By now you’ve probably got your Christmas decorations put away and are ready to get your New Year started. But before we say our last goodbye to 2016, I thought it might be interesting to look a little closer at the history behind the winter holiday season we celebrate to close out every year.
Have you ever wondered why we celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25? I remember as a kid I assumed that it was actually the day Jesus was born and that early Christian churches started celebrating it right after his death.
But once I got a little older and developed my love for looking for the reasons behind things, I learned that we have no idea what day Jesus was born on, since the Bible doesn’t address the issue. It does say that there were shepherds in the fields attending their flocks the night he was born, which is something that is more likely to have occurred in the spring rather than winter. So we probably aren’t even observing Jesus’ birthday at the right time of year.
So how did this tradition of celebrating Christ’s birth in late December start? For the answer to that, we have to travel way, way back in time, many centuries before Jesus appeared on the scene.
Late December has been a time of celebration in the Northern Hemisphere of our planet throughout recorded history, and likely long before then. Primitive people noticed that the days grew shorter and shorter this time of year until the shortest day occurred in late December (known as the winter solstice) and then days began to grow longer again.
Today we know that happens because of the way the Earth tilts towards the sun as it travels in its elliptical orbit, but back then such phenomenon were attributed to the work of unseen gods. And primitive people grew to believe that such solemn occasions as the winter solstice needed to be observed and marked with celebration and ceremony in order to keep those gods appeased. Otherwise, they might just lose interest in us and take the sun away forever. Better safe than sorry.
And so, as civilizations came and went in the centuries before Christ was born, different customs and celebrations evolved to mark the solstice period. By the time Jesus came into the world, the Roman Empire dominated the area his parents called home, and most Romans participated in a rather spirited observance of the winter solstice called Saturnalia.
Saturnalia ran from Dec. 17-25 and it was definitely not a “religious” holiday as we might define the term today. It was basically anarchy — laws were suspended and drunkenness, fighting, rape and destruction of property were rampant. People went door to door singing songs naked. And each community selected one unfortunate person who was forced to indulge in every manner of physical pleasure during the celebration period and then was brutally murdered on the last day of the festival.
Into such a society Jesus was born, though we can safely assume that his people (the Jews) didn’t celebrate pagan holidays like Saturnalia. They had their own religious traditions and ceremonies, which Jesus no doubt observed during his brief time on this planet.
After his crucifixion, it took time for Christianity as we know it today to develop as a distinct religion with its own customs and holidays. The first followers of Christ were fully Jewish, and it wasn’t until the apostle Paul preached the gospel to non-Jewish races within the Roman Empire that Christianity started to become a new movement. It was a movement that over several centuries displaced the various pagan religions that had come to dominate the Roman Empire and became its official religion.
Leaders of the early Christian church found that the rowdy pagans were reluctant to give up their winter solstice partying, so they gradually transformed Saturnalia into the Christmas season and declared the last day of the erstwhile pagan festival (Dec. 25) to be the day Christians would celebrate the birth of Jesus. It proved to be a good strategy, as Christmas gradually became the most widely observed holiday in the Western world.
Today, some echoes of the old pagan customs are still with us as Christmas traditions. We still do a lot of feasting, drinking and general merry-making. Bringing greenery indoors to decorate the home is another ancient pagan tradition. And Christmas carolers still go door to door entertaining their neighbors in song, though thankfully they don’t do so naked. Even here in Middle Georgia it’s a bit too cool this time of year for that.
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins.