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Christmas is the annual celebration and observance of the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25th. This holiday is celebrated by many people and nations around the entire world. The narrative to this celebration is given in the New Testament in Matthew chapters 1 – 2 and Luke chapters 1 – 2, as it was predicted throughout various parts of the Old Testament. However, the exact date of Christ’s birth is not recorded in the Bible.
Celebrations and customs from various beliefs and historic events have been mixed into the Christmas celebration from various pagan, secular and Christian sources.
Etymology and Timing
The word Christmas is a shortened form of the term Christ Mass, referring to the Mass and Eucharist in the Catholic Church.
The term NOEL or Nowel as in The ‘First Noel’, is the 14th century English form from the French ‘noel’ or ‘nael’ that came from the Latin ‘natalis dies’ meaning birth day.
Origin and History
Christmas tradition as we know it today dates back to ancient times and is a combination of various cultural, religious, and traditional influences. The origins of Christmas in regard to pagan influences are rooted in various winter solstice celebrations and religious practices that predate the Christian holiday. Many of the customs and traditions associated with Christmas can be traced back to pre-Christian winter celebrations in Celtic, Nordic and other European locations.
Many ancient cultures celebrated the winter solstice, which occurs around December 21 or 22 in the Northern Hemisphere. This astronomical event marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. Pagan societies believed that the sun was returning or being reborn during this time, symbolizing the triumph of light over darkness. Festivals, feasts, celebrations and rituals were held to honor the sun’s rebirth and ensure its return.
In ancient Rome, the festival of Saturnalia was held in late December to honor the god Saturn. It was a time of feasting, gift-giving, and merriment. The Roman festival of Saturnalia, the god of agriculture and harvest, and was a time of merrymaking, feasting, role reversals, and gift-giving. It was a popular and joyous celebration that involved social gatherings, gambling, and various other social celebrations. In 274 a.d. Roman Emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (unconquered Sun) on Dec 25th .
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule, a winter solstice festival. Yule was a time of feasting, drinking, and bonfires to ward off evil spirits and celebrate the return of the sun. Evergreen trees, such as the fir tree, were decorated to symbolize life and fertility during the winter months.
The Celts celebrated the festival of Yule or Winter Solstice, known as Alban Arthan. It marked the rebirth of the Sun God and the triumph of light over darkness. Druids would light bonfires, and evergreen plants were used as decorations. Mistletoe held sacred significance and was used in various rituals. Closely related is the Celtic tradition called Imbolc celebrated on Feb 1st-2nd which was meant to mark the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The Catholic celebration of Candlemas is closely related or is believed to have originated from this tradition in the 4th century a.d. Candlemas is the Christian adoption of the Roman holiday Februalia the purification and cleansing celebration.
When Christianity spread throughout Europe, it often incorporated elements of existing pagan festivals and practices into its own traditions. This was done to ease the transition for pagan populations and to align with popular customs. Over time, Christian meanings and symbolism were attached to these pagan traditions, transforming them into the Christmas customs we recognize today. The celebration of Jesus’ birth gradually overshadowed the pagan origins, and Christmas became primarily associated with Christian religious observances. However, remnants of pagan symbolism and practices are still found with in various Christmas traditions.
Pope Julius I designated December 25 as the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the 4th century a.d., which coincided with pre-existing pagan festivals. The exact date of Jesus Christ’s birth is not mentioned in the Bible, and there are few writings indicating how the early Christians identified with the nativity.
During the Middle Ages, Christmas became a more prominent Christian festival. It was marked by religious services, feasts, and the display of nativity scenes. In England, a tradition called “wassailing” emerged, where people went door-to-door singing carols and offering wishes of good health and prosperity.
During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, some Protestant groups, such as the Puritans in England and New England, disapproved of the celebration of Christmas. They believed it had pagan roots and discouraged its observance. In England, Christmas celebrations were banned for a time during the mid-17th century.
