighbors called out to her to come out and see them, she answered that she could not take the time away from her housework, but that she would see them when they returned. Since the three wise men are said to have gone home by a different route, she has yet to see them. It is believed that the old woman still sits at her window throughout each year waiting for their return. However, on Epiphany Eve she is said to follow the example set by the Magi, by bringing gifts to every child in Italy. The legend states that since she will not leave anything for those children who are still awake, the children hang their socks by the chimney to let her know they are undressed and in bed. It is said that the old woman rewards those who have been good by filling their socks with toys, cakes, and candy, and punishes those who have been bad by filling their socks with charcoal and ashes. When she completes her rounds, it is said that she returns to her window and resumes her vigil to wait for the returning Magi.

    St. Nicholas, Santa Claus and Kris Kringle

    The Dutch have a tradition that St. Nicholas, the Patron Saint of children, comes down from the North Pole every year on December 6th, his birthday, to pass out toys, candy and other gifts to all the children who have been good the previous year. It is said that he travels with lightning speed across the snow on a sleigh pulled by a white horse that belongs to Odin, the chief of the old Scandinavian gods. Originally, the Dutch children placed their wooded shoes, filled with grain or straw for Odin’s horse, in a neat row by the chimney. When they awoke, those children who had been good during the year found that the grain had been replaced with gifts from St. Nicholas. Those children, who had been bad during the year, found grain still in their shoes, and no gifts.

    Later in the 17th Century, when the Dutch settled in New Amsterdam in America (which evolved into the city of New York), they brought the tradition of St. Nicholas with them. In time, their neighbors in New England adopted the tradition of St. Nicholas since the Christmas celebration had ceased as dictated by the Puritans. The name of Saint Nicholas evolved through the dialects of many immigrants to America and became known later as Santa (Saint) Claus (Nicholas).

    By 1856 when Christmas celebrations were re-incorporated in Massachusetts as an official holiday, St. Nicholas or Santa Claus was now believed to pass out gifts to children on Christmas Eve on December 24th instead of St. Nicholas Eve on December 5th. Although many of the traditions are similar, the tradition of Santa Claus evolved in America as riding a sleigh in the sky not over snow, and is drawn by eight reindeer instead of a horse.

    The tradition of Kris Kringle is now synonymous with the tradition of Santa Claus, but it’s origin comes from an anglicized version of the German word “Christkindlein” which means the Christ Child.
    Last edited by Historian; 12-10-2007, 11:09 AM.

    "Be good, be kind, help each other."
    "Respect the ground, respect the drum, respect each other."

    --Abe Conklin, Ponca/Osage (1926-1995)

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