In ancient cultures farming not only provided food but also a secure way of life. Communities could be formed, no longer was it necessary to lead a nomadic life. It is no wonder that feasts and celebrations sprang up observing and honoring seasons.
At least 5,000 years ago Egyptians began to observe the star Sirius (Sothis). Its first appearance on the horizon each year coincided with the rising of the Nile. The rising of the Nile was necessary to plant the crops. Sirius was proclaimed to be "Creator of all green growing things." In counting the days between the star's appearance, the ancient priests realized the year had 365 days. The star's reappearance in mid-summer was the first day of the year. Before this, Egyptians went by a lunar calendar with the new moon appearing every 29-30 days. A reconciliation was made, dividing the year into 12 months of 30 days each. Then they added the extra 5 days to the end of the year. These days that belonged to no month were for awaiting Sirius, so it became a festival time.
On New Years Eve temples were rededicated. On New Years Day people ate, drank and wore their finest clothes. Small gifts were exchanged between friends. New Years night there were torch light processions. When people got tired the festival was over.
Ancient Babylonians had a festival called Sacaea, which Persians also celebrated. During this time masters and slaves exchanged places. In each household one slave was picked to be the master. In the palace, a mock king rules in place of the true king.
Around 2,000 BC, Greeks were settling into the Balkan peninsula. They learned to grow grains, grapes and olives here. They learned about the god of harvest, Cronus. These ancient Greeks adopted other culture's gods and goddesses. The name Cronus was similar to the Greek word chronos wich means time. So the harvest god and the god of time became one, Father Time. His festival, the Kronia, was celebrated in mid-summer after the wheat was harvested. The Kronia took on customs of the Sacaea.
Around 1,000 BC, a wandereing tribe called Latins settled into the Italian peninsula. Rome grew and expanded. Early Romans were a stern people. Saturn was their god of agriculture. His festival, Saturnalia, was on December 17th. Saturn became identified with Cronus, and Saturnalia began to resemble Kronia. During Saturnalia slaves and masters exchanged places. Saturnalia went from 1 to 3 to 7 days of celebration. Only the first day was religious, the other days were party days. Gifts were exchanged. As Saturnalia became longer it came closer to another Roman holiday, the Kalends, or New Year.
New Year changed from March 1 to January 1. The people believed in omens and looked for them during these holidays. Gifts were exchanged to express good wishes. Early gifts were living things, green branches and plants. The branches were called strenae. Strenia was their goddess of health As Roman customs went north, other plants were used such as ivy, rosemary, holly and firs; these branches evolved into garlands and wreaths. Gifts expanded to include sweet things like dates, honey, apples etc. to symbolize a sweet New Year. Nuts were also popular as a food and toy, boys used them as marbles. Finally strenae became money, symbolizing good luck in the New Year. Any coin that had the face of Janus (January) was especially prized. Besides gifts, feasting was also believed to insure a wealthy / lucky New Year. This celebration went Saturnalia into the Kalends. Children paraded through the streets, knocking on doors, and offered coins to each home, expecting double in return. Most homeowners joined in this custom because they believed this exchange would increase the fortunes of both parties.
What was lacking in these festivals was a spiritual overview. As the Roman empire expanded certain Eastern cults became popular. The most notable of them was the religion of Mithra, the sun god. He was an ancient Persian god symbolizing the fighter of battles. Originally he helped the god of goodness and light against darkness. Mithraism was a man's religion. Military men identified with the wariior god, who protected the world. In 247 AD, the emperor proclaimed a new holiday on December 25. It was celebrated as the birthday of the unconquered sun, but it was also the date of the winter solstice on their calendar. Aurelian was a former army officer and Mithraism convert. He came from the Danube area where the sun was worshiped. Now that he ruled the empire, he was looking for a way to unite all the different religious cults.
The Rising of the Son
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judæa, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. - Luke 2:1-20
...Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. - Matthew 2:7-12
Who were the wise men who came to visit the Christ child? Matthew refers to them as Magi. Originally, Magi were a caste (priestly). They were known as astrologers, priests, learned men and counselors to kings. They were probably from Arabia. Matthew never said there were three or that they were kings, or mentioned their names. All that came later in legends.