History of Saint Nicolas
Saint Nicholas, also known as Nikolaos of Myra, was a Christian bishop who lived in the 4th century AD. He was born around 270 AD in Patara, a city in what is now modern-day Turkey. Saint Nicholas is widely regarded as the inspiration for the figure of Santa Claus due to his reputation for gift-giving and generosity.
The historical details of Saint Nicholas’s life are limited, and much of what is known comes from later accounts and history. It is believed that he became the bishop of Myra, another city in present-day Turkey, and served in that role for several decades. He was known for his piety, kindness, and concern for the poor and oppressed.
One of the most famous stories associated with Saint Nicholas involves his secret gift-giving. According to the legend, he heard of a man who had fallen into poverty and was unable to provide dowries for his three daughters. To prevent the daughters from being sold into slavery, Saint Nicholas secretly dropped bags of gold into their stockings, which were hung by the fireplace to dry. This act of anonymous charity is often cited as the origin of the tradition of hanging stockings for gifts.
Saint Nicholas became revered as a patron saint of children in Catholicism for sailors, merchants, and various other groups. His popularity spread throughout Europe, and numerous churches and religious institutions were dedicated to him. Devotion to Saint Nicholas grew, and he became one of the most venerated saints in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Over time, the celebration of Saint Nicholas’ feast day on December 6th became associated with gift-giving and acts of charity. This tradition spread across Europe and underwent various adaptations and transformations in different cultures. In some countries, such as the Netherlands, the figure of Sinterklaas, a Dutch version of Saint Nicholas, became closely associated with the gift-giving tradition, and it eventually evolved into the modern-day Santa Claus.
The stories and legends surrounding Saint Nicholas played a significant role in shaping the popular image of Santa Claus, particularly in Western cultures. The spirit of generosity, kindness, and gift-giving associated with Saint Nicholas continues to be celebrated during the Christmas season, inspiring the tradition of Santa Claus we know today.
Religious Beliefs & Ceremonies
Christmas underwent a revival in England and the United States in the 19th century. Influenced by the Victorian era’s sentimentality and romanticism, Christmas became a family-oriented holiday. Many of the familiar Christmas traditions, such as decorating trees, sending Christmas cards, and giving gifts, gained popularity during this time.
Christmas is celebrated today by Christians worldwide as the birth of Jesus Christ. However, it has also become a secular holiday celebrated by people of various faiths. The holiday season typically includes exchanging gifts, decorating homes and Christmas trees, singing carols, attending religious services, and gathering with family and friends.
Was Christ born on December 25th
The exact date of Jesus Christ’s birth is not mentioned in the Bible, and there is no definitive historical evidence to pinpoint the exact day of his birth. The Bible only gives us few definitive references, one being the Shepherds tending their flock at night when they hear the good news of Jesus birth (Luke 2.8). This would suggest a springtime lambing season.
The celebration of Christmas on December 25th is a tradition that developed over time and was declared by Pope Julius I in the 4th century a.d. After the decree, there are a number of early Church Fathers that wrote about the subject such as St. Leo the Great with his sermon on the Nativity in 5th century a.d. St. Cyril of Jerusalem in the 4th century a.d. and St. John Chrysostom in his nativity sermon in the 4th century a.d.
However it should be noted that some early Church Fathers, like Origen of Alexandria (c.165-264) mocked the Roman customs of celebrating of birthdays as a pagan tradition. This would seem to suggest that the celebration of Christ’s birth or Christmas was not customarily celebrated at that place or time.
Clement of Alexandria spoke of those who sought the exact date of Jesus birthday and shows there was uncertainty even as early as the 2nd to 3rd century a.d. Rome placed His birth on Dec 25th and the Eastern Church placed it on Jan 6th, which became known as the feast of Epiphany commemorating the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem.
“There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”– Clement of Alexandria 200 c.e.
December 25th as the chosen date to celebrate Christmas has a number of theories associated with it. As mentioned before, one theory suggests that it was selected to coincide with existing pagan festivals and the winter solstice, as a way to ease the transition for pagan populations to Christianity. By aligning the Christian celebration with pre-existing festivities, it became more accepted and familiar.
