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The Origins of Christmas

Nov 26, 2010 | By Gillian FitzGerald

Christmas, the birthday of Christ, is a holiday filled with gift giving, festive lights, trees and song. But where do all these traditions come from? And was it even when Jesus was born?

Christmas stockingsDecember 25, Christmas Day, has long been held as the day that Christ was born, but the exact day however, is actually unknown.
While many historians contend that his birth probably occurred in September, it's commonly agreed that December is the unlikely birth month. This is due to bible records of shepherds tending their sheep outside in the fields on the night.During cold Judean winters, shepherds' simply didn't stay outside.
So why do we celebrate Christ's birthday as Christmas, December 25?

Pagan origins

The answer, like for Halloween, lies immersed in ancient pagan beliefs and traditions. Pagans celebrated this time of year as an important point in the changing seasons.
In ancient Babylon, the feast of the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25. Parties, feasts and gift-giving marked this ancient feast.
In pre-Christ Rome, they celebrated the winter season, starting their winter holiday, Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn, the God of Agriculture around the December 17-24 and Dies Natalis Invicti Solis(Birthday of the Unconquered Sun) on December 25. On the first day of January, they celebrated the Kalends of January, which represented the triumph of life over death. The entire winter festive season included much merrymaking.

Candles, Yuletide logs and Mistletoe

Christmas candles

Many now "Christmas" traditions also began long before the birth of Christ. Candles, Yule-tide logs and Mistletoe came out of the Germanic pagans celebration of their winter solstice, Yule. Yule was symbolic of the pagan Sun God, Mithras, being born, and was observed on the shortest day of the year. As the Sun God grew and matured, the days became longer and warmer. It was customary to light a candle to encourage Mithras, and the sun, to reappear next year.

Huge Yule logs were burned in honor of the sun. The word Yule itself means "wheel", the wheel being a pagan symbol for the sun. Mistletoe was considered a sacred plant, and the custom of kissing under the mistletoe began as a fertility ritual. Holly berries were also thought to be a food of the gods.

The Christmas Tree and Caroling

Christmas tree

The tree is a common symbol across almost all the northern European winter solstices. Live evergreen trees were often brought into homes during the harsh winters as a reminder to inhabitants that soon their crops would grow again. Evergreen boughs were sometimes carried as totems of good luck and were often present at weddings, representing fertility. The Druids used the tree as a religious symbol, holding their sacred ceremonies while surrounding and worshipping huge trees.
The Christmas tree today is often explained as a Christianisation of these pagan traditions and rituals surrounding the Winter Solstice. Modern Christmas trees only emerged in Germany in the 18th century though many argue that Martin Luther began the tradition backin the 16th century.

In ancient Rome, the tradition of Mummers arose. Mummers were groups of costumed singers and dancers who traveled from house to house entertaining their neighbors. From this, the tradition of Christmas caroling was born as it offered a lucrative way for many farm workers to earn more money around Christmas time.

Adoption into Christianity

It was only in 350, that Pope Julius I declared that Christ’s birth would be celebrated on December 25. Like many big Christian holidays, such as Easter, the church was trying to ease the conversion of pagan Romans (who remained a majority at that time) to Christianity. By retaining their popular pagan holidays and traditions, Christianity became more appealing!

And there you have it - Christmas Day and traditions explained!

Tags : Christmas, origin, history, pagan, December 25

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