A Brief History of Christmas Traditions – Part One

photo credit: Randy OHC via photopin cc

photo credit: Randy OHC via photopin cc

Christmas is my favorite holiday. I also love history so researching Christmas traditions like Santa Claus, mistletoe, poinsettias, holly, and caroling is just plain fun. When I first started this project I’d already heard about the first Christmas tree in Strasbourg; I knew Clement Clark Moore wrote The Visit From St.Nicholas, now known as The Night Before Christmas; and who hasn’t sung The Twelve Days of Christmas?

Little did I know, that
throughout history many countries and cultures contributed to what most of us now perceive as the traditional American Christmas.
These traditions date back to a time even before the birth of the Christ Child and the celebration of that event. I wondered how that was possible until I researched deeper and what I discovered was fascinating.

Even more important, I realized that understanding the meanings and origins of these traditions enhanced the beauty and the joy they bring into our homes during the holidays.

Every two or three years I update and share this research. Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I hope you enjoy history in this series of blogs, entitled, A Brief History of Christmas Traditions.

 Part One: In The Beginning: Celebrations of Rebirth

 Almost from the beginning of time, cultures have celebrated birth and rebirth as it occurred in both in nature and human life.

Before Christ was born, the sun’s annual rebirth in late December, the winter solstice, was one of the vital religious events of the year. The least busy season for the farmers, it also allowed them plenty of time for festivals and feastings.

People in early Britain had no exact astrological knowledge or calendars.They began their winter festival in November, when shorter days and the scarcity of fodder made it necessary to slaughter a portion of the cattle. Later,the rites moved forward to mid-December. This may have been due to more sophisticated groups who built temples like the sun-orientated Stonehenge, or it may

photo credit: mdid via photopin cc

photo credit: mdid via photopin cc

have been in keeping with religious beliefs of the ruling Roman Empire.

The festival of Saturn (Saturnalia) in ancient Rome began on December 17. Farmers who often feuded among themselves over water, cattle, destroyed crops, etc. set aside these differences for the peaceful lighting of fires, exchanging gifts, praising the new sun, revelry and feasting. A king was chosen by lot to rule over the celebration.

photo credit: finstre via photopin cc

photo credit: finstre via photopin cc

The birth of Christ was not officially celebrated until the middle of the 4th century, and the pagan winter feast gradually evolved into a Christian festival. Christ’s birth was celebrated first in Rome and some years later in Antioch and in the East. Exactly how the celebration came to England is not known. It might have been through the Celtic Church but it is known that St. Augustine brought it with him as Christmas Day in 598, when ten thousand English converts were baptized.

Since other people were worshiping their gods in the winter, it was only natural for the competing Christians to worship at this time. The general atmosphere of rebirth (with pagans, the sun) might also represent the birth of the Christ Child. Also, Mithra, Christianity’s biggest competitor at that time, already had the 25th day of December as his birthday.

Mithra came from Persia and was much older than Christianity. However, the two religions began to spread widely at the same time. The Roman roads, shipping and policy of peace within the Empire made communications quicker and aided the spread of both religions.

The worship of Mithra shared many similarities with Christian ceremonies.

  • Baptism
  • A sacramental meal
  • The observance of Sunday
  • The god himself was born on the 25th of December and out of a rock. [The stable Jesus was born in is said to have actually been in a cave.]
  • Ideas of good and evil, the defeat of evil by good
  • Salvation, and a last triumph of heaven over hell.

One reason Mithraism lost out to Christianity is that it gave no place to women. Christianity held that women had souls and they were received as equals with men.

In early times, traditions were not written but handed down by word of mouth. Transferences between religions easily grew to belief.

In an effort to win over pagans to Christianity, Pope Gregory, in 601 instructed Augustine of Canterbury to follow the custom of decking pagan temples with greenery by decorating the Christian churches in the same manner. They also allowed Christian feasting. They were not to sacrifice animals to the Devil as in old religions. Instead, they were to praise God by killing animals for their own feasts and thus render thanks to the Giver of all for their bounty.

In medieval times dancing in the churchyards and even inside the church was common. The lower clergy instituted a Feast of Fools immediately following Christmas. A Lord of Misrule, derived directly from the Romans’ Saturnalia led the feast. Burlesques were performed with the miming and mimicking of senior church members. They were accompanied by profane singing. In France an Abbot of Ninnies and a Pope of Fools was elected even in a cathedral. Their festivities were licentious, but it was considered a virtue to be able to laugh at oneself.

Royal and noble entertainment was much the same. A Lord of Misrule was elected to rule over the household’s Feast of Fools. Masters served servants, sexes changed clothes and there was a general relaxation of normal rules.

Then came the Reformation and about 1642 Oliver Cromwell attempted to abolish Christmas celebrations. The holiday went underground for 18 years.

