For the next few weeks, I will be writing about Christmas! Coming from a collective cultural background, I have been witness to the meaning of American Christmas as well as Catholic Christmas. With my immense love of history, it has subsequently made me a pessimist when it comes to this holiday. I know too much about it to just throw up my tannenbaum, give gifts, wait for Santa, and simultaneously worship Jesus.
The origin of the word Christmas comes from the Old English word Crīstesmæsse, which translates in modern English to “Christ’s Mass.” Since the conception of Christmas – approximately fourth century Rome – it has developed numerous meanings, traditions, and holiday figures.
Many cultures observed special holidays for the winter solstice which happens mostly around December through January – give or take a month and/or days. Speculations have been drawn on the parallels of the Roman holiday Saturnalia and the Christian holiday of Jesus Christ’s birth. It’s important to understand the role of the Vatican throughout the years when discussing paralleled holidays that occurred in the same region. Catholicism has adopted many pagan holidays to make the transition easier for pagan religions to adopt Christendom. By the time Christmas was created, Saturnalia may have become a national holiday rather than a religious holiday honoring the deity Saturn, regardless, the church saw an opportunity to create an inclusive holiday that would help ease Romans into the burgeoning Catholic religion.
Saturnalia is really just a big party. They traded gifts, danced in the streets, sang, had sex, made cookies and generally did all things we still love to do. As you can see, Christmas adopted a few of those customs (minus the sex, because having sex with your family during Christmas just sounds awkward). We trade gifts, we sing Christmas carols, and we make cookies (gingerbread man origin), but overall, we just have a really good time. There’s nothing wrong with that. The issue here is that the Catholic Church adopted pagan customs and threw the label of Baby Jesus on it and called it good. Little did the Church know people would be like, “hey, wait a second, this year we’re worshiping Baby Jesus for Christmas and last year we were worshiping Saturn for Saturnalia.” Numerous Popes have spoken out against this saying, “it’s a mere coincidence. We counted nine months after March 25th the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and figured that’s Jesus’ birthday.” Bullocks.
From there the Catholic religion adopted many more pagan practices in their holiday, such as the Christmas tree, silver & gold, the Yule log, and even Saint Nikolas. There is not even one original idea involved in Christmas; deities such as Horus, Osiris, Attis of Phrygia, Krishna, Dionysus, Adonis, and Prometheus were all born in December! I will cover the other pagan customs in future weeks before Christmas, so stay tuned.