25 March 2013 Mythic Dimensions of Literature “The Origins of Christmas” Christmas is a holiday celebrated by members of the religion of Christianity. The holiday acknowledges the birth of the Christian prophet Jesus Christ. It is celebrated on December 25th by an estimated two billion members of the Christian religion. The holiday is also celebrated by many non-Christians, who highlight the secular aspects of the holiday. Many of the symbols, traditions, and rituals widely attributed to Christmas have been discovered by scholars and historians to have pagan origins.
This essay will identify aspects of Christmas that have non-sacred origins, why they have been adopted by Christians and incorporated into Christmas, and also inquire as to why the birth of Christ is observed on the 25th of December. The modern day celebration of Christmas is not complete without an exchange of gifts, the singing of songs commemorating the holiday, also known as Christmas carols, decking the halls with boughs of holly, wreathes and mistletoe, and children anxiously awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus and his reindeer.
All of these traditions associated with the birth of Christ, were actually conceived beforehand and are rooted in pagan practices. The singing of carols were not originally intended for Christmas. The term is derived from the European term “carole” where singers danced around in a circle. The songs that they sang were meant to celebrate the dawning of the Winter Solstice on December 22nd. Early Christians utilized some of the pagan traditions, such as caroling during the winter solstice, in an attempt to recruit more converts by allowing them to keep traditions that they were already familiar with.
Modern day Christmas decorations include hanging mistletoe from the ceiling, placing wreaths on the doors of the home, stringing boughs of holly up in the halls of the home. In Pagan culture, the evergreen plant, which includes holly and mistletoe, symbolizes eternity and everlasting life. Christians adopted usage of these plants as the symbols of everlasting life further embodied the message of Christ, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (King James Version, John 3. 6). The exchanging of gifts is also a ritual, without which modern day Christmas would be almost unrecognizable. While today it is an integral part of Christmas, the tradition itself is actually centuries older than the holiday of Christmas. Many Christians will cite the gifts that the wise men brought the Christ child as the inspiration of Christmas gift giving, but historically its origination seems to have come from elsewhere. Gift giving began with the Feast of Saturnalia, the Roman celebration of the God of Saturn.
The Feast of Saturnalia was a weeklong celebration between December 17th and December 23rd. Children would receive toys on the 23rd and adults would exchange gifts, sometimes accompanied by prose, which could also be the origin of the Christmas card. Roman converts to Christianity kept this tradition in spite of protest from the Roman Catholic Church. When the Church received news of the popularity of the gift giving, they incorporated it into the holiday and justified its existence through the original gift of the Magi.
The origin of Santa Claus is also one that is rooted in pagan traditions. Santa Claus, or Sinterklaas, bears many similarities to the Germanic god Odin. During Yule, Odin would ride across the sky with a grey horse with eight feet. “The appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is 25th December, owes much to Odin… who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts… Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered and with St. Nicholas and the Christchild became a leading player on the Christmas stage. (Baker 62) The significance of celebrating Christmas on the 25th of December is that it also falls on the celebration of the winter solstice, and the Pagan Scandinavian holiday Yule. While Northern Europe became the last part of the continent to convert to Christianity, the pagan rituals of the area were further incorporated into Christmas. Christian justification for the date WORKS CITED Baker, Margaret (2007 ). Discovering Christmas Custuoms and Folklore: A Guide to Seasonal Rites Throughout the World, page 62. Osprey Publishing.
Fanny Dolansky, “Celebrating the Saturnalia: Religious Ritual and Roman Domestic Life,” in A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), p. 484. The Holy Bible: King James Version. Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible Publishers, 2001. Beryl Rawson, “Adult-Child Relationships in Ancient Rome,” in Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome (Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 19. The Origin of the American Christmas Myth and Customs – Ball State University. Swartz Jr. , BK. Archived version retrieved 2011-10-19.