Updated: Dec 24, 2021
For multiple generations, reaching back over 2000 years, the Christmas Holiday has been known as the Christian celebration honoring the birth of their savior, Jesus Christ. The story follows the plight of His virgin mother, Mary, who experienced alienation following the immaculate conception of her son through the Holy Spirit. She believed she carried the son of God in her womb, but many thought her blasphemous. Others were afraid what it would mean for them if it were true, and deemed her pregnancy a threat.
She made her way across the treacherous and unforgiving landscape of the Palestine, along with Joseph, who supported her and never questioned whether she was carrying the son of God in her womb. When they finally arrived at an inn, having traveled through the unforgiving winter weather, Mary was ready to deliver the baby. However, they were turned away by the innkeeper, and offered refuge in the accompanying barn. There the baby, Jesus, is born amongst the hay and bugs, rodents and farm animals. But He has His makeshift family. Because they have no bassinet- no provisions for the infant, He is placed in a manger to keep warm.
Following the North star, as directed by an unseen force they believe to be God, Himself, the Three Wise Men also arrive at this same, unremarkable, barn. They appear immediately after His birth, to bestow gifts and offerings upon the sacred babe. They can't quite explain it, but they wholly believe this newborn child will unite their people and deliver all from evil, for He is the Son of God.
Somewhere down the line, the event of this birth is recorded as taking place on December 25, and from then on is celebrated annually throughout the Christian religions as the birthday of Jesus Christ, aptly named, "Christmas". Exactly how this date was determined is a complete mystery.
Okay, so that reported version of history explains why Christians hold sacred the 25th of December, but where did the exchanging of gifts, decoration of trees, feasting and caroling come from? For these traditions, we must travel even further back in time, to Fourth Century Rome, a holiday known as Saturnalia, and on to Paganism, circa B. C. and beyond.
Saturnalia was a feast that commemorated the Winter Solstice in ancient Rome, prior to the worldwide spread of Catholicism. The Winter Solstice represented the time of year when the cold, dark days would come to an end and the sun returned to lengthen daylight and chase away the overcast afternoons. The traditions performed at this time signified the rebirth of all 'life' and 'light', as all living things blossom in the warmer, brighter days of springtime. They decorated evergreen trees, adorning them with apples, as a symbol of rebirth. Mistletoe ( another ritual borrowed from an alternate creed, this one the Druids, who honor the Sacred Oak) was hung in doorways as a sign of peace and good will, which eventually translated into the exchange of a friendly kiss. The Druids may also be responsible for the tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas, as they did so as the dawn of the new year approached, to solidify and show appreciation for the bonds of friendship. Of course they presented their fellows with twigs, roots and the like, while the Roman Pagans evolved to giving nuts, herbs and animals, and eventually coin and items of true value. Apparently the monetizing of traditional gift- giving over the holidays began centuries ago, prior to the existence of toys stores and electronics outlets!
The age- old practices of the Pagan winter solstice were so widely known that at one point, during the 17th Century, the English Puritans made honoring these traditions against the law. Anyone caught engaging in merriment relating to the known 'heathen' holiday were fined in England and, subsequently, in their new Massachusetts Bay colony. The Puritans determined that there was nothing in the Holy Bible which declared December 25th, or even the harsh season, the date of Jesus' birth and recognized that Catholicism had simply morphed Pagan rituals into Christian conventions. The Puritans therefore banned Christmas, keeping churches closed on that day and schools and businesses open. While England re- instated the right to partake in Yuletide festivities after only thirteen years, it wasn't allowed to be publicly celebrated in the Mass Bay colonies until 200 years later... maybe this inspired the 1974 movie,
" The Year Without a Santa Claus"!
Despite the long and sorted history of Druids, Pagans and other sects paying tribute to each other and rejoicing in the winter season at the end of the calendar year, and the fact that the Bible records no relevant date of the birth of Christ, Christians eventually claimed Christmas as their own. They chose the date, December 25, to commemorate His birth and deemed this responsible for their Christmas rites. The practice of gift- giving has been attributed to a representation of the offerings the Wise Men made to the baby Jesus in the manger.
Whichever customs we chose to observe on December 25, we can thank those who came long before us for laying the groundwork for these winter- time festivities to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas; love, life and each other.
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