Only two major holidays are celebrated in all 24 times zones across the globe. They are New Year’s Day and Christmas Day. New Year’s Day is a recognition of massive cosmic events that influence lives through the passing of time. Christmas Day is a celebration that is steeped in historical consequence, cultural change, and religious proliferation.
The dynamic meaning of Christmas has waxed and waned for more than 2,000 years of human development. Modern people celebrate Christmas in many unique religious and cultural ways. The origins of Christmas celebrations are diverse, and they have their roots in a fascinating series of events.
The “Christmas spirit” is something that reflects the individual, yet it has incredible cultural significance. The richness of the traditions surrounding this holiday represent a nearly endless variety of outlooks and human experiences. Christmas has grown into a holiday that is attractive for people who recognize its religious significance. It is also attractive to people who see it as a day to simply relax and rest.
The Definition and History of Christmas
In each of the four gospels of the Bible, the story of the birth of Jesus is outlined. This story tells of a Hebrew couple, Joseph and Mary, and their revelation regarding the birth of their first baby. This revelation came in the form of an angelic visitation.
Joseph and Mary, though they had yet to conceive a child in the natural way, were told by an angel that their baby was destined to be the Messiah. Every detail of this birth disrupted the cultural notions that Joseph and Mary held about starting a culturally acceptable Hebrew family.
At the same time this announcement was given to Joseph and Mary, the Roman-controlled government of Israel ordered a census to be taken. This meant that all Hebrews were to return to their places of birth to be numbered in the Roman imperial record. Joseph and Mary had to leave their home of Nazareth, and they had to travel along the dangerous road to Bethlehem in the Israeli province of Judea.
When they arrived in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth. She called the baby Jesus. During that time, the governor of Judea, made a decree for all Hebrew first-born toddlers to be killed. He had heard about the possible birth of a baby that could grow into a ruler who could challenge his authority. Joseph and Mary escaped Bethlehem into Egypt.
Not much is known about the family’s time spent in Egypt, but once they returned to Judea, Jesus grew in notoriety. He performed miracles, taught thousands of people, and suffered an incredibly gruesome death at the hands of the Hebrew and Roman governments.
The name Jesus became synonymous with the title of Messiah, and the Christian community was born. The corroborated string of events that describe the life, ministry, and death of Jesus created a human following that is still present today. Jesus, known as the Christ, is the person at the core of the meaning of the modern Christmas holiday.
The term “Christmas” is a relatively modern term. It is a Latin conjugation of the name of Christ and the word “mass.” A mass ceremony is one where large groups of people gather to recognize an important liturgical concept. Combining the title of Jesus and the name for large religious gatherings gave the world the word “Christmas.”
Specifically, Christmas was established to recognize the birth of Jesus. It encompasses all of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. This includes normal human activities, and some events that can be considered to be miraculous and mysterious. The birth of Jesus, or the Nativity, symbolizes the fulfillment of thousands of years of prophetic teachings. These teachings can be found in Hebrew and non-Hebrew accounts.
Events that are considered essential to the celebration of Christmas include:
- Angelic dreams and visitations experienced by Joseph and Mary.
- Precise dates predicting the birth of Jesus recorded in ancient texts.
- Recognition by foreign nations and cultures of Jesus being born (the three Magi visitors).
- Positions of astronomical bodies during the Nativity (Star of Bethlehem).
- Joseph being a descendant of King David (prophetic lineage of Jesus).
- A virginal birth by Mary signifying an immaculate conception (conception by the Holy Spirit).
The unique life of Jesus resulted in many people following him as the Messiah. The initial rise of Christianity happened after Jesus’ crucifixion. It surged throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. During this time, Jesus’ birth remained as a focal point in Christian religious celebrations.
Though official establishments of Christmas as a holiday are fairly recent, nativity celebrations can be traced back to the years just after Jesus’ death. Christmas Day, in its original context, is a celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a formal event now celebrated around the world.
