The history of a Christmas festival dates back over 4000 years. Ancient Midwinter festivities celebrated the return of the Sun from cold and darkness. Midwinter was a turning point between the Old Year and the New Year. Fire was a symbol of hope and boughs of greenery symbolized the eternal cycle of creation.
The term "Xmas" instead of "Christmas" is Greek in origin. The word for "Christ" in Greek is "Xristos." during the Sixteenth Century, Europeans began using the first initial of Christ's name...the "X" of "Xristos"...in place of the word "Christ" as a shorthand version of the word "Christmas." Although early Christians understood that the "X" was simply another form for the name of Jesus Christ, later Christians, who had no knowledge of the Greek language, mistook "Xmas" as a sign of disrespect. Eventually, however, "Xmas" came to be both an accepted and suitable alternative to the word "Christmas."
Many of today's Christmas traditions were celebrated centuries before the Christ Child was born. The Twelve Days of Christmas, blazing fires, the yule log, the giving of gifts, carnivals or parades complete with floats, carolers who sing while going from house to house, holiday feasts and church processions are all rooted in the customs observed by early Mesopotamians.
Many of these traditions began with the Mesopotamian celebration of the New Year. The Mesopotamians worshipped many gods, the chief of whom was Marduk. Each year as winter arrived, it was believed that Marduk would battle the Monsters of Chaos. In order to assist Marduk during his struggle, the Mesopotamians held a festival for the New Year. They called this celebration Zagmuk and the festivities lasted for twelve days.
The King of Mesopotamia would return to the Temple of Marduk and swear his faithfulness to the god. The tradition called for the King to die at the end of the year and then return with Marduk to battle at his side. To spare their King, the Mesopotamians utilized a "mock" king. A criminal was chosen and dressed in royal clothes. He was given all due respect and the privileges of a true king but, at the end of the celebrations, the "mock" king was stripped of the royal garments and then put to death, thus sparing the life of the real monarch.
The ancient Persians and Babylonians celebrated a similar festival which they called the Sacaea. Part of that celebration included the exchanging of places within the community...slaves would become masters and the original masters were obliged to obey the former slaves' commands.
In Scandinavia during the winter months, the Sun would disappear for great lengths of time. After thirty-five of such dark days, scouts would be dispatched to the mountain tops to await the return of this life-giving heavenly body. When the first light was espied, the scouts would hurry back to their villages bearing the good news. In celebration, a great festival would be held, called the Yuletide, and a special feast would be served around a fire burning with the Yule log. Huge bonfires would also be lit to celebrate the welcome return of the Sun. In some areas, people would tie apples to the branches of trees as a reminder that Spring and Summer would eventually return.
The ancient Greeks held ceremonies similar to those of the Zagmuk and Sacaea festivals. The purpose of this feast was to assist their god Kronos, who would battle against the god Zeus and his army of Titans.
Members of the pagan order have always celebrated the Winter Solstice...the season of the year when days are shortest and nights longest. It was generally believed to be a time of drunkenness, revelry and debauchery. The pagan Romans called this celebration Saturnalia, in honor of their god Saturn. The festivities began in the middle of December and continued until January 1st. On December 25th, "The Birth of the Unconquerable Sun" was celebrated, as the days gradually lengthened and the Sun began to regain its dominance. It is a general pagan belief that the Sun dies during the Winter Solstice and then rises from the dead. With cries of "Jo Saturnalia!", the Roman celebration would include masquerades in the streets, mangificent festive banquets, the visiting of friends and the exchange of good-luck gifts known as Strenae...or "lucky fruits." Roman halls would be decked with garlands of laurel and green trees, adorned with lighted candles. Again, as with Sacaea, the masters and slaves would exchange places.
Saturnalia was considered a fun and festive time for the Romans, but Christians believed it an abomination to honor such a pagan god. The early converts wanted to maintain the birthday of their Christ Child as a solemn and religious holiday...not one of cheer and merriment, as was the pagan celebration of Saturnalia.