What was the star the Magi recognized and followed? Most people in biblical times referred to all objects in the sky as stars. It couldn't have been a comet they saw. Comets were omens of upcoming disasters. The most likely explanation is a conjunction of several planets. Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction on May 27, 7 BC, and again on October 5 and December 1 of that year. The Magi believed the planets to be gods. Saturn was the protector of the Jews. Jupiter was the king of the gods. It was very unusual for a conjunction of the planets to happen three times in a year. Then in February 6 BC, Mars joined in this conjunction. All planets were in the constellation of Pisces, believed by astrologers to be the House of the Hebrews. To the Magi, an event like this would be incredible and have easily hastened them on their journey.
What was the atmosphere like in Jerusalem at this time? Tense! Herod the ruler had already ordered the murders of his wife, two sons, and a lot of in-laws, and hundreds of other people who had angered him. When the Magi asked of people "Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?", the people were probably startled and scared. We know when Herod heard the rumors he sent for his scribes and chief priests to locate Christ, but not with any good intentions.
Early Christians, The Beginning of Christmas
Early Christians did not celebrate the pagan festivals, or even the birth of Christ, believing that the celebration of birthdays was worldly. Christians always lived with the threat of persecution, many were executed for not celebrating various pagan rituals. But as Christianity spread across the now expanded Roman empire, the taboo against holidays waned. Epiphany was celebrated before Christmas was. In Greece and Egypt it was originally a pagan festival associated with river gods. Christians replaced the pagan festival with the Feast of the Epiphany. This celebrated Christ's baptism, his first miracle and the coming of the Magi. In 567 a council of bishops in France proclaimed the days between Christmas (December 25) and the Epiphany (January 6) to be a sacred season. The 12 days of Christmas officially began. December 26 was the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr and December 28 was to honor the Holy Innocents, the children of Bethlehem murdered by Herod in search of the Christ child.
The earliest Christian custom associated with Christmas was the midnight mass. In the 5th century the Roman Pope carried out midnight mass at the Church of Mary Major. The feasting, the gift giving and good times of Saturnalia and the Kalends persisted and gradually blended with the Christian celebration. Pagan and Christian ideas coexisted for generations and Christmas was enhanced by this. The custom of the wassail bowl is Anglo Saxon. Waesheil - "Be Well" was first a toast between friends. In medieval England the bowl was brought out at Christmas, New Years and the Epiphany. The poor would go from door to door with a cup and beg in rhyme for some wassail. Wassailing then came to mean caroling.
The custom of the Yule Log was originally a pagan ritual and it was celebrated throughout Europe. A great tree was cut on Christmas Eve. It had to be large enough to burn through the twelve days of Christmas. When placed on the hearth it had to be lit with a scrap of wood from the previous year's Yule Log. The scraps that remained were stored and believed to protect the house from various illnesses and evils. The Yule Log ritual stems from the tree worship that was practiced by earlier pagans. There are even hints that originally it evolved from human sacrifices. The Yule Log has also been considered the counterpoint of the Midsummer bonfires.
The Holiday and Its Continuing Evolution
By the early Middle Ages Christmas was a solemn and joyous, sacred and festive day. Kings favored it as a day for coronations. William the Conqueror in 1066 chose it for his coronation. as King of England. Eventually, customs early Christians had rejected were eventually blessed and accepted in the Christian celebration. They could be easily accepted for Christ the Light of the World. Mumming or guising (from disguising) was very popular in England and France. Its origin is from Saturnalia. Merrymakers disguised in all kinds of costumes took to the streets. Animal masks were popular and so were men dressing up in women's clothes. Singing, dancing and begging were all part of mumming. Later on in England crude plays were performed by mummers. In almost every play two antagonists fought to the death, with the hero being revived. The resemblance to the ancient idea of an agricultural god who dies at the closing of the year only to come alive again in the spring is obvious.
In grand houses, and the King's court and early colleges a Lord of Misrule directed the holiday festivities. He was the evolution of the King of Saturnalia, the one who'w every command must be obeyed. But the King of Misrule came to arrange pageants and entertainments of all sorts throughout the twelve days.
On December 28, Holy Innocents Day, a boy bishop was elected. It became the official feast day for students and choir boys. He dressed in robes, sang Vespers, and quizzes other students on catechism. That custom lasted until the Reformation in the sixteenth century.
In the thirteenth century, a young Italian nobleman who founded the Franciscans, a religious order dedicated to serving the poor, was troubled by the Christian aspect of the holiday to be pushed aside by the pagan customs. This Francis of Assisi wanted to inspire in others the same devotion he had towards Jesus' birth. Two weeks before Christmas he told a friend, "If you desire that we should celebrate this year's Christmas at Greccio, go quickly and prepare what I tell you; for I want to enact the memory of the infant who was born at Bethlehem, and how he was deprived of all the comforts babies enjoy; how he was bedded in the manger on hay, between an ass and an ox. For once I want to see all this with my own eyes."
