The Origins of Christmas

Posted by US Ghost Adventures Contributor in US Ghost Adventures
The Origins of Christmas - Photo

Santa Claus, Polar Bears, Coca-Cola, Christmas wasn’t always this way. In a time before the advent of Capitalism, Christmas wasn’t just about gift-giving. Modernity aside, religion continues to be the main focal point of the holiday season for many. But behind this veil of Christ, the nativity, and religious symbolism, the true face of the season resides. The veneer of its original purpose has been worn down over the centuries by those against its hedonistic origins and even further by those shaping it to fit their doctrines. We can rejoice in knowing that certain aspects of it have remained unchanged; the important parts, gathering with family and neighbors, general festivity, and of course, the jubilant feasting and the placid, dark, and frosty month of December, signaling a break in the harvest, naturally illicit such activities. When there is no work to be done, when the sun breaks from warming the cold earth, human nature draws us towards each other. While the name and the dates may have been altered over the centuries, the pagan roots of Christmas still shine through in many ways. US Ghost Adventures’ “25 Days Of Christmas” continues here with the origins of Christmas. Join us for the holidays and gift or book a tour near you!

The Pagan Roots of Christmas

A depiction of Satrnalia. An orgy takes place inside a Roman temple.

Source: Snl.no

The date of December 25th, the day the savior Jesus Christ was supposedly born, was officially declared as such by Pope Julius I sometime in 330 AD. The first recorded celebration of Christmas was in 336 AD when the Roman Emperor Constantine, who had recently converted to Christianity, documented it as such. By 539, it had become an official holiday within the quickly expanding Christian region. There is no notation of the December 25th being Jesus Christ’s day of birth, but some records state he was conceived on March 25th, the spring equinox. In conjunction with this, the Romans celebrated a holiday known as Saturnalia before adopting Christianity. A week-long, hedonistic celebration began on the 17th and ended on the Julian calendar’s Winter Solstice, December 25th. It was held in honor of the agricultural God Saturn. Other European peoples held large celebrations on or around December 25th as well. Cultures from Europe, from the Balkans to Scandinavia to the British Isles, had special feasts and rituals on this day. The Catholic Church saw the importance of this and used it to its advantage. 

This festival season had different names. As it was known in Nordic and Germanic countries, Yule was a time when the spiritual veil was thin. Draugrs, Nordic spirits, roamed the cold dark earth during the bleak winter months. Stockpiled meats and ale were eaten in full to celebrate a bountiful season, and evergreen trees were brought inside to serve as an inspiration to survive—the predecessor to our modern-day Christmas Tree. Yule was also a holiday in honor of the Norse God Odin, a revered and feared God in Norse and Germanic lore. Odin brought death upon those unlucky enough to witness him. Yule-tide, as the time of the year and not simply the holiday was referred to, signified the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. This theme can be seen in symbolism across the continent of Europe and throughout the vast and complicated history of Christmas. 

Silencing of the Heathens

As Christianity spread across the European continent, the festivities expanded. Epiphany, the day honoring the visit of the Three Magi to Jesus, takes place on January 6th. Soon enough, the religion grew to include all of these events, and this is where we get the 12 Days of Christmas from. The Christmas season spread across these twelve days and was filled with various festivals, feasts, foolishness, and general debauchery. Work was not required during these times. Twelve days may seem like too long of a break to many in our modern times, but this was almost a necessity during these days of old. At the height of winter, it was too cold and dark to work the land, especially when nothing was growing. Giving people a chance to tap into their more primal tendencies. For example, the feast of fools was held on January 1st, the eighth day of Christmas, and the modern celebration of the new year. Ale was drunk, and large amounts of food were eaten. Meanwhile, a lowly peasant was crowned the “Lord of Misrule.” He and his jolly followers then proceeded to upheave societal structures and create chaos. This tradition began in the Roman days of Saturnalia and continued until the church sequestered such activities. 

Black and white drawing of the first decorated Christmas tree. Three people dressed in Victorian garb gather around an evergreen tree strewn with ornaments.

The first decorated Christmas Tree in America
Source: Flickr

Many of these pagan traditions were seen as indulgent and against the meaning, the church appointed to the season. Going against honoring the savior and his birth, they were soon enough banned. During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century, many Nordic, Romanic, and Pagan traditions were made illegal. Things only got bleak as the Puritans fled England for a new life. Seeing the pagan rituals before them and understanding the history of the holiday’s past, the strict and literal Puritans banned all Christmas festivities. Beginning with the rule of Oliver Cromwell in England and continuing into the new world. Christmas was banned in the colony of Massachusetts in 1659 and was even considered a criminal offense! 

The Return of Christmas and The Rise of Santa Claus

However, colonists continued to celebrate privately, and elsewhere around the world, things stayed much the same. But the sentiment was shared in much of America. Christmas was a pagan holiday. In 1681 the ban had been reversed, but businesses and schools remained open in Massachusetts until 1856 when Christmas became an official US holiday. By this point, many pagan traditions, caroling, evergreen trees, feasting, and the like had been watered down, and their roots were all but forgotten. The holiday had become one of the nativity and of gathering. The 12 days were slowly shortened to one, and by the turn of the 20th century, it had started to shape into the holiday we know today at its helm, Santa Claus. 

An early depiction of Santa Claus in his sleigh. The Sleigh is drawn by a small reindeer. The drawing is very cartoonish in nature

The first depiction of Santa Claus is from 1821.
Source: Past Is Present

Saint Nicholas, the 4th century Bishop of Myra, was known to be a generous Bishop who gave many gifts that traveled far across the ancient world. With the spread of Christianity, so too did his story spread. It reached the Germanic people, and he was given the Dutch name Sinterklaas. The English Santa Clause derives from this. His feast was held on December 6th, and giving gifts were common. The story of Sinterklaas spread to the new world, especially in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, modern-day New York. His earliest reference was in 1675. As industrialization and capitalism grew, Santa Claus became a central figure in the Christmas revival. Americans wanted to hold on to family traditions in a changing world, and his generosity became their centerpiece. Cemented just as that in 1939, when Coca-Cola used him in an advertisement for the first time, Santa Claus was Christmas hereafter. Somewhere along the way, his image was mixed with various mythological winter figures that are common in nearly every European culture—Father Frost in Russia or Odin in Germany Shae these characteristics. There is much more to unpack when it comes to the true origins of Christmas! Read on through US Ghost Adventures’ “25 Days of Christmas” to learn more!

 

Sources:

Featured Image Source: Look And Learn 

https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-rome/saturnalia

https://thenewdaily.com.au/religion/2017/12/14/12-days-of-christmas-day-three/

https://www.irishtimes.com/student-hub/christmas-yuletide-saturnalia-or-midwinter-1.2472590

https://www.learnreligions.com/christmas-customs-with-pagan-roots-2563021

https://www.history.com/news/when-massachusetts-banned-christmas#:~:text=The%20Puritans%20of%20New%20England,the%20like%2C%20either%20by%20forbearing

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yule

https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/saint-nicholas-origins-santa-claus

First appearance of Santa Claus in the US – 1675