A Brief History Of Christmas Traditions – In The Beginning: Celebrations of Rebirth

Compiled and Edited By Sharla Rae

Christmas is my favorite holiday. I also love history so researching Christmas traditions like Santa Claus, mistletoe, poinsettias, holly, and caroling came naturally. When I first started this project several years ago, I was like many of you. I’d heard about the first Christmas tree being used in Strasbourg; I’d heard how Clement Clark Moore wrote The Visit From St.Nicholas, now known as The Night Before Christmas; and who among us hasn’t sung along to The Twelve Days of Christmas?

Little did I know, that throughout history many countries and cultures contributed to what most of us now perceive as the traditional American Christmas. These traditions date back to a time even before the birth of the Christ Child and the celebration of that event. Understanding their meanings and origins enhances their beauty and the joy they bring into our homes during the holidays.  I hope you enjoy this series of blogs, entitled, A Brief History of Christmas Traditions.

In The Beginning: Celebrations of Rebirth

Almost from the beginning of time, cultures have celebrated birth and rebirth as it occurred in both in nature and human life.

Before Christ was born, the sun’s annual rebirth in late December, the winter solstice, was one of the vital religious events of the year. The least busy season for the farmers, it also allowed them plenty of time for festivals and feastings.

People in early Britain had no exact astrological knowledge or calendars. They began their winter festival in November, when shorter days and the scarcity of fodder made it necessary to slaughter a portion of the cattle. Later, the rites moved forward to mid-December. This may have been due to more sophisticated groups who built temples like the sun-orientated Stonehenge, or it may have been in keeping with religious beliefs of the ruling Roman Empire.

The festival of Saturn (Saturnalia) in ancient Rome began on December 17. Farmers who often feuded among themselves over water, cattle, destroyed crops, etc. set aside these differences for the peaceful lighting of fires, exchanging gifts, praising the new sun, revelry and feasting. A king was chosen by lot to rule over the celebration.

The birth of Christ was not officially celebrated until the middle of the 4th century, and the pagan winter feast gradually evolved into a Christian festival. Christ’s birth was celebrated first in Rome and some years later in Antioch and in the East. Exactly how the celebration came to England is not known. It might have been through the Celtic Church but it is known that St. Augustine brought it with him as Christmas Day in 598, when ten thousand English converts were baptized.

Since other people were worshipping their gods in the winter, it was only natural for the competing Christians to worship at this time. The general atmosphere of rebirth (with pagans, the sun) might also represent the birth of the Christ Child. Also, Mithra, Christianity’s biggest competitor at that time, already had the 25th day of December as his birthday. 

Mithra came from Persia and was much older than Christianity. However, the two religions began to spread widely at the same time. The Roman roads, shipping and policy of peace within the Empire made communications quicker and aided the spread of both religions.

The worship of Mithra shared many similarities with Christian ceremonies. There was a baptism, a sacramental meal, an observance of Sunday and the god himself was born on the 25th of December and out of a rock. The stable Jesus was born in is said to have actually been in a cave. Among the similarities were, ideas of good and evil, the defeat of evil by good, salvation, and a last triumph of heaven over hell. One reason Mithraism lost out to Christianity is that it gave no place to women. Christianity held that women had souls and they were received as equals with men.

In early times, traditions were not written but handed down by word of mouth. It is easy to understand how transferences between religions grew to belief.

In an effort to win over pagans to Christianity, Pope Gregory, in 601 instructed Augustine of Canterbury to follow the custom of decking pagan temples with greenery by decorating the Christian churches in the same manner. They also allowed Christian feasting. They were not to sacrifice animals to the Devil as in old religions. Instead, they were to praise God by killing animals for their own feasts and thus render thanks to the Giver of all for their bounty. 

In medieval times dancing in the churchyards and even inside the church was common.  The lower clergy instituted a Feast of Fools immediately following Christmas. A Lord of Misrule, derived directly from the Romans’ Saturnalia led the feast.  Burlesques were performed with the miming and mimicking of senior church members. They were accompanied by profane singing. In France an Abbot of Ninnies and a Pope of Fools was elected even in a cathedral. Their festivities were licentious, but it was considered a virtue to be able to laugh at oneself.

Royal and noble entertainment was much the same. A Lord of Misrule was elected to rule over the household’s Feast of Fools. Masters served servants, sexes changed clothes and there was a general relaxation of normal rules.

But the Reformation brought a tempering effect to Christmas celebrations in Europe. About 1642 Oliver Cromwell attempted to abolish Christmas celebrations. Christmas went underground for 18 years. The celebration of Christmas didn’t recover its festive ways until a third of the way through the next century.

Stay tuned to my next blog: The Beginning of Modern Christmas

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