Roots of our Christmas traditions
Trees are up and lights are on. Presents are purchased and cassava is cooked. Candles are lit and carols are sung. It’s Christmas Eve in Bermuda.
Christmas itself is the Christian holiday remembering the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ somewhere between 5 and 6BCE. However, over the centuries since, the holiday has become somewhat of a global phenomenon, impacting culture for two millennia.
Popular customs include decorating Christmas trees, sharing meals and exchanging gifts with family and friends, attending church and waiting for Santa Claus to slide down the chimney.
With so many religious and secular traditions being observed during the season, it’s hard to really know why we do the things we do.
The gifts and the trees and all the food really have little to do with the humble birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. As much as we enjoy the season, the time with family and the memories made, I’m sure many of us (specifically my inquisitive 8-year-old son Michal) also wonder how these traditions came to be.
Is Christmas just a mash-up of ancient and modern culture and tradition? Here is an attempt to make some sense of it all.
It’s important, from a historical perspective, to know that the origins of what we observe as Christmas stem from pagan and Roman culture. In ancient Rome two holidays were celebrated in December. The first was Saturnalia, a 14-day festival celebrating Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. The second was the birth of Mirtha, their sun god, on December 25.
Also, in pagan culture the winter solstice is celebrated on December 21 or 22. The winter solstice is the longest night of year, when the earth is tilted the farthest from the sun. In ancient culture people would light bonfires and candles to keep the darkness, and the cold, at bay.
As part of the solstice celebrations, homes would be decorated in greenery in anticipation of the spring to come. Evergreen trees were one of the few trees that remained green during the winter and were believed to have special powers. They were cut and brought into homes to be decorated for solstice celebrations.
These ancient observances made their way into Christendom when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312CE. Later in the 4th century, Pope Julius I chose December 25 as the date of remembrance for the birth of Christ, despite evidence suggesting that Jesus’s birth likely occurred in the spring.
Religious and cultural scholars believe the church chose this date to preserve the pagan traditions the people had been accustomed to. Since no one truly knew the date of Jesus’s birth, the Roman church chose to observe it during the month of December and incorporate established rituals as part of His birthday celebrations.
However, gift giving has a bit more of a Christian origin. Inspired by the Turkish Christian Bishop St Nicholas, born in 270CE, the tradition of buying presents for loved ones originated with him. Folklore says that he was a wealthy man with a generous heart, specifically towards the poor and disadvantaged. The famous legend of old St Nick is that he saved three young women from being sold into slavery by anonymously throwing bags of gold into their father’s window to be used as a dowry. It is said that the gold landed in a sock drying by the warmth of a lit fireplace.
This simple act of generosity became an annual tradition that spread rapidly through Christian Europe. In honour of his death, December 6 was declared St Nicholas Day and, over time, European countries have adapted different versions of the story.
With this story of St Nicholas, mixed with the pagan rituals of the past, Christmas as we know it was born in Europe.
Through immigration, the traditions spread to the west, specifically North America. In the early 1800s the American version of Christmas began to take shape. Stories of Christmas became embedded in literature, such as Clement Clarke Moore’s The Night Before Christmas children’s story.
Despite being celebrated since the 4th century, it took about 1,500 years before Christmas was legally recognised as a public holiday. In the United States, Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870 and almost a century later it was officially observed in the United Kingdom in 1958.
Now here we are in the year 2022 and we continue to observe these traditions that have permeated global culture. Today there are more than 160 countries that celebrate Christmas with an additional 20 participating in Christmas-related festivities without the official observance of the holiday.
We could talk (and debate) about the origins of Christmas all year. But in the end, the fact remains that this mash-up of centuries-old traditions has brought us so much collective joy throughout the years.
It is anticipated by billions of people for varied reasons. For some they love the festivities, the merriment, and the food. For others it’s the joy of giving that warms their heart. Still for many this season is truly the celebration of the birth of their Saviour, Jesus Christ. A remembrance of God sending His Son to earth in human.
Whatever this holiday means to you, may it bring the love, peace, joy and hope that we all need.