Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ancient Roots Of The Christmas Celebration

Next Sunday is December 25th, Christmas Day. Where did December 25 as a day of celebration originate?

Early Europeans celebrated light in the darkest days of winter. They rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to extended hours of sunlight.

In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from the Winter Solstice on December 21 through January.  In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs and set them on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out which could be as long as twelve days.

In Germany, people honored the pagan god Odin during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Odin. They believed he made night flights through the sky to observe his people and then decide who would prosper or perish.

In Rome, where winters weren't as harsh as in the far north, Saturnalia was celebrated beginning the week before winter solstice and continuing for a full month. It was a hedonistic time with lots of food and drink. For that month the social order was turned upside down with slaves becoming masters and peasants in charge of the city. Business and schools were closed so everyone could join in.

Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, on December 25 members of the upper classes celebrated the birthday of Mithras, the god of the unconquerable sun.

It wasn't until the fourth century that Christian church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. The Puritans denied the legitimacy of the celebration, pointing out that the Bible does not mention a date for his birth. December 25 was the date chosen by Pope Julius I. The common belief is that the church chose the date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia.

By the Middle Ages, Christianity had mostly replaced pagan religion. Christmas was celebrated by attending church then celebrating in a drunken carnival type of atmosphere similar to today's Mardi Gras celebration.

In the early seventeenth century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. In 1645, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces gained control in England and vowed to do away with decadence. As part of their agenda, they cancelled Christmas. When Charles II regained the throne, he restored the holiday.

The pilgrims who came to America in 1620 were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. In fact, from 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston. In contrast, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all in the Jamestown settlement where they also enjoyed eggnog, first made in the United States in 1607 in the Jamestown settlement.

Christmas wasn't a holiday in early America until June 26, 1870, when Congress declared it a federal holiday.

One of our Christmas traditions is kissing when standing under mistletoe. But why do people kiss under the mistletoe? After all, mistletoe is a parasitic plant you find in the forest attached to and gaining its sustenance from its host tree. The entire plant is poisonous, especially the berries which are extremely toxic. Ingesting the berries causes acute stomach and intestinal pains, diarrhea, weak pulse, mental disturbances, and the collapse of blood vessels. Death has occurred within ten hours after eating the berries. Not exactly what first comes to mind when you think of kissing.  :)

The tradition of linking mistletoe and kissing started in Europe. According to Norse mythology, Baldur, the god of peace, was shot and killed by an arrow made of mistletoe. After the other gods brought him back to life, Frigga, the goddess of love, transformed mistletoe into a symbol of love and peace. And to this day, everyone who passes under the mistletoe must receive a kiss.
CHRISTMAS WARMTH is a 2011 anthology from XOXO Publishing. I have a short story, The Ghost Of Christmas Presents by Shawna Delacorte, as part of this anthology. Available at   Amazon in ebook for Kindle   as well as other online ebook stores.


For 25 years Robert Carson worked in the same job, took the same bus to and from work, and lived in the same small studio apartment. His was a very orderly and structured life...and admittedly a lonely one. Then one snowy December day a chance meeting at the bus stop changed his entire world.


Gray clouds hung low in the sky, with the forecast calling for snow. Robert Carson emitted a weary sigh as he hunched his shoulders against the cold December air. Turning up the collar of his overcoat, he took his customary seat on the bench at the bus stop in front of the Yummy Cookie Factory, where he'd worked as an accountant for twenty-five years. The number nine bus took him within a block of the small studio apartment where he'd lived alone for the same twenty-five years. It was the procedure he always followed at the end of each workday.

But this week had not been the same. It had been a disturbing week, upsetting his normal work routine. He didn't like change, especially when it came as a total surprise. On Monday his supervisor had brought a woman to his cubicle and introduced her as Helen Winston, a new employee in the accounting department. She seemed to be a pleasant woman, about his age, but why had the supervisor foisted this new employee off on him? He had been given the task of showing her the ropes and familiarizing her with company procedures, definitely an unwanted disruption to his set routine.

The week had progressed without further incident and he had gradually accepted her presence in the office work environment. Friday finally arrived, signalling the end of the work week. Then, just that morning, he had been hit with another change at work. For years the company Christmas party had been cookies and punch, with the factory manager handing out the annual Christmas bonus check. Shortly before lunch, a company-wide announcement informed the employees that this year's office Christmas party would be different. For the first time, it would include a gift exchange. Each department would have its own party and draw names for a departmental gift exchange, without any of the employees knowing who had drawn his or her name. The plant manager had referred to it as a Secret Santa gift. Each worker would receive one gift, with the recipient not knowing the identity of the giver.

Robert, who'd been the last one among the office personnel to draw, pulled the slip of paper from his pants pocket and stared at it again. The only name remaining had been Helen's. The knot of anxiety tightened in the pit of is stomach. Another heavy sigh of resignation escaped into the air. He had no idea what kind of present he should buy for a woman, especially one who was no more than a business acquaintance he had met only a few days earlier.
And on that note, I'll close this week's blog. Next week's blog will be posted on Monday, December 26. I'll be talking about New Year's celebrations. Stop by and take a look.

Wishing everyone a happy holiday season, whatever beliefs you follow.  And most of all—Peace On Earth.

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