History of Christmas:
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 Mesopotamians.
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 his
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 Saturnalia.
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 Christmas.
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.