Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ancient Roots Of The Christmas Celebration

This Saturday is December 25th, Christmas Day. Where did December 25 as a day of celebration originate?

Early Europeans celebrated light in the darkest days of winter. They rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to extended hours of sunlight.

In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from the Winter Solstice on December 21 through January. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs and set them on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out which could be as long as twelve days.

In Germany, people honored the pagan god Odin during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Odin. They believed he made night flights through the sky to observe his people and then decide who would prosper or perish.

In Rome, where winters weren't as harsh as in the far north, Saturnalia was celebrated beginning the week before winter solstice and continuing for a full month. It was a hedonistic time with lots of food and drink. For that month the social order was turned upside down with slaves becoming masters and peasants in charge of the city. Business and schools were closed so everyone could join in.

Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, on December 25 members of the upper classes celebrated the birthday of Mithras, the god of the unconquerable sun.

It wasn't until the fourth century that Christian church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. The Puritans denied the legitimacy of the celebration, pointing out that the Bible does not mention a date for his birth. Pope Julius I chose December 25. The common belief is that the church chose the date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia.

By the Middle Ages, Christianity had mostly replaced pagan religion. Christmas was celebrated by attending church then celebrating in a drunken carnival type of atmosphere similar to today's Mardi Gras celebration.

In the early seventeenth century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. In 1645, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces gained control in England and vowed to do away with decadence. As part of their agenda, they cancelled Christmas. When Charles II regained the throne, he restored the holiday.

The pilgrims who came to America in 1620 were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. In fact, from 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston. In contrast, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all in the Jamestown settlement where they also enjoyed eggnog, first made in the United States in 1607 in the Jamestown settlement.

Christmas wasn't a holiday in early America until June 26, 1870, when Congress declared it a federal holiday.

One of our Christmas traditions is kissing when standing under mistletoe. But why do people kiss under the mistletoe? After all, mistletoe is a parasitic plant you find in the forest attached to and gaining its sustenance from its host tree. The entire plant is poisonous, especially the berries which are extremely toxic. Ingesting the berries causes acute stomach and intestinal pains, diarrhea, weak pulse, mental disturbances, and the collapse of blood vessels. Death has occurred within ten hours after eating the berries. Not exactly what first comes to mind when you think of kissing. :)

The tradition of linking mistletoe and kissing started in Europe. According to Norse mythology, Baldur, the god of peace, was shot and killed by an arrow made of mistletoe. After the other gods brought him back to life, Frigga, the goddess of love, transformed mistletoe into a symbol of love and peace. And to this day, everyone who passes under the mistletoe must receive a kiss.

Any on that note, I'll close this week's blog.

Wishing everyone a happy holiday season, whatever beliefs you follow. And most of all—Peace On Earth.


Lilly Gayle said...

Love this blog. I knew some of this but not all. And I love the history of traditions and "trivia" knowledge. Thanks for such a fascinating post!

Maeve said...

Fantastic post, Samantha. As Lilly said, I knew some of these facts but the history of mistletoe's "kissing" origin was entirey new. I really enjoyed this post and hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday season filled with happiness, joy & fulfilled wishes and dreams.

Mona Risk said...

Thank you for a very interesting post. Merry Christmas.

Samantha Gentry said...

Lily: Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. Many of our current traditions and celebrations have ancient roots.

Samantha Gentry said...

Maeve: Thanks. And definitely watch out for the mistletoe. Standing under it and getting kissed is good. Ingesting it is very bad. :)

Samantha Gentry said...

Mona: You're welcome. Glad you enjoyed it.

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

Great post! I have mistletoe growing parasitically in one of my trees!
I think many of our traditions are Norse/Germanic - some ancient branches of Christianity celebrate Jesus' birth later in the year. I love reading posts like this one.

Samantha Gentry said...

Julia: Watch out for that mistletoe! :) Many of our religious celebrations have their origins in ancient pagan rituals. I find that stuff interesting, too.

Celtic Chick said...

Thank you for sharing this info on the origins of Christmas.

Merry Christmas!

Samantha Gentry said...

Celtic Chick: Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. Happy holidays to you and your family.