We celebrate Christmas on December 25th around the world. It is the commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ, but it also serves as a social holiday where we can give gifts and spend time with our loved ones. However, if we look into the origins of Christmas, many of the traditions we closely associate with the holiday actually predate the birth of Christ.
In various pagan cultures, late December was a time of festival for their gods, often coinciding with the Winter Solstice or New Year. The Persian sun god Mithras was celebrated on or near December 25th. Saturnalia, a feast dedicated to the god Saturn, was celebrated by the Romans from mid to late-December. Even the Mesopotamians, over 4,000 years ago, held a 12-day festival called Zagmuth before the start of the New Year to celebrate their god. Most of these pagan festivals in December involved decorations, gifts and feasts.
After the death of Christ, Christians began holding a “mass of Christ” to remember his life and teachings. These were not originally to mark the birthday of Christ, and were not even necessarily all held on the same date. Early Christians were less concerned with marking his birth than his life, death, and resurrection. At one point, the birth of Christ was marked on January 6th.
Many believe that the pagan festivals and celebration of Christ’s life were not brought together until the rule of the Roman emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, in the 4th Century AD. Constantine had converted to Christianity and sought a way to bring the Christians, who were still widely persecuted, and pagans together. He incorporated many of the pagan winter festival traditions into a unified celebration of the birth of Christ. The various “mass of Christ” services became one Christmas.
As Christianity gained widespread acceptance, the pagan associations with Christmas faded away. Throughout the centuries, the idea of Christmas has evolved, as more traditions became associated with it. The Christmas tree with holiday ornaments, carols, the Yule log, the nativity scene, mistletoe, stockings, Santa Claus, and Christmas cards, all with their own unique origin, developed from different countries throughout the ages since the establishment of Christmas. So although Christmas traditions seem entirely linked today, they’ve grown and changed through history.