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The 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
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
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 Titans.
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
"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.