The word Christmas originated as a compound meaning 'Christ's mass.' It is derived from the Middle English Christemasse and Old English Cristes męsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038. Cristes is from the Greek christos and męsse is from the Latin missa. In the early Greek versions of the New Testament, the letter X (chi), is the first letter of Christ. Since the mid-16th century X, or the similar Roman letter X, has been used as an abbreviation for Christ. Hence, Xmas is often used as an abbreviation for Christmas. After the conversion of Anglo-Saxon Britain in the very early 7th century, Christmas was referred to as 'Geol,' the name of the pre-Christian winter festival from which the current English word 'Yule' is derived.
Celebrated On December 25
a. Roman pagans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness celebrated during December 17-25. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the celebration. The festival began when Roman authorities chose 'an enemy of the Roman people' to represent the 'Lord of Misrule.' Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures. At the festival's conclusion on December 25, the Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.
b. The ancient Greek writer, poet and historian Lucian (in his dialogue entitled Saturnalia) describes the festival's observance in his time. In addition to human sacrifice, he mentions these customs: widespread intoxication, going from house to house while singing naked, rape and other sexual licence, consuming human-shaped biscuits (still produced in some English and most German bakeries during the Christmas season).
c. In the 4th century CE, Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival hoping to take the pagan masses in, with it. Christian leaders succeeded in converting to Christianity large numbers of pagans by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians. The problem was that there was nothing Christian about Saturnalia. To remedy this, these leaders named Saturnalia's concluding day, December 25, to be Jesus' birthday.
d. Christians had little success, however, refining the practices of Saturnalia. As Stephen Nissenbaum, Professor of history at the University of Massachussetts, writes, "In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Saviour's birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been." The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets (a precursor of modern carolling), etc.
e. Rev. Increase Mather of Boston observed in 1687 that "the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that month, but because the heathens' Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those pagan holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones." Because of its known pagan origin, Christmas was banned by the Puritans and its observance was illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. However, Christmas was and still is celebrated by most Christians.
f. Some of the most depraved customs of the Saturnalia carnival were intentionally revived by the Catholic Church in 1466 when Pope Paul II, for the amusement of his Roman citizens, forced Jews to race naked through the streets of the city. An eyewitness account reports, "Before they were to run, the Jews were richly fed, so as to make the race more difficult for them and at the same time more amusing for spectators. They ran, amid Rome's taunting shrieks and peals of laughter, while the Holy Father stood upon a richly ornamented balcony and laughed heartily."
g. As part of the Saturnalia carnival throughout the 18th and 19th centuries CE, rabbis of the ghetto in Rome were forced to wear clownish outfits and march through the city streets to the jeers of the crowd, pelted by a variety of missiles. When the Jewish community of Rome sent a petition in 1836 to Pope Gregory XVI begging him to stop the annual Saturnalia abuse of the Jewish community, he responded, "It is not opportune to make any innovation." On December 25, 1881, Christian leaders whipped the Polish masses into anti-semitic frenzies that led to riots across the country. In Warsaw, 12 Jews were brutally murdered, huge numbers maimed, and many Jewish women raped. Two million roubles worth of property was destroyed.
The Origins Of Christmas Customs
a. Christmas trees and other ornaments. Just as early Christians recruited Roman pagans by associating Christmas with the Saturnalia, so too worshippers of the Asheira cult and its offshoots were recruited by the Church sanctioning 'Christmas Trees.' Pagans had long worshipped trees in the forest, or brought them into their homes and decorated them, and this observance was adopted and painted with a Christian veneer by the Church.
The Christmas tree is often explained as a Christianisation of pagan tradition and ritual surrounding the Winter Solstice, which included the use of evergreen boughs, and an adaptation of pagan tree worship. The English phrase 'Christmas tree' is first recorded in 1835 and represents an importation from the German. The modern Christmas tree tradition is believed to have begun in Germany in the 18th century, though many argue that Martin Luther began the tradition in the 16th century. From Germany the custom was introduced to England, first via Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, and then more successfully by Prince Albert, during the reign of Queen Victoria. Around the same time, German immigrants introduced the custom into the United States. Christmas trees may be decorated with lights and ornaments.