It has also been theorized that December 25th was calculated based on early Christian beliefs regarding the conception and crucifixion of Jesus. According to this theory, early Christians believed that Jesus was conceived on March 25th and crucified on the same date on the date of His death. Therefore, December 25th, nine months after the Annunciation, the conception of Jesus, was chosen as the date for his birth. These ideas where familiar to early Christian writers like Augustine who in ‘On the Trinity (c. 399-419)’, wrote that Jesus was believed to have been conceived on March 25th, and was born 9 months later on December 25th.
Significant Icons or Attributes
The origin of Christmas symbols can be traced back to a variety of sources, including ancient pagan customs, Christian traditions, and cultural influences.
Christmas Tree – The use of evergreen trees as a symbol of life and rebirth during winter predates Christianity. Ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Norse cultures all used evergreen plants in their winter celebrations. In the 16th century, Germans began bringing decorated trees into their homes during the holiday season. This tradition spread across Europe and eventually became associated with Christmas. The Christmas tree symbolizes life, renewal, and the everlasting love of God.
Mistletoe – Mistletoe has long been considered a sacred plant with healing and magical properties in various ancient cultures. The Druids in Celtic tradition believed mistletoe had the power to bring about fertility and ward off evil spirits. The custom of hanging mistletoe and kissing underneath it during Christmas is believed to have originated from these ancient beliefs and has become a popular tradition associated with love and goodwill.
Christmas Wreath – The use of wreaths dates back to ancient civilizations, such as the Romans, who used them as symbols of victory and honor. Wreaths made from evergreen plants were used during the winter solstice as a representation of life and the coming spring. Christian adaptation of wreaths took place, symbolizing the eternal life offered through Jesus Christ. The circular shape of the wreath represents eternity, and the evergreen foliage signifies everlasting life.
Santa Claus, or Saint Nicolas – The modern image of Santa Claus has evolved from different sources. The figure of Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century Christian bishop from Myra, in present-day Turkey, known for his generosity and love for children. In many cultures, St. Nicholas became associated with gift-giving during the Christmas season. Over time, various legends and traditions merged, including influences from Nordic mythology, such as Odin and his Yule season travels, and Dutch folklore, such as Sinterklaas.
Christmas Caroling – The tradition of singing Christmas carols has roots in various customs. In medieval times, traveling minstrels would sing songs of praise and joy during the Christmas season. Christian hymns were incorporated into these joyful songs over time, and the tradition of caroling became associated with Christmas. It was a way for people to spread the message of Christ’s birth and celebrate the holiday spirit.
Symbolic and Associated Foods
Christmas is celebrated in various cultures around the world, and the specific foods associated with the holiday can vary. However, there are some common foods that are often enjoyed during the Christmas season in many countries.
Roast Turkey or Ham – In many Western countries, roast turkey or ham is a popular centerpiece for Christmas dinner. Roast turkey is commonly associated with Christmas in the United States and United Kingdom, while ham is a traditional choice in many European countries.
Gingerbread – Gingerbread cookies and houses are a popular Christmas treat in many parts of the world. These cookies are made with ginger, cinnamon, and other spices and are often shaped into festive designs and decorated with icing and candies.
Fruitcake – Fruitcake is a dense and moist cake made with dried and candied fruits, nuts, and spices. It is often soaked in alcohol, such as rum or brandy, to enhance its flavor. Fruitcake is associated with Christmas in many countries and is often exchanged as a gift during the holiday season.
Yule Log – The Yule log is a traditional Christmas dessert in many European countries. It is a rolled sponge cake shaped and decorated to resemble a log. It is often made with chocolate and decorated with icing or meringue mushrooms.
Eggnog – Eggnog is a creamy and rich beverage made with milk, cream, eggs, sugar, and often flavored with nutmeg or cinnamon. It is traditionally enjoyed during the Christmas season in North America and some European countries.