As Christianity spread, however, the Church became alarmed by the continuing practice among its flock to indulge in pagan customs and celebrate the festival of Saturnalia. At first, the holy men prohibited this type of revelry, but it was to no avail. Eventually, a decision was made to tame such celebrations and make them into a festive occasion better suited to honor the Christian Son of God.
According to some legends, the Christian celebration of Christmas was invented to compete against the pagan festivals held in December. The 25th was sacred not only to the Romans, but also to the Persians whose religion of Mithraism was one of Christianity's main rivals at that period in time. The Church was, however, finally successful in removing the merriment, lights and gifts from the Saturanilia festival and transferring them to the celebration of a Christian Christmas.
Christmas means "Christ's Mass" and is the celebration of Jesus Christ's birth and baptism. Although December 25th is generally accepted as being the time when the Christ Child was born, the exact date has never been chronicled with any degree of accuracy. There is neither scriptural nor secular evidence to establish the exact moment. One thing is relatively certain, however, the event did not take place in December. Since the child was born when shepherds were "abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night" (Luke 2:8), it is unlikely that shepherds in Israel would have been sleeping outside with their flocks during the month of December. In Winter, the herders would have led their sheep outside only during the daylight hours...the nights would have been far too cold. It is known that during the very early Christian centuries, the birth of the Christ Child was not celebrated in any manner. However, tradition dictates that the occasion has been commemorated since 98 A.D. In 137 A.D., the Bishop of Rome ordered that the birthday of Jesus Christ be observed as a solemn feast. In 350 A.D., Julius I (another Bishop of Rome) selected December 25th as the observance of Christmas. This date was made official in 375 A.D., when it was formally announced that the birth of Jesus would be honored on this day...the announcement also allowed some of the older festivies (such as feasting, dancing and the exchange of gifts) to be incorporated into the observance of Christmas. The use of greenery to decorate homes continued to be prohibited as pagan idolatory but, over the centuries, this too became an accepted custom of the festivies.
In Colonial America there were no Christmas celebrations. As recently as 100 years or so ago, such observances were declared illegal in many parts of the United States, including most of New England, being defined as pagan and a reproach to the Lord. (Today, it is against the law in some areas to display any Christmas symbols that are not pagan in nature...the erecting of nativity scenes, for example, are banned in some regions of America. Ironically, New England being one such area).
In Puritan Massachusetts, anyone caught observing the holiday was obliged to pay a fine. Connecticut also enacted a law forbidding the celebration of Christmas...and the baking of mincemeat pies. A few of the earliest settlers, however, did celebrate Christmas, but it was far from a common holiday during the Colonial era.
Prior to the American Civil War, the North and South were divided on the issue of Christmas as much as they were on the question of slavery. Many Northerners considered it sinful to celebrate Christmas since Thanksgiving was a much more appropriate holiday. In the South, however, Christmas played an important role in the social season. Perhaps not surprisingly, the first three American States to declare Christmas a legal holiday were located in the South: Alabama in 1836; and Louisiana and Arkansas, both in 1838.
In the years following the Civil War, Christmas traditions began to filter across the country. Children's books played a vital role in spreading the customs of Christmas celebrations, particularly the tradition of trimmed trees and gifts delivered by Santa Claus. Sunday School Classes encouraged participation in such celebrations. The emergence of women's magazines also played an important part in promoting the festival of Christmas, by suggesting various ways to decorate for the holidays, as well as supplying instructions on how to make such decorations.
The colors most often associated with Christmas decorating are green, red, white, blue, silver and gold. These colors have been used for centuries and, as with most traditions, the reason may be traced to religious beliefs. In this instance, green represents everlasting life, red represents the bloodline of Jesus Christ, blue represents the sky from which the angels appeared, white represents the purity of the Virgin Birth, and silver and gold represent the richness of God's Blessings.