On Saturday, December 22, my good friend Tim posted this as his status:
“If I hear or see the phrase “keep Christ in Christmas” one more time I’m going to go nuts. If you want to do that then burn your Christmas tree, don’t give any gifts, and don’t you dare even THINK about taking your kids to see Santa.
we want our cake and want to eat it too. We want to borrow some things from a pagan holiday and discard others. We have no problem decorating a tree, putting lights up on our house or singing songs about Santa but the second someone says happy holidays we flip out as if they are ridiculous and taking Christ out of Christmas. We already did that.”
We see that phrase everywhere we go and we hear it all the time in Church. We hear about how we should remember the true meaning of Christmas (the birth of Jesus Christ) and remember that He is the reason for the season and that we should keep Christ at the center of Christmas (sorry, Tim, you probably just went crazy with all of that 😛 ).
All of this, with the culmination of Tim’s rant quoted above, led me to do research about Christmas, it’s origins, and Jesus’s role in Christmas. I did some research, searching for historical accounts of Christmas and other articles and essays regarding Christmas and I must say that what I found was very interesting and disturbing.
Let’s begin with what we have come to know and celebrate as Christmas.
Around the world, Christians and non-Christians celebrate the holiday known as Christmas. They have decorated their trees, put up lights and decorations, some showing Santa and candy canes, with others having a Nativity scene showing the baby Jesus surrounded by Mary and Joseph and three wise men or kings with their gifts for the baby. Almost every family will exchange presents and sit down to a nice meal with family and friends. Seasons greetings will be passed around, whether it is “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”. This is Christmas as we know it.
But, this is not Christmas as it once was. In fact, the Christmas we celebrate today was not created until the 1800s, when Charles Dickens released A Christmas Carol and Washington Irving released The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. Both of these writings showed Christmas as a peaceful time and a time to enjoy time with family and friends. They showed that we should love one another and take care of those less fortunate.
Irving’s text actually showed old customs of Christmas, including the crowning of the “Lord of Misrule”. This custom involved choosing someone less fortunate (a beggar or a student, for instance) and the others would be his subjects. They would demand gifts and money from the rich and if they didn’t comply, the poor would wreak havoc. This was just one custom of Christmas during the Middle Ages. During this time, Christians would attend Church and then celebrate with loud parties and heavy drinking. Many scholars have equated this with Mardi Gras because of the craziness that would occur during the Christmas season.
Now, let’s talk about before Christmas as we know it.
During the time of the Winter Solstice, cultures around the world would celebrate various customs.
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year.
It was also during this time that many cattle would be slaughtered so there would be less to feed during the Winter months and so there would be plenty if meat.
The Germans used this time to attempt to appease the god, Ogden, whom they all feared. It was believed that Ogden would make nocturnal flights over the land, determine who was good and bad and he would see who would prosper and who would perish in the year to come.
The Romans, on the other hand, were a different story. They would use this time to celebrate several different holidays. The most notable is Saturnalia.
Saturnalia is the celebration of the god of agriculture, Saturn. Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun. This time was very disastrous.
The Romans would also celebrate Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year.
However, these celebrations regarding Mithra and Saturn held something very disturbing. The Ancient Romans and other cultures were known for sacrificing their own children to Mithra. This was practice that the Bible speaks of regarding the Israelites in Jeremiah 32:35.
All of these celebrations did enjoy a joyous time for some and they were time with family and friends. Gifts were given to the children and the poor, homes were decorated with greens and songs were sung. However, there was no mention of Jesus during this time, even after his death and resurrection. In fact, it took almost two centuries (that’s 200 years) for the Church to begin honoring the birth of Christ in a holiday fashion.
Be on the lookout for part 2 of “What are you, Christmas?” during which I will discuss a more realistic timeframe for the birth of Christ and the purpose for December 25 and the winter solstice being chosen as the time to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Until then, Happy Saturnalia!