The Earliest Nativity Celebrations
The birth of Jesus occurred more than 2,000 years ago. Since then, incalculable changes in society and government have taken place. Still, consistent recognition of the Nativity of the Christ was present through them all.
Until the Roman Empire fell, Messianic communities celebrated important events in secret. Before Constantine successfully invaded Rome, and issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, any celebration of the Nativity of Christ was considered illegal.
During this period, the use of the Greek letter “X” was widely used as a secret symbol in the Christian community. “X,” or “chi” became synonymous with the cross upon which Christ died, and it was used as a substitute for the word “Christ” as a title. Early Christians often painted this word over their home entryways to signal safe spaces for other Christians.
This is where the term “Xmas.” Originated. It is a combination of the old Greek word for Christ, and the newer Latin word that describes a gathering. Many modern Christians believe that it is inappropriate and disrespectful for people to use the term “Xmas.” It is not. However, the Greek letter should be pronounced accurately. This term is direct shorthand for the full label of Christmas.
Though the earliest Christians were mostly Hebrew in heritage, the outreach of the Apostolic line reached many different cultures throughout the Mediterranean region. This meant that recognizing the birth of Christ had to coincide with already established cultural celebration cycles. Before the Christian religion spread widely, its fringe status was always overshadowed by holidays with more ancient roots.
The largest festival for the winter season in the Roman world was the Saturnalia. It was celebrated by Roman citizens and those people who were under Roman rule. This festival lasted several days, and it was designed to pay homage to Saturn the Titan. In Roman myth, Saturn was the god responsible for creation. He also started time itself into motion. This was the reason the Saturnalia was held in the last winter month. It was meant to be an empire-wide glorification of the emergence of a new year.
Early Christians in many regions secretly used this celebratory period to worship Christ. Specifically, they honored his birth. In many early cultures, birth dates were far less important than death dates. The birth of Christ mathematically coincided with the Saturnalia, and the early Christians dedicated themselves to recognizing the Nativity instead of Roman tradition.
How did the Nativity coincide with the Saturnalia?
In the Bible gospels, Christ was martyred when he turned 33 years old. It is believed that he died on the same day that he was born. The gospels describe his birth as being in a time when shepherds slept with their flocks on the hills. Since the hills in Judea are covered in snow during the winter, it is likely that His birth took place some time in the spring.
Other theories about Christ’s birth date are centered around the historic accounts of census-taking. If Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem during a spring census (March 25th), it can be assumed that Jesus was born nine months later. Records are strikingly confusing about this matter. The ancient Roman, Hebrew, and Gregorian calendars vary greatly. This also contradicts the “exact birth and death” theory.
Whatever reasoning is behind the early Christians celebrating the Nativity during the Saturnalia, it was surely to add a degree of protection. They were required to celebrate during this time, but in secret they recognized the Christ.
To further the theory that the Nativity was properly celebrated during the December solstice, one only needs to look at the declarations of the Roman Emperor Aurelian. In 274 AD he marked the success of the failing Roman army over Syria by establishing a new holiday. “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti,” or the “Day of the Unconquered Sun,” reconciled astrological patterns and human events. Early Christians used this date to celebrate Christ’s birth. When Constantine formally recognized December 25th as a special date, the idea of Christmas Day was born. This was when it became legal for Christians to celebrate the birth of Christ, and December 25th remained the chosen date.
The Spread of Christianity Evolved into Modern Christmas Day Celebrations
In order to understand the evolution of Christmas, a person needs to understand the spread of the Christian religion throughout the world. It is a bloody and tumultuous history, but it helped to produce a vibrant and lasting tradition.
Only a few centuries after the birth of Christ, the Roman Empire began to fail. It had stretched outward from the Mediterranean to reach Asia, Britannia, central Africa, and the central regions of Sarmatia (Russia). Everywhere that Rome spread, the Christian influence followed.
In order to preserve their celebrations, early Christians adapted to the cultures in places where they settled. Just as they slowly changed the nature of the Roman Saturnalia, they changed other key pagan holidays. This change did not happen through force. It happened through the integration of native cultural norms and Christian belief.
