Christmas is the most important holiday of the year for most of us, especially for kids by age and heart. With deep religious and cultural roots, it has gained a tremendous commercial appeal worldwide. In fact, its commercial side has gained such ground, that most people have forgotten its origins and meaning.
There is more to this holiday than meets the eye. It represents more than just the anniversary of Jesus’ birth and an occasion to exchange gifts, decorate homes, attend church, and gather around the table for a festive dinner with our loved ones.
What does it represent? Let’s return to the roots to find out! Let’s take a trip back in time and remember where this holiday comes from, what it used to mean, and how people celebrated it back in the days. Its story is quite controversial and exciting, so don’t hesitate to share it with your loved ones online or on warm evenings by the fire or by the Christmas tree!
The World’s Winter Celebrations, or How Christmas Came to Be
Winter has always been a time of celebration around the world. The Europeans used to celebrate light and birth in the darkest winter days centuries before Jesus’ birth. They saw the winter solstice as a special occasion to turn their back on the cold days and welcome the additional hours of sunlight.
For the Norse, the winter holidays, known as Yule, lasted from the winter solstice (December 21) all the way through January. They celebrated the return of the sun by bringing home large logs and setting them on fire, feasting for days in a row, until the logs burned out. They believed the fire sparks announced the pigs and calves that would come to life throughout the following year.
The Germans dedicated the end of December celebrations to god Oden, believed to fly through the sky at night and observe the people, in order to decide who deserved to prosper and who should perish. Many chose to stay indoors and feast, either to celebrate the following prosperity or to make the most of their last days of existence, as per Oden’s decision.
Europeans would slaughter their cattle towards the end of December to avoid having to feed them during the winter. Their beer and wine reserves would complete their fermentation around this period, becoming ready to drink and excellent companions for the fresh meat of the cattle.
Cold weather was not a condition for winter celebrations. The people of Rome, for example, dedicated the winter solstice to celebrating the god of agriculture, naming the holiday Saturnalia. The feast began on the week before the winter solstice and continued for an entire month. Food and drinks abounded, and social order rules no longer applied.
Juvenalia was another winter solstice celebration of the Romans, honoring their children. The Roman aristocrats used to celebrate the birth of Mithra, the infant god of the sun on December 25, considering this day as the most important day of the year.
As the above information suggests, Christmas most likely stems from celebrations unrelated to the birth of Christ. Even Christians themselves neglected it, Easter being their main holiday. It was only in the 4th century that church officials instituted Jesus’ birth as a holiday, but the date of this celebration is still unknown. In fact, there are clues according to which Jesus was born in the spring, and not on December 25th. Why would the shepherds be herding in midwinter?
It seems Pope Julius I was the one to choose December 25 as the day to celebrate Christ’s birth. He did so after consulting with several church representatives. They decided it would be a great opportunity to absorb the pagan Saturnalia and bring those who celebrated it closer to Christianity.
They initially named the holiday the Feast of the Nativity. The Egyptians adopted it by 432. The British only began celebrating it towards the end of the 6th century. It took 2 more centuries for Christmas to reach Scandinavia. The Greeks and the Russians celebrate Christmas in January, 13 days later than the rest of us, referring to the holiday as the Three Kings Day, or the Epiphany, the day when the 3 wise men reached Jesus.
Indeed, by establishing this celebration at the same time with other winter solstice festivals, the church made sure more people would embrace it. However, they also lost the power to dictate how the celebration should take place. Thus, even in the Middle Ages, with Christianity being the leading religion, believers began celebrating Christmas at church and ended up drunk on the streets, in carnival-like manifestations comparable to the Mardi Gras.
They would crown a student or beggar as “lord of misrule” and pretend to be the subjects. They would force the rich to share their best foods and drinks with the poor, to avoid being terrorized. Christmas became the celebration of the less fortunate, when the members of the upper class had to pay their debt to society.
