The word 'Christmas'
comes from Cristes maesse, an English phrase that
means Mass of Christ.
Christmas History -
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
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
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
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
In the late 300's, Christianity became the official religion
of the Roman Empire. By 1100, Christmas had become the most
important religious festival in Europe, and Saint Nicholas
was a symbol of gift giving in many European countries.
During the 1400's and 1500's, many artists painted scenes of
the Nativity, the birth of Jesus. An example of these works
appears in the Jesus Christ article in the print version of
The World Book Encyclopedia.
The popularity of Christmas grew until the Reformation, a
religious movement of the 1500's. This movement gave birth
to Protestantism. During the Reformation, many Christians
began to consider Christmas a pagan celebration because it
included nonreligious customs. During the 1600's, because of
these feelings, Christmas was outlawed in England and in
parts of the English colonies in America. The old customs of
feasting and decorating, however, soon reappeared and
blended with the more Christian aspects of the celebration.