The Origins of Christmas: Pagan Rites, Drunken Revels and More

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We all know the story of Christmas: Jesus, Mary and Joseph; no room at the inn; a virgin birth. But in ancient Rome, there was a December celebration that may feel oddly familiar: Hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, Romans exchanged gifts, sang songs and decorated their homes with evergreens. Instead of Jesus Christ, though, Saturnalia celebrated the Roman god Saturn. In fact, December 25 was the winter solstice on the Roman calendar, the shortest day of the year. We can still see the pagan origins of Christmas in many holiday traditions, including mistletoe, which symbolized fertility to pre-Christians and new life even in the depths of winter.

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Another winter-solstice festival, Yule, was observed by Germanic peoples and connected to Odin, king of the Norse gods. It, too, was later wrapped up into Christmas: The Yule log, decorated tree, and wassailing can all be traced back to this Teutonic celebration.

The very first Christmas

The birth of Jesus didn't connect to pagan rituals in Jesus' lifetime, or even soon after he died. Early Christians didn't seem much interested in his birth, actually, finding other parts of his life more significant. Only two of the 27 books in the New Testament mention the Nativity, the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. They were written more than 80 years after Jesus' birth and don't mention the actual day of his birth.

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The first Christmas feast held on December 25 was in Rome in 336 A.D., after Christianity had become the Empire's official religion. Perhaps the date was chosen as a way of overriding the winter solstice with a Christian celebration. (Solstice songs were transformed into early versions of the Christmas carols we sing today.) (St. Augustine insisted Jesus intentionally chose the solstice to be born: "He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.") He's supported by Bible scholar who maintain Jesus was conceived on March 25, the spring equinox, which would fit a December 25 birth.

A little too festive

Christmas hasn't always been a popular holiday: In the Middle Ages, it was overshadowed by the Epiphany, which commemorates the visit of the three Wise Men. It gained prominence after 800 A.D., when Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas Day. In 17th century England, the Puritan government banned Christmas outright for 18 years, claiming it was a wasteful, sinful festival which went against true Christian values. Christmas mass was a punishable offence, as were hanging holly, dancing and feasting.

In fairness to the Puritans, Christmas looked a lot different then than it does now. Back then, drunks, often dressed as the opposite gender, would roam the streets knocking on doors, demanding to be fed and threatening to vandalize the houses of anyone who refused. Christmas was generally celebrated for the full 12 days up to the Epiphany, with some people going on spectacular two-week benders.

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The ban proved hugely unpopular and many continued their celebrations behind closed doors. But disapproval spread to the colonies, and Christmas was prohibited in New England until 1681. Anyone caught celebrating was fined five shillings.

A modern Christmas emerges

Although it outlasted the Puritans, Christmas remained frowned-upon for decades in some parts of America, and didn't become a legally recognized federal holiday until 1870. By that time, the Victorians had revolutionized the yuletide season, steering it away from bawdy revelling towards gift-giving, with many of the recognizable symbols and rituals we know today.

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Clement Clarke Moore's 1823 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, helped transform Santa Claus from a minor 4th century saint into the chimney-diving, right jolly old elf we all know today. But like the holiday itself, Saint Nick precedes the advent of Christianity: His legend is mingled with that of Odin, who was at the center of the Yule celebration. Odin, the king of the gods also known as the god of wishes, was often depicted with a long white beard and rode an eight-legged horse that could fly. Not much of a stretch to eight magic flying reindeer, is it?

Although some Christmas customs have pagan roots, others have more prosaic beginnings: Charles Dickens' 1843 novel A Christmas Carol was conceived as a way for the cash-strapped author to make a quick buck. Dickens took the scenes he observed on the streets of London, added a heavy dose of sentiment, and made a smash-hit novel in around six weeks. Translated the world over, A Christmas Carol still defines the holiday for millions around the world.

The advent calendar has similarly unromantic origins, invented by a 19th century Munich housewife to quiet her children, who wouldn't stop asking how many days were left until Christmas.

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As Western society morphed from the moralistic Victorian age to a more liberalized and secular one, Christmas inevitably changed too. In centuries past, gifts were small and inexpensive, often jokey. Today, a Christmas present can cost more than a month's salary.

The commercialization of the holiday still isn't universally popular. In 1951, Catholic priests in Dijon hanged an effigy of Santa from a cathedral and then set fire to it in front of several hundred children. They wanted to make a stand against the Americanization of Christmas. They were too late: Santa's image, codified in Coca-Cola ads of the 1920s, is indelible throught the world.

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Some complain about the war on Christmas—an attempt to remove the holiday from its Christian roots. But in reality, Christmas it is a celebration that has snowballed from our earliest cultures, gathering new meanings and rituals as it's travelled across the world and through time. That might alarm some, but it shouldn't—after all, not even the hard-grafting Puritans could stop the irresistible pull of the holiday. Christmas' popularity around the globe has given us a common language and a sense of shared identity. Even pre-Christian winter festivals celebrated coming together, the emergence of new life and the triumph of light over darkness.

Surely, that's the true Christmas spirit.

The Origins of Christmas: Pagan Rites, Drunken Revels and More | Culture