How Christmas Became a Forbidden Pleasure
Did you know that there were times when celebrating Christmas was forbidden? It was in the 17th century, when some people found it necessary to reform religion and change the way Christians celebrated Christmas.
During that time, around the year 1645, the Puritan forces led by Oliver Cromwell conquered England. In their attempt to rid its people of decadence, they cancelled Christmas. Celebrating Christmas remained forbidden until the people restored King Charles II to the throne, the latter reinstating the popular holiday.
Early Americans did not celebrate Christmas either. From this point of view, the English separatists that reached the continent in 1620 were more Puritan than Cromwell himself. Between 1659 and 1681, celebrating Christmas was against the law in Boston and punishable with a 5 shillings fine.
According to the reports of Captain John Smith, however, the people in Jamestown settlement celebrated and enjoyed Christmas without incidents. They were also the first ones to enjoy and turn eggnog into a traditional Christmas beverage.
How Irving Brought Christmas Back to Life
Christmas remained out of favor until after the American Revolution, and only became a federal holiday in June 26, 1870. The Americans reinvented it, turning it from a decadent carnival into a peaceful family celebration, a time of sharing and rejoicing.
Their interest in the holiday spiked in the early 19th century, a time of conflict between classes, of economic and social turmoil. Unemployment was on the rise, gang riots were at the order of the day, and members of the upper class began to rethink the celebration of Christmas in America.
The starting point for the reinvention of Christmas was Washington Irving’s book, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent. It contained several stories about how the English celebrated Christmas. The stories featured a squire who opened his home to everyone around the holidays, sharing his foods and drinks with them, and allowing people from different social classes to mingle effortlessly.
Irving’s stories portrayed a peaceful, warm Christmas that brought people together and allowed them to forget about wealth and social status. The celebrations included “ancient customs” and even the crowning of the “lord of misrule”.
The author described everything so vividly and catchy that he convinced people to adhere to the described practices, even though, as most critics argue, it was all fiction. It took a great story to create a great holiday, and give life to even more captivating stories.
From A Christmas Carol to a Holiday Dedicated to Charity, Giving, Light, and Love
Another book that wrote Christmas history in the 19th century was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It taught people the importance of sharing and showing good will to everyone around them, and convinced them of how much the Victorian society needed a celebration like Christmas.
Just when families were starting to acknowledge and focus on the emotional needs of the children, Christmas provided the perfect environment for meeting those needs. It became an opportunity for parents to consent their children with their gifts and attention.
But focusing on giving and on their families was not enough for Americans. They wanted to know more about Christmas at its origins, the customs and traditions related to it. They wanted to celebrate Christmas by the book, and they turned to recent immigrants and the Episcopalian and Catholic churches for answers.
The story of Christmas differed from one source to another, and every listener understood something else from it. Thus, by the 20th century, America had its own Christmas traditions that combined borrowed customs like tree decoration, holiday cards, and gift giving with new, unique ones, meant to fulfill its people’s social and cultural needs.
Commercial centers and department stores played an important part in how Christmas evolved over time. In 1931, the construction workers at the Rockefeller Center started the Christmas tree tradition that survived to this day. In 1939, the Montgomery Ward department store used Robert L. May’s poem about Rudolph the reindeer for advertising purposes, and managed to turn the invented character into an actual Christmas symbol.
Every year, approximately 35 million real trees and 11 million artificial trees are sold around Christmas, their cost reaching $1,225,000,000, respectively $685,000,000. Real trees need 7 years on average to become Christmas-suited, and 80% of artificial trees are imported from China.
This goes to show that time and space are just relative notions when it comes to the holiday spirit. People everywhere celebrate Christmas, one way or another, commemorating their roots, restating their values, paying their dues, and setting new goals. They all have in common some vivid symbols, worth looking at from up close.
