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What is Christmas and where did it come from?

Fri 02 Dec 2016

What exactly is Christmas supposed to be a celebration of?

The answer isn’t that straight forward as Christmas is a complex holiday shrouded in paganism, Christianity and commercialism. In fact the holiday held on the 25 December has very little to do with the origins of Christmas.

Whilst Christmas is a Christian festival intended to celebrate the birth of Jesus the customs and traditions around this festival are largely born out of Paganism and a number of Roman festivals.

It is believed that the early Christians hijacked a number of customs to create Christmas including the Winter Solstice. A celebration that goes back thousands of years to mark the shortest day of the year, typically 22Dec, and the Roman festivals of ‘Saturnalia’, which celebrated Saturn the Roman god for agriculture and plenty and the solstice feast of the Roman god of light – ‘Mithras’ which celebrated the hope for a good harvest, a good summer and a year of prosperity

When did Christian religion come into Christmas

The followers of Christianity thought the worship of pagan gods was wrong and during the 4th Century introduced a celebration, around the time of the important Pagan festivals in December, to mark the birth of Jesus even though Jesus is speculated to have been born on 17 April.

The celebration was given the name Christmas which essentially means ‘Christ’s mass’ a service marking the birth of the Christian saviour.

Now that we know how Christmas came about how about some of the traditions including Santa Claus leaving presents for children, carol singing and having a conifer tree in your house in December.

Starting off with the one that fascinates me the most is how the tradition of giving presents at Christmas started and how the story of Santa Claus evolved from a monk doing charitable deeds to the universal figure that is now synonymous with gifts.

The character we know as Santa Claus was dreamed up by a New Yorker called Clement Clarke Moore in 1822 to entertain his daughters

The origins of Santa Claus can be traced back to the 3rd century to a monk named St Nicholas, in modern-day Turkey, who became known for his kindness and generosity. The legend has it he gave away all his wealth to the poor and was devoted to helping children. 

The popularity of the Saint spread across the world and was adopted in much of Europe, especially by the Dutch who shortened the Saint’s name to ‘Sinter Klaas’, from which the modern name of Santa Claus was born.

Santa Claus is a completely fictional character and was created by a New Yorker called Clement Clarke Moore in 1822. He wrote a long poem for his daughters, in which a man would come down the chimney and leave them presents if they had been good.  His poem became universally popular and is commonly referred to as “the night before Christmas.”

Another New Yorker, Thomas Nast, a cartoonist bought Moore’s character to life and drew what has become the globally recognised face of Santa Claus with his long white beard and rosy cheeks.

The tradition of having an evergreen tree in the house is even older than Christmas itself and can be traced back to pagan traditions when it was believed that having evergreens in your home would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness. Hand-in-hand with this tradition, and before Christian beliefs took over, many people believed that the sun was a god and that the coming of winter meant that the sun god was unwell. However they took the new shoots of the evergreen plants as a sign that winter was coming to an end and that the sun would return.

Carol singing was also a very different tradition when it started. Originally carols were written and sung for all four seasons. And it is believed that the early Christians took over the Pagan tradition of the winter solstice and introduced songs that celebrated Jesus Christ instead of songs that were traditionally sung that celebrated the seasons and nature.

Singing carols and indeed celebrating Christmas was made illegal for a short time in England in 1644. The puritan Christians at the time disagreed that Christmas should be a time of feasting, drinking and being merry and made this view law. As an act of parliament Christmas celebrations were banned. People were not permitted to cook a Christmas meal, sing carols or attend church. This law was obviously unpopular and in 1660 the law was overturned.

Christmas once again became a religious and social celebration and has been one of the biggest celebrations in the UK ever since.

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