Christmas Integration in Germany
As Christianity seeped into eastern Europe and Scandinavia, it encountered people who worshiped pagan gods like Odin the Great Hunter. These people recognized the Yule. This was a season of plenty and good hunting. It was celebrated between the months of November and January.
In order to compromise with the tribal leaders in this region, Christians introduced their own celebrations into the Yule season. It was not a difficult melding because their own Christ Nativity stories focused on the same times of the year.
The Yule time also allowed traditions like gift-giving. This provided a great way for Christians to compare the provisions of gods like Odin with the gift of the Messiah. In many ways, the symbolism of Christ’s birth reflected the pagan notions of heavenly provisions. Christian culture spread rapidly throughout eastern Europe because of roughly common belief systems. Christmas Day celebration was a natural outcome.
Christmas Integration in Britain
The introduction of Christmas celebrations in the British Isles began with the military actions of Emperor Hadrian. He conquered many of the Anglo-Saxon tribes in the region. This made way for more southern European cultural incursions into Britain.
The native people of Britain had traditions that centered on harvest, hunting, and astrology. The new Christian beliefs had many similarities to these traditions. The idea of Christmas was not difficult for Anglo-Saxon culture to adopt. It was based on months, moon cycles, and prophetic teachings. All of these things were vital to Anglo-Saxon culture.
In the 6th century, Pope Gregory I officially replaced certain Anglo-Saxon festival dates with Christian days of recognition. One of the most important was Christmas Day. This aided in solidifying a new dating system that was reconciled with the Holy Roman Church’s calendar.
Christmas Integration in Persia
Persian Mithra culture is centered around the miraculous birth of a sun god. This god is said to have been born extremely close to the date of Christ. Aside from certain lineage debates, early Christians had much in common with the people of Persia. Their festival dates, prophetic teachings, and cultural rites had many similarities. In fact, the Persian holiday of Yaldaa coincided exactly with the early Christian’s Christmas Day.
Further, the three Magi in the Christian story of Jesus’ birth likely came from a region within Persia. The Magi were from a line of Zoroastrian governors who had great influence within the Persian territories. Their inclusion in the Christian account of Christ’s birth made it possible to establish a presence in the region.
Important Things to Know About the Early Recognition of Christmas Day
- There is no absolutely concrete record of the exact day of Christ’s birth.
- Early Christians regarded death dates as more important than birth dates.
- The early Christian church had to find ways to secretly integrate into the Roman world. This included strategies like using pagan festival dates to celebrate Christian dates and adopting symbols to identify safe places for worship.
- Exact festival dates came only as decrees from Emperors, and later, Papal offices.
- The spread of Christianity required integration with diverse cultural traditions.
- Every time Christian culture integrated with another, it adopted certain regional traditions. For celebrations like Christmas Day, this meant adding new rituals and customs.
- Christmas Day celebrations, riding on the backs of pagan festivals like the Saturnalia, saturated the western world quickly because of military conquests, political changes, and cultural similarities.
Christmas Between Roman Rule and the Modern Era
About 1,000 years separates early celebrations of Christmas from modern celebrations. During this time, the entire European and Near Eastern regions were shifting because of war. Though the political storms raged, the observance of Christmas never ceased. It became a universally accepted date of recognition, and it influenced multiple people groups.
During this period, extreme cultural conversions took place. This normally meant that weaker pagan tribal customs were overwhelmed by the customs of stronger powers. It is absolutely incredible that Christmas Day observances gained the advantage of spreading because of conquest. Christmas Day was born from a fringe belief, yet it grew in popularity as certain political and military powers expanded.
Since the Dark Ages, every passing century enriched how people celebrated the Christian Nativity. This meant that multiple festive observances became interwoven with ancient methods of celebrating Christmas Day. Every cultural shift meant that Christmas Day took on more significance for a wider range of people.
The transference of pagan customs into Christmas observance resulted in a litany of things that modern people now associate with the original account of Christ’s birth. The pagan customs lost their association with tribal rituals, and they changed to support the idea of a miraculous event.