10 Undying Christmas Symbols and Their Meanings
1. The Christmas Star
It symbolizes the star that announced Jesus’ birth and guided the 3 kings through Bethlehem, to the newborn. The New Testament tells the story of Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar bringing incense, gold, and myrrh as gifts to the holy baby. Stars are also considered heavenly signs of already fulfilled prophecies and mystic bearers of hopes and wishes.
2. The Red Color
Red is the color of Christmas, the symbol of Jesus’ blood and of His sacrifice for humanity. It is present in the Holly berries and in the wine we all enjoy over the Christmas dinner, and it signifies love, forgiveness, purity, and wealth.
3. The Fir Tree
The symbol of hope, light, life, and new beginnings, the fir tree brings about the second color of Christmas, green. The Romans used evergreen branches to decorate their homes around New Year. Trees are a symbol of life during winter. According to legend, upon Christ’s birth, the trees everywhere shook of the snow and revealed green leaves, to warm everyone up and speak of the spring about to come.
4. The Bell
The bells help spread the news, in this case the one about Christ’s birth. Some connect them to the bells at the throat of the animals in the stable where Jesus was born, others to the doorbells announcing visitors. They symbolize new beginnings and they render the sound of joy, so keep them in your home around Christmas.
5. The Candle
It represents light, fire, and warmth. It chases away darkness and sadness, reveals hidden truths, and guides lost souls to heaven. Candles also symbolize stars, sealing a connection between day and night, earth and heaven, souls and bodies. Lit around Christmas, they guide visitors to our homes and express our gratitude for the star of Bethlehem and the holy birth it announced.
6. The Gift Bow
Christmas is all about giving, and the ribbons tying Christmas gifts express the giver’s goodwill and warm wishes. They create a bond between gift givers and receivers, one of friendship, love, and gratitude.
7. The Candy Cane
It symbolizes the shepherd’s crook, reminding us of Jesus, our shepherd, who came to life on this day. Just as shepherds use their crooks to bring lost lambs back to the fold, Jesus used it to teach humanity valuable lessons of faith, sacrifice, and hope. The red and white combination speaks of Jesus’ sacrifice to wipe out our sins and purify our souls.
8. The Wreath
It symbolizes eternal love, immortality, strength, generosity, equality in the eyes of God, and rebirth. It also represents the bond that brings or should bring family members and believers closer to one another. It embodies the idea that strength lies in unity.
The symbol of love and union, mistletoe is a metaphor for man’s relation with God. Just like this plant has no roots and its life depends on the tree it is attached to, man has no other root and source of strength but God. It could also represent love, the feeling that doesn’t need roots or blood connections to grow and bring people together.
10. Gift Giving
The Christmas gifts tradition can be traced back to the 3 kings and their gifts to Jesus. Others link it to the Seven Gifts the Holy Spirit gave humanity to help us find our path: knowledge, understanding, wisdom, counsel, fortitude, piety, and fear of God. The gifts themselves symbolize love, respect, appreciation, and the giver’s gratitude for the receiver’s presence in their life.
Wrapping Up – Christmas as a Celebration of Life and Love
Indeed, Christmas is a holiday with mixed origins, borrowed and invented traditions, and strange symbols. It stopped being a celebration of Jesus’ birth, and became an opportunity for profit in the retail industry.
However, if you look at its origins, you realize it’s been around for ages. What does this tell you? I think it survived because the world needs such celebrations. People need to stop rushing towards their goals and enjoy what they have, make time for the people they love, and the things their hearts and bodies ache for.
It doesn’t matter what you celebrate, where, how, or with whom. What matters is that you enjoy every minute to the fullest and create lifetime memories with the people you love. At TipsHire, we hope you’ll have an amazing Christmas this year, with lots of wishes come true, surrounded by peace, love, and laughter!
I am a simple, optimistic, and straightforward wife and mother, lucky enough to be making a living doing what I love – reading and writing.
I have a MS degree in Sociology, and extensive training in Marketing, Human Resources Management, Work Health and Safety, Finances, and Quality Management. I am also a member of the International Association of Professional Writers & Editors.
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