And a very hearty HO HO HO to everyone!! It’s the season to be merry so, in the true spirit of Christmas past, for the next few days I’m going to delve into some little-known aspects of the history, traditions, and symbols of the Christmas celebration. We’ll get back to the Great Awakening after New Year’s Day.
Let’s start off with an overview of ancient festivities that bear some similarity to our modern-day celebration of Jesus’ birth.
Ancient Winter Celebrations
Many of the traditions reflected in our contemporary Christmas celebrations are actually over 4,000 years old, dating to a time long before the Christ child was born. Traditions such as the twelve days of Christmas, the Yule log, giving gifts, parades, carolers, and holiday feasts can be traced as far back as Mesopotamian New Year’s celebrations.
The Mesopotamians believed that each year as winter arrived, their chief god, Marduk, battled the monsters of chaos. During their New Year’s festival, Zagmuk, which lasted for twelve days, the Mesopotamian king would visit the temple of Marduk to swear his allegiance to the god. According to Mesopotamian tradition, the king would die at the end of the year and return with Marduk to battle at his side. To spare their king from death, the Mesopotamians chose a criminal, dressed him in royal clothes, and gave him all the respect and privileges of a real king. At the end of the celebration the mock king was slain as a sacrifice to spare the life of the real king. The Persians and the Babylonians celebrated a similar festival called the Sacaea in which slaves became the masters and their masters had to obey them.
In Phrygia the birth of the sun-god Attis was celebrated on December 25th, as was the birth of the Persian sun-god Mithras (photo). The ancient Greeks held a similar festival to assist their god Kronos in his battle with Zeus and his Titans. From December 17 to 24 Romans celebrated the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of peace and plenty. They decked their homes with garlands of laurel and with green trees lighted with candles. Both slaves and masters participated in masquerades, banquets, and visiting and exchanged good-luck gifts called Strenae (lucky fruits).
Early Europeans believed in evil spirits, witches, ghosts, and trolls. In Scandinavia during the winter months the sun would disappear for many days. As the winter solstice approached, special rituals and celebrations were held to ensure that the sun would return. After thirty-five days scouts would go to the mountaintops to watch for the sun’s return. When they saw the first light, the Yuletide festival began with a special feast that included the burning of the Yule log, a part of the Scandanavians’ worship of vegetation and fire associated with magical and spiritual powers.
People also lit great bonfires to celebrate the sun’s return. In some areas they tied apples to tree branches as a reminder that spring and summer would return. The Celts of the British Isles revered all green plants, but particularly mistletoe and holly. Important symbols of fertility, these plants were used for decorating homes and altars.
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at how the celebration of Christ’s birthday came about.