Since the 19th century, the poinsettia has been associated with Christmas. Other popular holiday plants include holly, mistletoe, red amaryllis, and Christmas cactus. Along with a Christmas tree, the interior of a home may be decorated with these plants, along with garlands and evergreen foliage.
In Australia, North and South America, and to a lesser extent Europe, it is traditional to decorate the outside of houses with lights and sometimes with illuminated sleighs, snowmen, and other Christmas figures. Municipalities often sponsor decorations as well. Christmas banners may be hung from street lights and Christmas trees placed in the town square.
In the Western world, rolls of brightly coloured paper with secular or religious Christmas motifs are manufactured for the purpose of wrapping gifts. The display of Christmas villages has also become a tradition in many homes during this season. Other traditional decorations include bells, candles, candy canes, stockings, wreaths, and angels.
Christmas decorations are traditionally taken down on Twelfth Night, the evening of January 5.
b. Christmas stamps. A number of nations have issued commemorative stamps at Christmas time. Postal customers will often use these stamps for the mailing of Christmas cards, and they are popular with philatelists. These stamps are regular postage stamps, unlike Christmas seals, and are valid for postage year-round. They usually go on sale sometime between early October and early December, and are printed in considerable quantities.
c. Mistletoe. Norse mythology recounts how the god Balder was killed using a mistletoe arrow by his rival god Hoder while fighting for the female Nanna. Druid rituals use mistletoe to poison their human sacrificial victim. The Christian custom of 'kissing under the mistletoe' is a later synthesis of the sexual licence of Saturnalia with the druidic sacrificial cult.
d. Christmas presents. In pre-Christian Rome, the emperors compelled their most despised citizens to bring offerings and gifts during the Saturnalia (in December) and Kalends (in January). Later, this ritual expanded to include gift-giving among the general populace. The Catholic Church gave this custom a Christian flavour by re-rooting it in the supposed gift-giving of St. Nicholas.
e. Santa Claus. Nicholas was born in Parara, Turkey in 270 CE and later became Bishop of Myra. He died in 345 CE. He was only named a saint in the 19th century. Nicholas was among the most senior bishops who convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and created the New Testament. The text they produced portrayed Jews as 'the children of the devil' who sentenced Jesus to death. In 1087, a group of sailors, who idolised Nicholas, moved his bones from Turkey to a sanctuary in Bari, Italy. There Nicholas supplanted a female boon-giving deity called 'The Grandmother,' or Pasqua Epiphania, who used to fill the children's stockings with her gifts. The Grandmother was ousted from her shrine at Bari, which became the centre of the Nicholas cult. Members of this group gave each other gifts during a pageant they conducted annually on the anniversary of Nicholas' death, December 6. This cult spread north until it was adopted by German and Celtic pagans who worshipped a pantheon led by Woden who had a long, white beard and rode a horse through the heavens one evening each Autumn. When Nicholas merged with Woden, he shed his Mediterranean appearance, grew a beard, mounted a flying horse, rescheduled his flight for December, and donned heavy winter clothing. In a bid for pagan adherents in Northern Europe, the Catholic Church adopted Nicholas and taught that he did (and they should) distribute gifts on December 25, instead of December 6. The Bavarian illustrator Thomas Nast almost completed the modern picture of Santa Claus. From 1862 through 1886, Nast drew more than 2200 cartoon images of Santa for Harper's Weekly. Before Nast, Saint Nicholas had been pictured as everything from a stern looking bishop to a gnome-like figure in a frock. Nast also gave Santa a home at the North Pole, his workshop filled with elves, and his list of the good and bad children of the world. All Santa was missing was his red outfit. In 1931, the Coca Cola Corporation contracted the Swedish commercial artist Haddon Sundblom to create a coke-drinking Santa. Sundblom modelled his Santa on his friend for his cheerful, chubby face and Coca Cola insisted that Santa's fur-trimmed suit be bright, Coca Cola red!