One of the biggest holidays of the western world, Christmas manages to be deeply rooted in both Christian religious beliefs as well as culturally significant to he western world at large. There are very few people in the world today who do not know what the Christmas holiday is all about. Christmas, as we know it today, is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, which happened over 2000 years ago. The word "Christmas" translates to "Mass Of Christ". However, we can all be sure that the celebration of the Christmas holiday did not start right away. So how did the actual celebration of the Christmas holiday begin?
Believe it or not, many of the traditions that we observe during the Christmas holiday season began way before the birth of Christ. Exchanging gifts, decorating trees, and the burning of the Yule log were all winter traditions that began before Christ was born, but were eventually incorporated into the holiday that became known as Christmas, and became part of Christmas history.
Over 4000 years ago, the Mesopotamians celebrated each new year with a 12-day festival, called Zagmuth. The Mesopotamians, who believed in many gods, held this festival in support of their chief god, Marduk, because they believed that he battled the monsters of chaos at the beginning of each winter. It is from this festival that the 12 days of Christmas is believed to have originated.
The ancient Romans held a celebration each year in honor of their god Saturn. The festival, which they called Saturnalia, began in the middle of December and lasted until the first of January. The Romans decorated their homes with garlands, as well as trees upon which they hung candles. During the festival the citizens of Rome would visit each other's homes and hold great feasts. One of the theories of how the tradition of the giving of Christmas gifts came about was from the Roman practice of exchanging gifts between family and neighbors during the festival of Saturnalia to promote good luck.
During the winter in ancient Scandinavia there would be a certain amount of days where the sun would not shine. Upon the return of the first sunlight, the Scandinavians would hold a festival called the Yuletide. A Yule log would be burned in a special fire, and everyone would gather around the fire and hold a great feast. To remind themselves that the spring and summer would surely return again, people in some areas of Scandinavia would tie apples to tree branches. The tradition of the Christmas tree is believed to have evolved from this ritual, as well as from the Roman ritual of decorating trees with candles during the festival of Saturnalia. Some believe that the tradition of singing Christmas carols began when people in Scandinavia would sing celebration songs on the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, which happened around December 22nd.
One theory about the evolution of the winter celebrations to the celebration of the birth of Jesus is that the Roman emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity, wanted to incorporate the pagan winter rituals together with the celebration of Jesus' birth. In this way, Constantine hoped to help both pagans and Christians celebrate together. Many believe that this is the reason for celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25th. It is widely believed today that Jesus was not actually born on, or even close to, December 25th. Eventually, the Roman church became more successful in making the December celebration about the birth of Christ, replacing any celebrations that were in honor of pagan gods.
Though the celebration of Christmas is basically based on the same belief today, it is not celebrated in exactly the same way in every country. In Great Britain, one tradition they observe during the Christmas season is "Boxing Day". On Boxing Day, the boxes containing alms for the poor are opened at every church and the alms are distributed to the poor. An alternate theory to the origin of carols is that they originated in Great Britain and not Scandinavia. Whether or not this is true, many of the Christmas songs that we sing and Christmas music that we hear today were written in 19th century England.
Christians in China celebrate Christmas by decorating their homes and trees with paper lanterns, paper flowers, and paper chains. Christians in Iran refrain from eating any animal products from December 1st until after Christmas church services on December 25th, after which they have a traditional feast of chicken stew. In Venezuela, Christians attend daily morning church services between December 16th and December 24th. In the capital city of Caracas, it is customary to roller skate to these services. People in Northern Brazil celebrate Christmas with a traditional play called "Los Pastores", or "The Shepherds". In the Brazilian version of this play, the shepherds are always women, and there is a scene where a gypsy attempts to kidnap the Christ child.
It is believed that British painter John Callcott Horsley designed the first Christmas card in 1843. Horsley designed the card for his friend Sir Henry Cole, who was the first director of the Victoria and Albert museum. The card showed a family celebrating Christmas, and read "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You". The tradition caught on quickly in England, and it was not long before the first Christmas cards began showing up in the United States and other countries as well.
One cannot talk about the history of Christmas without mentioning Santa Claus. Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna, who lived in the 4th century A.D. in what is known today as Turkey, was a very wealthy and generous man, who especially loved children. He was known to throw gifts into the houses of poor children in order to brighten their spirits. He was later titled Saint Nicholas, and became the patron saint of children and seafarers. From his story evolved the legend of Santa Claus - the jolly man who brings gifts to children all over the world on Christmas Eve. In England he came to be known as Father Christmas, in China he is known as Dun Che Lao Ren, which means "Christmas Old Man". Many believe that the giving of gifts originates from the deeds of Bishop Nicholas, and not the Roman tradition of giving gifts during the festival of Saturnalia. More likely, the tradition evolved from both practices.
Christmas Faces Challenges
Throughout history, there have been people who have tried to stop or cancel Christmas. When Oliver Cromwell’s forces took control of England in the 1645, he declared that they would not be celebrating Christmas. This however, did not last for long and Christmas was soon returned to England. The pilgrims did not celebrate Christmas either because it went against the puritanical nature of many of the colonists. Jamestown however embraced the holiday. Boston actually made it illegal to celebrate the holiday and would fine those who were caught observing it. Christmas was further sidelined after the revolutionary war as there was a huge backlash against any customs or traditions that were considered to be English.
Christmas Parties Evolve
Much of the early Christmas celebrations were wild parties, not unlike Mardi Gras. In the 19th century Americans decided to reinvent this party holiday into something more wholesome and controlled. In fact, the first police force in New York City was instituted just to fight back against a Christmas riot in the city. The upper class was not comfortable with such revelry among the masses and took that opportunity to start reinventing the way Americans look at Christmas. It wasn’t until Charles Dickens wrote his classic "Christmas Carol" that the majority of people started to see the holiday in a new light. The ideas of giving to the more unfortunate and coming together with friends and family were both central ideas of the novel. People quickly adopted the book’s concept of what it meant to celebrate Christmas which became the norm.