What are the true origins of Christmas? Where does the most important holiday on our calendar come from, what symbolic meanings does it hide and why? Many wonder what the true origins of Christmas may be. It is about delving into ancestral traditions and legacies of an incredibly fascinating primitive world. The origins of Christmas lie in a time out of history.
If you have always believed that Christmas was born to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus, what you will find here may seem absurd, and it might even offend you. But this is the story. And indeed, there is historical data that helps us to make this journey back in time. But the origins of Christmas are not just a matter of dates and facts. Those are there too, but the most important part is something out of time. Therefore, first, we must leap into the dimension of dreams and myths.
Religions, myths, and tales about the origins of Christmas
Let’s start with the three critical dates of this holiday:
– the initial one, on December 25
– the central one, on January 1
– the closing one, on January 6.
And let’s see why we have such a long cycle of parties.
The Christmas holidays last 13 days. This duration has a specific reason; it depends on the fact that our ancestors measured time in two ways:
- according to the cycles of the Moon
- according to those of the Sun.
But the lunar and solar years have different durations; therefore, placing the two calendars side by side creates a gap of 12-13 days. This hole is a time out of time, 12-13 nights that belong to neither the past nor the new year. For our ancestors, this time hole could be located at various times of the year, but it always represented the boundary between the old and the new year. Of course, this was also a magical time for them. And in this magical time, the dead could temporarily return to the world of the living.
The origins of Christmas
There are no true origins of Christmas. Because Christmas as we know it is the fruit of millennia of cultural and religious stratifications. Yet trying to reconstruct how all of this came about can help us understand something about who we are and where we come from. Let’s start with the fateful date, December 25.
What is unique about December 25?
There are two critical dates throughout the year :
- that of the longest day, the Summer Solstice, which falls on June 21;
- that of the shortest day, the Winter Solstice, which falls on December 21.
It is easy to imagine that for our primitive ancestors, the shortest day of the year was something very frightening: the light lasted a few hours, while everything else was darkness, cold, bare trees. Knowing that, from that day on, the days would slowly begin to lengthen again filled us with hope. We can be sure that all European peoples in ancient times celebrated the Winter Solstice and that fire was at the center of the celebration rituals. Why the fire?
From fire to Christmas Light Bulbs
Our ancestors did not have a light switch. They had to access the fire. Now, if you want to celebrate the return of light after months of the increasingly long darkness, you want a lot of light. This is why our ancestors made large outdoor bonfires. And inside the houses and fireplaces, a massive wood log burned, but so big that it could last days. Behind the lighting of the record, there was a whole ritual. The tradition of the Christmas block was widespread in practically all Italian regions until a few decades ago.
The Christmas Tree derives from the cult of trees typical of northern European cultures, which in the United States of America has come to replace and mix with the ancient rituals of bonfires and the log. If you’re curious about buying Christmas accessories for your home, Amazon is the perfect place to do it.
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The ancient Romans
In the second half of December, the Romans had a crazy party, the Saturnalia, a crazy carnival in which enslaved people became temporarily free; the social order was subverted. And gifts were exchanged in a crazy orgiastic atmosphere. It may seem strange to associate the origins of Christmas with such a wild party. But we need to think beyond our customs and beliefs.
A princess was elected who personified Saturn or Pluto, in any case, divinities who had to do with the world of the dead and, at the same time, with crops. Beware of this: the Romans were convinced that the dead wandered the earth throughout the winter. The festivities ended approximately with the Winter Solstice. Furthermore, for the pagans, December 21 was the feast of the goddess Angeronia (a mysterious divinity we know very little about but who was undoubtedly very important in Rome).
Sosigene of Alexandria established the origins of Christmas.
In the first century BC, Julius Caesar decided to reform the Roman calendar. For this complicated task, Cleopatra suggested that he rely on Sosigene of Alexandria, an Egyptian astronomer. In the sea of calculations he had to make to establish dates, durations, and holidays, Sosigene would have dated the winter solstice to December 25. The fact that Christmas is celebrated on that date depends on this. More than 200 years passed.
Meanwhile, Rome had changed. It had become an Empire that reached far to the East. And new religions had arrived from the East. Among the most successful was the cult of Mithras, a solar deity.
The emperor Aurelian, in turn, had become a follower of the cult of the unconquered Sun. We said that Sosigene had set the solstice for December 25. To spread his new religion in Rome, Aureliano established that the Christmas of the Inviting Sun would be celebrated on that date. A feast that the pagans and followers of Mithras and other religions would also celebrate.
This holiday has many true origins of Christmas, and we have seen that the holidays related to the solstice are much older. Furthermore, it seems that the people very little felt this thing of the Unconquered Sun.
The Christians arrive
In the meantime, however, Christianity had spread to Rome. To make the people accept their worship, Christians have always used the strategy of superimposing their churches and their feasts on the temples and previous feasts. And since Christ was often associated with the image of the Sun, it was easy to establish that Christ’s birth must have been December 25, the day of the (re ) birth of the Sun.
Since then, December 25 has become the anniversary of the birth of the Child Jesus (at least for the Western Churches and most Orthodox Churches). Over the millennia, we have forgotten how crucial that passage of the calendar is for our lives in which the days slowly get longer, and Nature prepares to bloom again. But customs, beliefs, and legends remained. Many things, still today, remind us of this deep, inseparable bond with Nature.
Why is New Year’s Eve January 1?
From an astronomical point of view, starting the year on January 1 is an entirely arbitrary choice. In fact, in the Archaic period, the Romans celebrated the beginning of the year in March. Also because before March, there was nothing. Between the end of December (the tenth) and that of Mars (dedicated to the God Mars), there was a void, a period of dark and cold in which the days belonged to no month or year.
The Romans established that the year should begin on the first day of the first month immediately after the winter solstice. In practice, the closest date was chosen since the winter solstice did not coincide with the beginning of a month. For this reason, the New Year and Christmas celebrations are inseparable.
What is Epiphany?
Of all the religious festivals, the Epiphany is undoubtedly the one in which the gap between the high culture of the theologians and the low culture of the people is most evident. For the people, January 6 is the feast of the Befana. And, as absurd as it may seem, this thing of the Befana has an avalanche of symbolisms and references to ancestral cults. So complex and branched that all the Epiphany’s Christian theology, in comparison, seems rubbish. Some countries celebrate Christmas Day on the Epiphany Feast.
Epiphany is the Christian feast that simultaneously celebrates the coming of the Magi and the baptism of Jesus, hence the manifestation of Christ as the true incarnation of the son of God. The name derives from Greek and means its expression. As we all know, only books and priests use this name. The Western Church celebrates the adoration of the Magi, while the Eastern Church celebrates the Baptism of Jesus. Both events represent the manifestation of Christ.
The origins of Christmas are so confused, ancient, and branched. We can trace the roots of this festival back to the very beginnings of the reign of ancient Rome, but they are even older. What today are customs and stories that we tell to children were once religious beliefs and sacred rituals, which have been transformed over the millennia.