The History of Christmas

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’Twas not always a silent night

American fervor for Christmas is so strong that many believe the United States was the main inventor of the many traditions we observe during the holiday. After all, a country that loves food and possessions seems like the logical place to invent a holiday centered around these two things. 

But the truth is those traditions didn’t start here. They didn’t even start on this continent. Christmas and its traditions have roots in many different holidays, most of them pagan.

Christmas itself can be traced back to the Roman Empire, where Romans held a very similar holiday but with a different name: Saturnalia. The holiday was a week-long festival celebrating the god Saturn that closed work, school and courthouses to allow everybody to join in. Slaves came into the home and were treated as equals, small gifts would be given and Romans would decorate their houses with wreaths. It wasn’t until Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire that Christmas was created as a way to pave over Saturnalia and bring the celebration closer to the church’s dogma.

Even with some of the bones for Christmas in place, the only thing similar to today’s version was the name. Gifts were small and handmade, and the wreaths they hung consisted of dried materials that didn’t at all resemble the leafy green variety we currently use. Also, despite the church’s effort, the name change did not erase the fact that Saturnalia and Christmas were times of drunken revelry. Early Christmas had no connection to the famous Nativity scene and people took full advantage of its split from church activity.

Other traditions such as mistletoe, Yule logs and caroling have their roots in a pagan holiday as well, this time from the Scandinavian “Yule.” During this holiday people would burn the Yule log, hang mistletoe and go house to house “wassailing” (the ancestor of modern-day caroling). A huge feast to help thin the herds for winter would also be held. Like Rome before it though, Scandinavia sought to replace this pagan holiday as Christianity took hold in the country. Scandinavia’s new Christian king, however, feared backlash from his citizens if he replaced the holiday entirely and only changed the name, allowing those traditions to remain in place.

It’s a pattern that would repeat itself as time went on. Christmas would replace a holiday, absorb its traditions and morph into something different from what it was intended to be. But no matter what traditions it absorbed, Christmas still held on to its reputation as a drunken festival. It wasn’t until American consumerism got a hold of it in the 19th century that it began to resemble what it is today. Seeking a way to push the holiday away from its dark roots, people in the upper class began to promote it as a time of family fun. Stories such as “A Christmas Carol” helped popularize the “correct” way to celebrate Christmas, and soon America was enamored with its new holiday, turning it into the current version of Christmas we know and love today.

 But even though Christmas has changed, its roots in pagan holidays remain. The beauty of Christmas does not only lie in its Christian roots or its American traditions. What makes it a wonderful holiday is the mixture of different cultures and inspirations, and how we so seamlessly accept them as our own. No matter what religion you follow or beliefs you hold, Christmas is a time that allows you to celebrate in several unique and different ways. While America and Christianity have had some hand in promoting the holiday, we have all those pagan religions and international traditions to thank for what Christmas is today.