With the establishment of colonies in the New World, Christian religious sects revisited what it meant to celebrate Christmas Day. Puritanical law in New England outlawed the observance of Christmas precisely because of the perceived inclusion of pagan influences. In the late 18th century, Christmas Day celebrations were discouraged in the colonies because they seemed to encourage bad behavior.
At the dawn of the 19th century, Christmas Day celebrations were extremely popular in the colonies. Eventually, government and religious bodies formally recognized their importance in the social fabric. The United States established Christmas Day as a federal holiday in 1870, and the rest of the western world quickly followed suit.
Modern Christmas Icons and Their Origins
Once Christmas Day became recognized by major modern governments, the celebration was freely celebrated using diverse traditions and symbols. Still, the idea of holding Christ’s birth at the center was foremost. When government recognizes a holiday like Christmas Day, all people are free to celebrate it in the way that they choose.
This is very similar to the Saturnalia of Rome in the ancient world. The holiday was set aside to observe, but people could celebrate as they saw fit. The vast majority of modern people now celebrate Christmas Day in some fashion. Many people choose to make it a religious day of reflection and contrition. Others, take advantage of the day to participate in social and economic events. Some people just use it as a day of rest and respite from their normal stressful daily obligations.
One thing is certain, modern people are largely unfamiliar with the meanings behind the inclusion of customs and items associated with Christmas Day. Modern Christmas traditions and icon uses are not random. They can all be traced back to something directly associated with Christ’s Nativity, or they have a direct link to an assimilated non-Christian custom. Here are some examples.
This Christmas tradition is obviously linked to the arrival of the three Magi at the place of Christ’s birth. The Magi bestowed expensive gifts that were fit for a king. This was an act that signified extreme affinity. Modern people give gifts to loved ones on Christmas Day for the same reason. Giving gifts recognizes the importance of someone’s influence and life.
In some ancient cultures, evergreen trees were placed in communal areas to attract birds. It was believed that the bird songs had the power to ward away evil spirits. During the Renaissance, evergreen trees were adopted into Christian culture because they reminded people of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the 16th century, the famous reformer Martin Luther is attributed with placing candles on the limbs of an evergreen tree to represent Christ’s Nativity as the moment when “light entered the world.”
Singing Christmas Carols
Carols specifically focused on the Nativity were composed and performed as early as the 4th century. This was a natural musical outpouring from the transition of Rome into the Holy Roman Empire. Later, Christmas carols became popular as liturgical songs in Protestant areas of Europe because they permitted communal expression. This meant that all people could take part in their performances.
In Anglo-Saxon and Norwegian cultures, there was the legend of a man named Sinter Klaus. This wise old man would travel the countryside during the harvest season and lay gifts of food on the doorsteps of homes. In eastern Europe, a monk in the third century grew famous for randomly throwing gifts into windows. This monk’s name was Nicholas, and he was later venerated as a saint. In some way, St. Nicholas became equated with the persona of Jesus who was thought to be the ultimate gift-giver to the world.
It is rumored that in 1670, a choirmaster in Germany had a “confection revelation.” He manipulated sugary sticks into the shape of shepherd’s staves in order to attract his town’s children to a Christmas Day celebration. The shape became very popular, and it remains as a popular modern Christmas symbol.
Yule Logs and Fruitcakes
In almost every European country, pagan winter festivals featured foods that included staples produced by a late harvest. Heavy cakes, cheeses, minced meat, and pickled items were common. Yule logs and fruitcakes have evolved into very rich and sweet treats, but they still resemble the original festive items.
Though the burning tree alone was a common pagan symbol, the tree-topper was a way for Christians to adopt it into the Christmas Day celebration. Trees were often central focal points in pagan rituals, but Christians put a star on top to “rededicate” it to Christ. The tree is a symbol of growth and plenty. With a heavenly topper, it becomes a symbol of creation and mysterious birth. Angel and star tree-toppers are inspired by key events in the Bible’s account of the Nativity.
