The origins of Christmas: holiday piracy

Cole Shoemaker ’20, Opinion Editor

Almost everybody in America knows about Christmas, even if they do not celebrate it themselves. Most of those people also probably know the story most commonly associated with this holiday. The birth of Jesus Christ (and the circumstances surrounding it) is where the majority of people think that Christmas came from. However, historians know a different story. A lot of things happened between Christians and more or less every other religious group they met. A lot of not-so-good things: entire cultures were rewritten, destroyed, or absorbed by the Christian mythology. Somewhere within that process, Christmas was also adapted into the religion.

Midwinter celebrations of light and birth were a thing for centuries before a man named Jesus waltzed into Rome. Way over in Scandinavia, the Norse held a celebration called Yule (a word also associated with Christmas) starting on Dec. 21, the winter solstice, and closing at the end of January. In order to honor the return of the sun, fathers and sons would cut down trees and bring the logs back home to burn. They would then feast for as long as the logs burned, which could be anywhere from two days to twelve.

In Rome, the place that Jesus and Christians were first persecuted, before becoming the dominant European power, there were in fact two festivals held near the winter solstice: Saturnalia and Juvenalia. Saturnalia was a huge, month-long party where Rome’s social order was flipped. The lower and upper classes changed places, peasants ran the cities, businesses, and schools were closed so that anyone and everyone could join in. This was a celebration of Saturn, the god of agriculture (not the planet), that lasted for the entirety of December. A bit closer to the winter solstice itself was Juvenalia, a celebration of all of Rome’s children. This was far less grand, just a simple feast, but looking back on it there are recognizable fragments of what became Christmas.

Even after Rome fell and then resurrected itself as not-Rome (better known as the Holy Roman Empire, which was not very holy or Roman or an empire) with Christianity at the head, it took a while for Christmas to exist. For a long time, Easter was the holiday of significance in Christianity, as Jesus’s actual birth was less important than his eventual rebirth. But that changed when one pope brought Christmas into existence with the New Testament, literally in year one of the common era. This pope tried to appease the few remaining Romans and any other culture with a winter solstice festival (which was pretty much all of them) by subsuming Saturnalia and Juvenalia into Christmas, and calling it a celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth.

Most other so-called Christmas traditions  are also taken from other cultures-everything from the trees to the gifts to the lights. Unfortunately, Christmas just does not have many original things going for it; as all of the festivity it brings is taken forcefully by cultures and religions that were called pagan by Christian colonists. But, just because Christmas has basically nothing of its own, does not mean that it is bad. In fact, it is actually a very good thing. Because those traditions, unlike so many others, are at least remembered.
Photo courtesy of Home Depot

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