|The history of Christmas dates back over
4000 years. Many of our Christmas traditions were celebrated centuries
before the Christ child was born. The 12 days of Christmas, the bright
fires, the yule log, the giving of gifts, carnivals(parades) with
floats, carolers who sing while going from house to house, the holiday
feasts, and the church processions can all be traced back to the early
Many of these traditions began with the Mesopotamian celebration of New
Years. The Mesopotamians believed in many gods, and as their chief god -
Marduk. Each year as winter arrived it was believed that Marduk would do
battle with the monsters of chaos. To assist Marduk in his struggle the
Mesopotamians held a festival for the New Year. This was Zagmuk, the New
Year's festival that lasted for 12 days.
The Mesopotamian king would return
to the temple of Marduk and swear his faithfulness to the god. The
traditions called for the king to die at the end of the year and to
return with Marduk to battle at his side.
To spare their king, the Mesopotamians used the idea of a "mock" king. A
criminal was chosen and dressed in royal clothes. He was given all the
respect and privileges of a real king. At the end of the celebration the
"mock" king was stripped of the royal clothes and slain, sparing the
life of the real king.
The Persians and the Babylonians celebrated a similar festival called
the Sacaea. Part of that celebration included the exchanging of places,
the slaves would become the masters and the masters were to obey.
Early Europeans believed in evil spirits, witches, ghosts and trolls. As
the Winter Solstice approached, with its long cold nights and short
days, many people feared the sun would not return. Special rituals and
celebrations were held to welcome back the sun.
In Scandinavia during the winter months the sun would disappear for many
days. After thirty-five days scouts would be sent to the mountain tops
to look for the return of the sun. When the first light was seen the
scouts would return with the good news. A great festival would be held,
called the Yuletide, and a special feast would be served around a fire
burning with the Yule log. Great bonfires would also be lit to celebrate
the return of the sun. In some areas people would tie apples to branches
of trees to remind themselves that spring and summer would return.
The ancient Greeks held a festival similar to that of the Zagmuk/Sacaea
festivals to assist their god Kronos who would battle the god Zeus and
The Roman's celebrated their god Saturn. Their festival was called
Saturnalia which began the middle of December and ended January 1st.
With cries of "Jo Saturnalia!" the celebration would include masquerades
in the streets, big festive meals, visiting friends, and the exchange of
good-luck gifts called Strenae (lucky fruits).
The Romans decked their halls with garlands of laurel and green trees
lit with candles. Again the masters and slaves would exchange places.
"Jo Saturnalia!" was a fun and festive time for the Romans, but the
Christians though it an abomination to honor the pagan god. The early
Christians wanted to keep the birthday of their Christ child a solemn
and religious holiday, not one of cheer and merriment as was the pagan
But as Christianity spread they were alarmed by the continuing
celebration of pagan customs and Saturnalia among their converts. At
first the Church forbid this kind of celebration. But it was to no
avail. Eventually it was decided that the celebration would be tamed and
made into a celebration fit for the Christian Son of God.
Some legends claim that the Christian "Christmas" celebration was
invented to compete against the pagan celebrations of December. The 25th
was not only sacred to the Romans but also the Persians whose religion
Mithraism was one of Christianity's main rivals at that time. The Church
eventually was successful in taking the merriment, lights, and gifts
from the Saturanilia festival and bringing them to the celebration of
The exact day of the Christ child's birth has never been pinpointed.
Traditions say that it has been celebrated since the year 98 AD. In 137
AD the Bishop of Rome ordered the birthday of the Christ Child
celebrated as a solemn feast. In 350 AD another Bishop of Rome, Julius
I, choose December 25th as the observance of Christmas.