Many moons ago (approximately three years ago) I wrote this piece you’re about to read. It was in that winter several Christmas’ ago that I decided it was time I knew the truth about the holiday. I’d known for some time that it wasn’t at all what I thought it was but I hadn’t yet dug into its depths.
As I sat down and started researching, I felt vindicated. I felt right. Like I’d been fighting some silent battle against Christianity and the consumer holiday of Christmas for years without ever knowing entirely why. My heart and body whispered of a different story of this time of year. A time of year celebrated in other ways, belonging to other people and other days. My conscious knowing had finally caught up with the innate wisdom of my body.
The conversation below centers mostly around Christmas. From where I stand now, if I were to write this article over again, I’d make winter solstice the center of attention rather than Christmas. But, at the time, the center of my winter holiday season was Christmas. I was born and raised in the Christian tradition. And despite having left Christianity almost a decade earlier, my world still involved heavily Christian themes and structures. That’s not the case now.
Since this article’s inception, I’ve since claimed my pagan roots, nestled into the cyclic turning of the wheel, and opened my arms wide to welcome in each solstice and equinox with joy as my natural holidays. Nonetheless, the wisdom in the words below is a starting place. It’s as good a place as any for those who may not know the true history of Christmas; its origin story. Which is ultimately the story of the winter solstice, the darkest day(s) of the year.
Without further ado…
In today’s world, we celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ. The holiday falls right after the winter solstice on the 25th of December. And for everyone today, Christmas is a time of merriment, gifts, and food. But that hasn’t always been the case.
Even though we were raised to believe that Christmas began with Christ there’s far more to the story of Christmas than three wise men and a baby in a manger. Winter celebrations go back thousands of years. And if you’re interested in learning something new about this old celebration, then keep reading.
What You Didn’t Know About Christmas
1. Christmas started with the Romans and Scandinavians.
Before Christmas became Christmas it was celebrated as Yule, Saturnalia, and Sol Invicta. Three holidays around the same time and celebrated in different ways.
You may know the word “yule” since it’s common in modern language with its associations to Christmas. But yule in ancient times was a special holiday in Scandinavia. The Norse people celebrated Yule from December 21 through January.
December 21 is the winter solstice; the longest day of the year. It’s the start of winter and the uphill climb to spring and sunshine, which the Norse people celebrated by burning large logs on a fire and eating until the fire extinguished. The Norse people weren’t the only ones celebrating at this time of year though.
Around the same time, Romans celebrated two separate holidays called Saturnalia and Sol Invicta, one right after the other. Saturnalia fell on the winter solstice and honored the god of agriculture. A few days later, on December 25th, Romans celebrated Mithra, an infant god born of rock and known as the god of the sun.
In the early years of Christianity, the birth of Christ wasn’t celebrated. Jesus’ birthday isn’t mentioned in the bible so the primary holiday for Christians was Easter. It isn’t until the fourth century that references to Christmas appear. Constantine, the first Roman Christian emperor, was raised in the Sol Invicta tradition. As Christianity began to take hold, it’s most likely that Christmas was intended to replace this second Roman holiday.
2. Christmas was a raucous, drunken festival.
Akin to Mardi Gras, Christmas was not the family-oriented, peaceful holiday as we know it today. It was the celebration of all celebrations. People were loud and drunk. It was a period of upside-down social norms, as the poor walked about the city knocking on the doors of the wealthy for food and drink.
It was the expectation that wealthy families would acquiesce to these demands. If they didn’t they knew that the drunkards would cause mischief and mayhem.
3. Puritans greatly disdained the holiday festivities.
Even though the Puritans believed that the holiday of Christmas itself and the birth of Christ was a sacred event, they frowned upon how Christmas was celebrated as an inappropriate, drunken carnival. Which was merely an extension of how the earlier pagan holidays had been celebrated.
In England, the Puritan Oliver Cromwell canceled Christmas in 1645. He believed Christmas to be far too extravagant of a holiday. But it wasn’t much later that Charles II restored the holiday.
Puritan beliefs did not die there. Instead, they were carried by ship to America. The extremely orthodox Puritans that settled America in 1620 didn’t bring the holiday with them. America’s beginnings were mostly Christmas-less. It was even outlawed in Boston from 1659-1681.
But that wasn’t the case for all settlements. There are reports that Jamestown settlers enjoyed the holiday without guilt. After the Revolution though, English customs, including Christmas, lost popularity, even in Jamestown, until the 1800s.
4. Christmas got a facelift in the 1800s.
Even though Christmas experienced plenty of tug-of-war about its place in American culture (and the world) it wasn’t out of the pit yet. In 1828, the crazy party called Christmas got so far out of hand in New York that the riot police were called to the scene. The New York elite saw this as an opportunity to upend the raucous tradition of the poor taking food and drink from the rich. It’s after this point that a new vision for the holiday emerged.
Washington Irving wrote a book that re-imagined Christmas as a peaceful and inclusive holiday in which men and women across social lines could be together happily, although he’d never personally experienced such a thing. Charles Dickens followed suit and wrote “A Christmas Carol,” which displayed charity and goodwill and is still celebrated as a holiday classic today.
These values aligned deeply with U.S. and England society. So a new Christmas celebration was adopted. It was on June 26, 1870, that Christmas became a federal holiday in America.
5. Gift giving wasn’t always a part of the celebration.
Gift giving as we know it today is a commercially over-celebrated reflection of our consumer culture. But it wasn’t always that way.
Some sources suggest that gift-giving was a part of winter celebrations in Turkey, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. But gift-giving didn’t become popular in America until the 1800s.
It’s noted that gift-giving in English speaking countries first transpired with Queen Victoria of England and her husband Prince Albert, who was from Saxony, which is now a part of Germany. At the time, gifts were hung on trees.
Across the pond, gift-giving made its debut alongside the transformation of the ancient Christmas celebration into the family-centered, home-bound gathering as we know it today. Gifts were originally given to children which drew families together.
Families opening presents by a fire and around the Christmas tree inspired happier feelings for civic leaders compared to the traditional drunken chaos that previously ensued on the Christmas holiday.
6. The Christmas tree was considered peculiar at its introduction into American life.
The Christmas tree has historically been a symbol of life in the midst of winter. The Germans are said to have started the tradition in the 16th century. Germans would bring in trees from outside or build decorated wood pyramids.
Inspired by the stars twinkling between the trees in nature, Martin Luther added the first lights (candles) to the tree. It wasn’t until the 1830s that Americans caught sight of their first Christmas tree. No matter how strange Americans thought the tree to be, it was adopted into American Christmas tradition as readily as every other change that the holiday underwent in the 1800s.
Christmas continues to be celebrated in this idyllic, family-oriented form today. Although it remains a Christian tradition, it serves to remember the holiday’s pagan origins. This historical lens allows us to take a step back from the rampant consumerism and the religious inundation to appreciate the true intention of the holiday, which was to lift our spirits during a notably challenging time.
Modern society makes winter an easier journey than the formidable slog it once was. Most people have a roof over their heads, heat in the furnace, food in the pantry, family and friends nearby, transportation, and connection to the world through the media. While we may not have the same dire need to celebrate the coming of spring and the rising sun, we can still use this time of year to be utterly grateful for all the blessings we do have and give our surplus to those in need.
For Christians, it’s a beautiful time, as good as any, to celebrate the birth of Christ. For others, it’s a happy time, as good as any, to come together in joy and pure celebration of life and light. No matter how or why you choose to celebrate Christmas or any holiday this season, it always helps to keep a good perspective on where we all come from to guide and direct us to where we’re going.