The winter solstice is the longest night of the year. That’s always been the case, and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Therefore, cultures around the world and throughout history have always celebrated this annual fixture as a kind of spiritual climax and agricultural turning point.
The Romans for example, famously celebrated the feast of Saturnalia—which marked the end of the season of planting.
If you skim Google in search of the origin of Christmas, this festival is most likely to arise as the direct ancestor of our modern Christmas.
This festival to honor the god Saturn was originally celebrated Dec 17, but eventually became a seven-day bonanza. It was considered one of the rowdiest of the Roman holidays, and featured several notable elements.
During Saturnalia, slaves were “loosed of their chains,” so to speak, and would be invited to join in the celebrating. Of course, slavery in Roman times was nowhere near as cruel and dehumanizing as the slavery we learn about in grade school.
A mock king was chosen, kinda like prom royalty; signature Saturnalia greetings would be used, kinda like “merry Christmas;” and human sacrifices would be made.
Just kidding. Roman lore spoke of a prophecy that did demand human sacrifice to appease Hades, but Hercules suggested that they give gifts of candles instead—legendary.
Yule and Passover are also considered to have influenced the DNA of what we now know as Christmas.
If you are a conspiracy head, you have probably heard of Mithras before. Mithra was a holiday celebrated on December 25th by an elite fraternity of-sorts in the Roman upper echelon.
Mithras was a Zoroastran divinity related to the sun. Apostle David E Taylor says in his blog that the Roman Mithric worship was not actually based on Zoroastrian scripture, but rather Roman perceptions of Zoroastrianism.
The worship of this solar deity was originally practiced in Ancient Iran, which was then called Persia, as you might know from the movie 300 (2007). He was considered a judge figure.
One of the things history is pretty clear on is where Jesus was born. The UNESCO world heritage site is a town called Bethlehem. It lies about 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem.
The life and death of Jesus, whose given name was Yeshua, was obviously a turning point for human history. Despite this, it is not known when he was born as birth certificates were not exactly pristine.
What happened when Rome adopted Christianity is that the Roman government realized it could not outlaw pagan traditions like Saturnalia and Mithra without massive discontent and even the possibility of rebellion. How would you like it if Christmas got outlawed?
So the Roman Christians slowly adapted the pagan traditions into something like what we know today.
The evergreens and gifts of Saturnalia became Christmas trees and apples—which eventually turned into Christmas ornaments.
What the Church resolved in the 4th century AD was to fudge the dates a bit and just call December 25th Jesus’s birthday.
There’s actually a church where the legendary stable once was.
Jolly old Saint Nick was a Turkish bishop. This is where the gift-giving manifested. The anniversary of his death became known as Saint Nicholas Day. On this day, good kids would get gifts and bad kids would not get anything.
In Holland he was known as Sinter Klaus.
1,500 years later in the USA, a seminary professor named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem called A Visit from St. Nicholas that resuscitated the old Saint Nicholas Day tradition and added some great new bits like the raindeer, the chimney, and the elves. Needless to say, this poem revolutionized Christmas.
You might recognize parts of the poem:
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
It would be a few more years before another American by the name of Thomas Nast would draw out the jolly old fellow and bring those ruddy cheeks to life.
If you are left wondering “well what about Krampus?” learn more about the horrific demon villain to the St. Nick narrative on Nat Geo.