The celebration of Christmas didn’t recover its festive celebrations until a third of the way through the next century.

I hope you liked Part one of A Brief History of Christmas Traditions. Stay tuned for Part 2 of A Brief History of Christmas Traditions: The Origins of Modern Christmas Traditions.




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13 Responses to A Brief History of Christmas Traditions – Part One

  1. Vicki Batman says:

    Oh my, this is great information. I look forward to part 2.

  2. Fascinating stuff! Some of it I knew, but it was good to have the bits put together. Like you, I must admit that Christmas is my favorite time of the year. For our family it’s when we get together and the holiday has become encrusted with “traditions”–I often feel that anything that happens twice by chance has become yet another tradition by the next year!

    • sharla says:

      You are right Beppie. It’s like when we first watched the made of TV Christmas movies. They have become tradition now every year. I think it’s fun also to see how many people open gifts on Christmas even and how many open Christmas morning. Every family is different.

  3. Red says:

    LOVE this! For my latest release I’ve had to study Christmas a lot. It’s so fascinating. What I thought was amazing were the Puritans who also tried to abolish Christmas. Thank goodness for all the other immigrants who celebrated the holiday, because it truly is one of my favorite holidays! Yay! Oh! Did you eggnog was invented here in America by the next generation of Puritans, who were slowly allowing Christmas celebrations. How cool is that?

    • sharla says:

      Thnaks for stopping by Lanni. Our eggnog is a decedent of an English drink with cream and spiced wine but we totally Americanized it with egg and hard liquor. It’s nothing like what it was. 🙂 In the next blog you’ll see it and the fact that Dutch immigrants gave us much of what is the modern Christmas.

    • Marie says:

      Puritans came to this country to “purify” their faith. They wanted to get away from all the false forms of worship that included pagan celebrations and festivals – i.e., Christmas, Easter etc. They recogized that God would not approve of these festivals that were ORIGINALLY meant to serve other gods and goddesses. We have scriptural evidence of that in the Bible when the Israelite people in the wilderness copied calf worship while Moses was getting the 10 commandments. They CALLED it a “festival to Jehovah” but Jehovah God destroyed them for doing so. Pagan forms of worship are NEVER acceptable to Almighty God.

      Jesus did NOT celebrate his birthday – NONE of the Jews of his day did. They considered it a pagan spiritsitic custom and had nothing to do with it. You may enjoy christmas – many do, however, what’s important is not how WE view something but how God feels about it .

  4. Ella Quinn says:

    Very interesting post. I had a priest tell me once that Christ was actually born around Easter, thus completing the circle.

    • sharla says:

      Ella I’ve heard that too. I think they moved the date as suggested in my research to help the pagan religions migrate to Christianity.

    • Marie says:

      Jesus was born sometime in the Fall but the exact date of his birth cannot be ascertained from scripture. Doesn’t it seem odd that the most important date in “christianity” was never celebrated by Jesus, his apostles or anyone in the first century? People who actually knew Jesus never celebrated his birthday. Why? Because Jews of Jesus day did not believe in celebrating birthdays because of the pagan spiritistic practices associated with them. Jesus would NEVER have celebrated his birthday so why do people who profess to follow him? Since when can christians take pagan forms of worship to other gods and goddesses and think if they imitate them they will have God’s approval? God destroyed many of the Israelites who copied the form of calf worship they head seen so prevalent while enslaved in Egypt and call is a “festival to Jehovah” their own God. This gives us precendence that God does NOT accept pagan forms of worship even if they are directed to the true God.

      • sharla says:

        Marie, I’m reporting on history and I hope all my readers understand that. Whether or not one believes is not the point. We write about these things and it behooves us to know how history evolved. For many millions, Christmas is special.

        I have a dear friend, more of a sister of the heart who doesn’t celebrate holidays and such. But she understands that people like myself do not celebrate Christ’s birth as an “excuse” to sin like the Israelites did when they turned “awa”y from God to worship the pagan gods. Rather we are grateful God gave his son to us. We go to church on Christmas Eve to learn about his sacred birth and sacrifice. The gift-giving is reminder that we should all share that kind of love with others.

        The holly, mistletoe etc. have become harmless “decorations.” Christians do not hang them to revel in sin and decadence. We enjoy them for their beautiful gift of colors and scent. No more. Just as God put flowers and trees on Earth, He put these lovely items of nature (holy, mistletoe, rosemary) on Earth for all of us to enjoy and I’m thankful he did.

        We must none of us look down others who believe differently — it’s what the Lord taught us. So I’m so saying Merry Christmas to you Marie and all my friends here because in doing so, I’m simply wishing everyone all the good things in life that God has blessed us with.

  5. Eve Paludan says:

    This was so interesting. Looking forward to part 2.

  6. sharla says:

    Thanks Eve.

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