Scandinavian legends talk about Odin and his flying horse Siefker. Pagan children used to leave their boots near a window filled with straw and carrots for the flying horse. If the horse ate the straw and carrots, he would magically leave three gold nuggets in the boots out of gratitude. This gave rise to the tradition of filling Christmas stockings with oranges.
It is also legend that St. Nicholas would throw sacks of gold directly into the socks that children fashioned to their bedposts at night. Of course, simple socks and the gifts of St. Nick inspired the sewing and hanging of elaborately decorated stockings as a formal Christmas family ritual.
The 12 Days of Christmas
Many orthodox Christian sects hold to the ancient calendars to determine when Christmas should be celebrated. The ancient calendars suggest that the 12 days stemming from December 25th more accurately encompass Christmas. The culmination of the Christmas holiday is on January 6th. This custom allows a longer celebratory period, and it helped to be more inclusive to cultural observances throughout the ancient world.
Christmas and Modern Commercialism
The celebration of Christmas Day has always reflected social evolution. When the Nativity of Christ occurred, the Hebrew culture was under the rule of a dictatorial regime. Celebrating the birth of a Messiah had to be done in secret.
As the Christian religion grew, the concept of Christmas became a talking point that helped outside cultures understand its meaning. Eventually, the concept became influential enough to convert the government leaders who formally oppressed Christian believers.
As the new Holy Roman Empire spread, it included many pagan cultures into its ranks. In order to make the Nativity more acceptable to a broader range of people, Christmas celebrations adopted fantastic new traditions.
After centuries of church reformations and military conquests, the idea of Christmas Day as a holiday was formalized and codified. Ancient traditions were revitalized into modern expression. Then, the Industrial Revolution occurred. The latter part of the 19th century is marked by extreme advancements in technology throughout the world. Streamlined communications, economics, and new political structures emerged. Just as in ancient times, elements of Christmas shifted to reflect these social and economic changes.
The rise of Capitalist markets, especially in the United States and Europe, expanded commercial elements within the celebration of Christmas Day. After the declaration of Christmas Day as a federal holiday in 1870, people started thinking about it again as a type of requirement. This is very similar to ancient times when harvest and lunar festivals were required, but loosely regulated.
Merchants and producers used modern industrial technology to market items that satisfied the public’s desire for Christmas-related goods. Mass production techniques made every iconic aspect of Christmas celebration attainable for a price. Candy canes, fruitcake, red and white stockings, and glass tree ornaments could be found in any home. Christmas carols could even be played in the home on phonograph record disks.
The commercialization of Christmas Day ignited a dynamic situation between the sacred and non-religious elements of Christmas. It allowed people who subscribe to the Christian view of Christmas to enjoy remembering the importance of the Nativity. It also created a season of merriment for those who have no religious affiliation. They use the season to take a break from the normal pace of modern life.
Thinking About the Origin and Meaning of Christmas Day
The incredible journey that the celebration of Christmas Day has taken throughout the centuries makes it absolutely universal to all people. There is great controversy surrounding some of the modern aspects of the holiday. Should people who subscribe to the original intent of Christmas celebrations take part in traditions that have pagan roots? Should people who have no religious affiliations take part in a holiday that was inspired by starkly religious events?
There is a reason that Christmas Day is so widely loved as a holiday. It represents the birth of Jesus, but also so much more. The idea of Christmas was preserved through more than 2,000 years of human conflict and growth. It emboldened believers, and it peaked the interests of people who had no concept of a divine birth.
In the end, the celebration of Christmas Day in its many forms has brought humanity together. Yes, arguments about dates and religious rites have caused schisms and wars, but the essence of Christmas remains. Christmas Day is the date when something extraordinary entered the world to change minds and hearts. That something is bigger than any singular set of rituals and traditions. In fact, it seems proper that Christmas almost “requires” them all. Christmas Day has its origin in a tiny town in Israel, but it was meant for the entire world. No Christmas symbol or tradition is unimportant. Each one is an inspired outcome of an incredible event.