Ask anyone in North America today about the history of Christmas, and chances are you’ll get essentially the same story each time:
Mary and Joseph, traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, bed down in a stable because there was no room at the inn. Although a virgin, Mary is pregnant and soon gives birth to the son of God. Jesus, the Christ child, is placed in a manger, a feeding trough for animals, since there is no crib in which to lay him.
As shepherds tend their flocks in the fields, an angel appears to tell them that The Messiah has been born. Seeing a bright star in the sky, signaling the birth of The Savior, wise men (Magi) travel to find Jesus, bringing the newborn Christ child precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
These days, that story is the most common explanation for the reason for the season. In truth, however, today’s Christmas celebration is a combination of many festivities and several faiths over the course of many centuries.
Centuries before the birth of Christ, Europeans were already celebrating in December. Most notably, they celebrated the winter season and, most importantly, the Winter Solstice.
During the Solstice, early Europeans endured cold, harsh weather. It was a time of the great possibility of starving and freezing to death, and the loss of food and shelter was a very real threat. To combat such conditions, Germanic and Norse people (modern-day Scandinavia) both celebrated the season and gave thanks to the God Odin, who oversaw the hunting of food.
These Pagans turned the season into a long celebration, locking themselves indoors during the cold winter as they ate and drank the time away, waiting for warmer weather and springtime to arrive. Most of the cattle and food was slaughtered, as it was unlikely the animals would survive the winter. The celebrants ate this food in great abundance, rather than let it spoil and go to waste. All of this added to the festivities during an otherwise frightening time of year.
Around December 21st, on the Winter Solstice, an enormous log would be brought inside and lit on fire. This “Yule Log” would hopefully burn for days, perhaps even throughout the winter. Each spark from the log was said to represent a pig or calf to be born in the spring, bringing new food to replace that being consumed during the winter.
Also brought indoors was the evergreen tree. Its green needle-like leaves staying alive and green all winter, the evergreen became a symbol of life that is able to survive through the harsh northern winters.
Legend has it that the god Odin rode through the skies, watching over the people and guiding them on their hunt for more game and food. Early Pagans not only worshipped Odin, they feared his wrath. This bears passing resemblance to another watchful old man, passing over the skies and rewarding some while punishing others.
Meanwhile, farther south, early Romans celebrated the season in similar fashion. Called “Saturnalia”, the week leading up to The Solstice was a carnival-like celebration in honor of the god Saturn. During this festive time, masters became slaves, slaves became masters, and the entire city became an enormous party. Things that were illegal the rest of the year, such as gambling, were perfectly acceptable for a rare period of time.
In honor of switching the roles of slaves and masters, the Romans appointed a King of Saturnalia. Usually a servant or slave himself, he was treated like a king during the celebration. It was not uncommon for the people (even nobility of the day) to follow his “orders”, which often included pranks and different types of mischief. In England, this character was crowned “The Lord of Misrule”, a tradition that continued even after Christianity became the religion of the land.
Early European Pagans also worshiped Mithra, the God of the Sun. Mithra was said to be born on December 25th to a virgin mother (sound familiar?) and watched over the people of the world. Many of the stories now attributed to the birth of Jesus first originated with the legend of Mithra, and many Christmas traditions from this era still survive to this day.
Jesus’ birth, however, was not a regular celebration. His resurrection was always the holiest of celebrations for early Christians. By the fourth century, people began to finally celebrate his birth, mostly thanks to Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome.
Most historians and scholars agree that it was unlikely that Jesus was born in December. It is more likely that he was born in the springtime, as the shepherds where tending their flocks in the fields, something they would not have been doing in the winter. Since there is no mention in The Bible of an actual date, one had to be decided.
Pagan Rome was already celebrating Mithra and Saturnalia. It was decided by the church that The Feast of The Nativity would be on December 25th, the same birthdate as Mithra, that God born of a virgin.
Many Pagan traditions were absorbed into the new Christian holiday. For instance, the evergreen tree was decorated with apples, to symbolize the Garden of Eden. Over the years, these red apples became the red ball ornaments that have become synonymous with Christmas. A star (and sometimes an angel) was added to the top of the tree, meant to symbolize the star of Bethlehem.
Early Christians knew that they would never get rid of beloved Pagan traditions, including the Yule and Saturnalia celebrations. Instead, they adopted them. They knew the best way to convert Pagans to Christianity was to let them keep their beloved celebrations and symbols, many of which survive to this day.
By The Middle Ages, Christianity was everywhere and Paganism was essentially gone. The Feast of The Nativity was still an enormous celebration, now held on Christ’s Mass every December, and the season remained an enormous celebration for hundreds of years.
In England, during the mid-1600s, Oliver Cromwell and The Puritans had overthrown the crown and held rule. With them, they brought a very strict form of Christianity. The Puritans were of the belief that Christmas was a disrespectful holiday, and it was soon outlawed. For a while, Christmas celebrations were held in secret. Although people never really quit celebrating the season, the festivities were not public, and the holiday was practiced behind closed doors.
In 1660, however, the monarchy was restored. Charles II not only restored the crown, but Christmas as well. Although it had been celebrated in secret for over a decade, Christmas returned to England and became an enormous public holiday once again.