Christmastime Origins


Photo is a public domain image.

Many pagan Anglo-Saxons celebrated the winter solstice by bringing in green boughs to celebrate the perseverance of life in spite of the darkness of winter.

Sofia Rest, Staff Writer

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Festive decorations and colorful lights have begun to adorn street-side shops and restaurants. It’s the season for picking out the perfect Christmas tree, drafting wishlists, and worrying about what gift your third cousin twice removed might possibly want. Perhaps, like me, you’ve already heard the same three Christmas songs too many times to count.

In this busy holiday season, it’s easy to get stressed in the racket of gift-buying and tree-decorating and lose focus of the purpose behind these traditions. Christmas is meant to remind us to appreciate and have fun with friends and family. But how did this holiday come about, and why do we celebrate it today?

With Thanksgiving behind us and Christmas to look forward to, you may be wondering about the origins of popular Christmastime celebrations, and why we celebrate on Dec. 25 if nobody really knows when Jesus was actually born. After all, many non-Christians celebrate this beloved holiday, and it has been a global, secular celebration since before Jesus’ birth.

In reality, there is no singular origin of this holiday and traditions associated with it, but the Christmas we celebrate today can be traced back to a couple different pagan holidays. The first holiday is the Norse celebration of Yule, which began on the December solstice and ran eleven days afterwards. Held centuries before Jesus’ birth, Yule was largely a time to rejoice the passing of the middle of winter and the coming summer. Huge feasts were held, cattle were slaughtered, and fires were kept burning for days. People looked forward to warmer days and more hours of sun.

Another holiday that can be attributed to the birth of the Christmas holiday is the Roman celebration of Saturn, the god of agriculture. Saturnalia began the week before the winter solstice and continued for the next month, and the Roman people enjoyed abundant feasts, rampant festivities, and plentiful drink. The social order was also reversed — peasants were given control of the city, and masters would serve their slaves instead of the other way around. In addition, the Romans feasted in honor of their children during a holiday called Juvenalia, as well as observed the birthday of the sun god Mithra on Dec. 25th.

The celebrations of Yule, Saturnalia, Juvenalia, and Mithra’s birthday all centered around the winter solstice and the joy of looking forward to the coming summer. So when Christian church officials decided to create a holiday in celebration of Jesus’ birth in the fourth century, Pope Julius I took inspiration from the aforementioned pagan holidays and instituted the Feast of the Nativity. And in the sixth century, Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine and 40 others from Rome to convert the Anglo-Saxon people living in current-day England from paganism to Christianity. The conversion was largely successful, as traditions from Anglo-Saxon winter solstice holidays were assimilated into Christmas, and the religion spread among pagan communities. By the Middle Ages, Christmas had succeeded in overshadowing pagan celebrations in England. While the Puritans who first colonized America in the early 1600s did not celebrate and in fact outlawed Christmas for a time, English customs were still a huge factor in molding holiday traditions in other American settlements.

Contemporary American Christmas festivities have also been influenced by American author Washington Irving’s writings on a fictional Christmas celebration, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and the Dutch legend of Saint Nicholas (the origin of the “Santa Claus” figure we know today).

The American Christmas holiday has drawn from countless pagan traditions and customs. It’s important to recognize this fact and keep in mind during this coming season the original purpose of Christmas: to share in the hope of the coming summer, and to celebrate this hope with one’s community.

Works Cited

“History of Christmas.” History, A&E Television Networks, 2020, Accessed 22 Nov. 2020.