"The men and women of the neighborhood, as best they could, prepared candles and torches to brighten the night. Finally, the Saint of God arrived, found everything prepared, saw it and rejoiced. The crib was made ready, hay was brought, the ox and ass were led to the spot... Greccio became a new Bethlehem. The night was made radiant like the day, filling man and animals with joy. The crowds drew near and rejoiced in the novelty of the celebration. Their voices resounded from the woods, and the rocky sliff echoed the jubilant outburst. As they sang in praise of God the whole night rang with exultation."
Apparently the ox and ass were added because of this passage in Isaiah 1:3, "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib, but Israel hath not known me and my people hath not understood." The recreation of the manger scene in Bethlehem inspired so many others. Live versions happened first, then it evolved into miniature figures being used. The custom spread from country to country.
The renewed spirit of devotion changed Christmas in another way. Latin hymns were customarily sung in honor of the Nativity, but they had little emotional appeal. The early Franciscans wanted to humanize Christianity with a tenderness and warmth. Jacopone da Todi was the first to write new songs. He joined the Franciscans and become a poet. He described the Christ Child as "our sweet little brother." Little angles sang reverent, timid, and shy round the little Baby Prince." The common people loved his songs.
The Origin and Tradition of Christmas Decorations
How did the Christmas tree come about? Pagan Germans were tree worshipping people. Like the old Romans they prized evergreen trees as a sign of life in winter time. Branches were brought inside. Religious dramas were performed which taught people who could not read re-enactments of the Bible. In Germany, Paradise plays were usually performed. These plays depicted the creation of humans, Adam and Eve and their outcast from the Garden. It ended with the promise of the coming Savior. These plays required an apple tree. In places where fruit branches were bare in winter, an evergreen was used that was hung with apples. This tree was initiated into some homes and called the Tree of Life, with figures of the serpent and Adam and Eve underneath it. And something that had a huge influence in birthing our modern Christmas tree, was the Christmas pyramid. It was made of a wooden frame with several levels of shelves. It was decorated with candles, evergreen branches and pretty decorations. Later in the sixteenth century these traditions blended and the first decorated Christmas trees appeared in Germany.
Christmas trees were not fully accepted at first. In the 1640s a professor in Germany said, "Among other trifles which are set up during Christmas time instead of God's word is the Christmas tree...Far better were it to point the children to the spiritual cedar-tree, Jesus Christ." In 1647, the Puritan Parliament in England banned Christmas! The laws were not obeyed, riots broke out. When the Royalists came back into power in 1660 during this Restoration period , the celebration of Christmas was reinstated. The Pilgrims of America didn't celebrate Christmas. Their first Christmas was just another work day. In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts forbade, at the penalty of five schillings per offense, the observation of any such days as Christmas or the like, either by the forbearing of labor, feasting, or any such way. These laws were repealed, but as late as the 1800s the prejudice against Christmas continued.
As Germans lived abroad they brought their Christmas tree customs with them. By mid-nineteenth century it was a familiar sight in Russia and Scandinavian countries. During Queen Victoria's reign is when more of the English populace came to accept the tradition and copy it. Albert, her husband, was German and he longed for a Christmas tree, like he remembered it from childhood.
In 1850, Charles Dickens gave a description of a Christmas tree to his readers: "I have been looking, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas tree. The tree was planted in the middle of the the great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects. There were rosy-cheeked dolls hiding behind green leaves; And there were real watches... dangling from innumerable twigs; there were perched among the boughs, French polished tables and chairs, bedsteads... and various other articles of domestic furniture (wonderfully made of tin) as if in preparation for some fairy housekeeping... This motley collection of odd objects clustering on the tree like magic fruit, and flashing back the bright looks directed towards it from every side - some of the diamond eyes admiring were hardly on a level with the table, and a few were languishing in timed wonder on the bosoms of pretty mothers, aunts and nurses - made lively realization of the fancies of childhood; and set me thinking how all the trees that grow and all the things that come into existence on the earth, have their wild adornments at that well remembered time."
Reference: "Merry Christmas, A History of the Holiday" by Patricia Bunning Stevens