December is, for many, the month of holiday. Presents, celebrations, religious significations – all of these come together just to make winter a better season. Maybe you don’t like the cold weather or maybe you don’t enjoy the snow if you have any, but certainly the Christmas and the New Year celebrations have to number among your favourites – moments to spend with family and friends, these bring home the sense of the word “community”.

However, when we talk about Christmas we often forget the meaning of this celebration – the birth of Christ. Or there are more meanings of this holiday? Let’s explore and find out more about this most important holiday for Christians but also others around the globe.

Before the spread of Christianity, there was another holiday in the winter – the Saturnalia, spent between 17th and 25th of December. In the Roman tradition, Saturn was the fire god, and he was celebrated for bringing the heat and the spring back gradually after the winter solstice. The festival dedicated to Saturn was marked by human sacrifice, widespread intoxication, going from house to house while singing naked and consuming human-shaped biscuits, as the ancient Greek poet and historian Lucian writes in his dialogue Saturnalia. However, this was not the only feast celebrated – other peoples had their own holidays for the change of the seasons, so the roots of the celebration are various, but they still converge to a single point.

Photo: flickr by Unknown (CC-SA) How Christmas trees appeared before the addition of electric lights in 1882.

The Christian tradition mentions the birth of Jesus Christ on 25th December, even though some thorough research shows that this is probably wrong, the most likely birth date of the ‘Historical Jesus’ being in September or October. Some argue that this change of the celebration date was due to the fact that at first, Christians were a persecuted sect, so they had to draw as little attention as possible to them and their customs. Another scenario is related to the expansion of Christianity. Christians had to convert the “pagans” to the true religion, but they were equally fascinated by the pagan tradition. The most effective foreign ruler will incorporate aspects of the local traditions into the new way of life. Having no connection at all between the pagan celebration and the Christian experience, it is supposed that the Christian leaders had to “move” Jesus’s birth to 25th December. The result was that the pagan traditions, with all their unconventional aspects, had a Christian sense. Over time, the bad habits moderated themselves, so today we have no inappropriate traditions. The puritans still didn’t celebrate Christmas, considering it not linked to the real Christian tradition.

Nowadays all across the big and small cities of the world there are millions of Christmas lights. This bizarre yet beautiful creation was the brainchild of Edward H Johnson, business partner of Thomas Edison who proposed in 1882 the idea of electric lights for the Christmas tree.

It’s also of note that the tradition of giving and receiving gifts was originally for the New Year and it was not until the Victorian era that gift-giving shifted to Christmas. It may have been inspired by the biblical story of the three kings presenting gifts to the Baby Jesus.

Christians had to convert “pagans” to the true religion, but they were equally fascinated by the pagan tradition.

In 1843 the first 1000 Christmas cards were produced in London, and the first Christmas stamp was released in Canada 55 years later. The postman in United Kingdom were called robin, being dressed in red and perhaps this is where the red suit of Santa Claus originated. It certainly didn’t come from the beginning of the Coca Cola adverts in the 1930’s as popular legend would have us believe.

Saint Francis of Assisi introduced the first carols to formal church services, the word carol meaning dancing in a circle in Greek. Another symbol of Christmas is the Christmas tree, which originated in Saturnalia, where the Romans used evergreens. These plants were also used in others cultures as symbols for revival and birth. In Germany, the evergreen tree was used in worship and celebration of the Yule god and in observance of the resurrected sun god. Mistletoe was used to bring fertility and luck upon those kissing underneath.

It was discovered that Santa was the Asian name of Nimrod, but the traditional myth is that Santa Claus comes from Saint Nicholas who offered gifts to children in need. In Romania, Germany, France, Croatia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovenia and Hungary, Saint Nicholas is different from Santa Claus, comes on 6th December and brings sweets in the children’s shoes if they were good and a whip if they were bad. Santa Claus is a mix between Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas and Father Christmas and has a long and sometimes controversial history due to the conservative nature of many christian sects.

However interesting as they seem, nowadays these symbols above are very common; everybody uses them as a trademark for Christmas. Even though, they are somehow related more to the family. The “big thing” with Christmas comes when we talk about the consumerism raised by this celebration: the symbols and the representations are sold at various prices and they have largely lost the meaning of Christmas.

Even though from the concise presentation of Christmas traditions and origins we can see this is not at all Christian, we can also see that all degenerated from the worship of a god, to the worship of the gifts. Running to buy the most expensive, amazing gift we forget about the person. We all want to give and receive, but it is no longer about love, faith, humanity and cohesion. It has become about money and social status.

If you search on Google, you’ll find a range of the best, the most beautiful, the most delightful Christmas Festivals. In fact, they are just markets. I do not contest that fact that some of them look nice and beautiful, but sometimes excess is excess. We vanish in this world of consumers and adverts, we forget about the feelings of ourselves and those around us.

Most of all Christmas means people gathering around their families in order to celebrate the birth of Christ who, son of god, mere mortal or non-existent, we can all still admire. True or not, pagan or not, the celebration of a birth is a real holiday. That’s why people really stand closer to their families in this period. December is the month of holiday and presents, but it is above all the month of family. You can go to Germany or Austria (where most of the Christmas festivals are held) or France, Estonia, Denmark or other countries that still have beautifully decorated wooden stalls, but the only way to feel fully satisfied is to spend Christmas comfortably at home with the family.

(Cover Photo: flickr by Unknown (CC-SA))

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