That strange time of year is upon us where people rush about in a mad scramble of shopping, cooking, and feasting. A time when families get together with mirth and button-bursting indulgence. Christmas is just around the corner. A nominally religious holiday meant to celebrate the birth of Christ, it’s become a world-wide festival enjoyed by people from outside the religion. But not many people know much about the history of the holiday. So let’s take a closer look at some of its common customs and their origins.
It has become hipster to point out that Christmas is actually quite a pagan holiday. But how pagan is it really? I mean you’ve got baby Jesus in the Nativity on one hand and everyone and their uncle going to church on the other. It’s relatively well-known that the date of Christmas doesn’t actually coincide with the birth of Christ as it is the Roman festival of Saturnalia. But what about those time-honored traditions and customs? Surely those are Christian. Think again.
Here is a list of the top 5 Christmas customs around the world and their origins.
1. Christmas Tree- What does cutting down a tree, dragging it in doors, and decorating it with baubles have anything to do with baby Jesus? Nothing really. The practice was adopted by the early Church from the Asheira groups who were fertility cults that cut down trees brought them inside and decorated them. Early Canaanite worshipers of Asherah would fashion sacred poles to be used in devotions to the goddess as well. This earlier practice became popular in the Mediterranean, finding sympathy with several nature and fertility cults. First adopted by Germanic missionaries who associated the triangular shape of the tree with the Trinity, they became popularized in the 18th Century.
2. Mistletoe- Nothing says the birth of Christ than kissing under some random green plant hung indoors. Certainly a favorite of lonely individuals during the holidays, the mistletoe draws its roots from two different places. Ancient Celts and their druids held the mistletoe as one of their most sacred plants. The kissing however is Roman. Saturnalia, the original feast which was Christianized, was celebrated with wanton sex. Kissing under the mistletoe is a remembrance of that practice in a more chaste, though perhaps less thrilling, form.
3. Caroling- This practice is probably the most Christian of all the Christmas practices. We have examples of hymns from as early as the 4th Century in Rome. Hymns in the vernacular didn’t become popular until the medieval era in Northern Europe, but Latin hymns were popular quite early on. Hymns were sung in church, but in Northern Europe there were communal folk songs that were sung publicly or going door-to-door commemorating the harvest. The marriage of the hymn and the communal folk songs led to caroling which were also eventually sung in churches.
4. Gift-giving- Originally a practice during Saturnalia, the act of giving gifts was reinterpreted in a Christian framework. During Saturnalia, gifts as offerings were made to the gods as well as to one another. For Christians, giving gifts to children came out of the Gospel Nativity stories with the Three Magi giving gifts of Frankincense, Myrrh, and Gold to the child Christ. Later, the legend of Saint Nicholas was also added which eventually led to the emergence of the legendary gift-giver himself, Santa Claus. It was a Roman custom that took on a Christian meaning and evolved into the modern practice we know today.
5. Feasting With Family- Wadding past the gross consumerism, the heart of Christmas is a feast surrounded by loved-ones. It was the Romans who first sat down and celebrated in open debauchery as only the Romans could. This time of year was sacred to them and large banquets with expansive feasts were the prime way they celebrated it. It was only natural for Christians to be drawn to this practice, though in a much more tame manner that emphasized being with family over rampant gluttony–well, there’s still gluttony but thank Jesus for that!
Next time, we’ll take a closer look at the history of Christmas itself. Just a note, this post is a fun look at the different customs of Christmas and the actual evolution of these customs and practices are far more complex than a simple “this-led-to-that” but who has the time amidst all this chaos for such a long post. So let the festivities begin!