Christmas is special. Christmas is magic. It is a time of warmth and peace. A season when we can revel unashamedly in nostalgia and tradition. The cynics amongst us have described Christmas as a period of preparations, invitations, anticipations, relations, frustrations, prostration and recuperation! But to most of us it is, above all else, a time of celebration. It always has been, and let’s hope it always will be.
In the Christian world Christmas is celebrated in remembrance of the birth of Christ but many of the traditions associated with a modern Christmas stem back many thousands of years.
In 440AD at a meeting held on December 25, the leaders of the Christian Church fixed that day as the date to observe the birth of Christ. It is literally the ‘Mass of Christ’. Yet, strangely, the rituals associated with this religious festival are of pagan origin and were celebrated long before Christ was born.
Since time immemorial it has been in Man’s nature to worship something, and because all life seems so dependent on that burning ball of fire in the sky, so vital to the success of harvests, early man went down on his knees and prayed to the sun. In the winter, the strength of the sun being less, it became necessary to slaughter animals for food, and these became the first religious sacrifices.
In December, the annual rebirth of the sun turned into an important festival, and many traditions and rituals became established.
In Rome on 25 December the Dies Natalis Invicti Solis was celebrated – the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun – sacred to Mithras, the god of light, and to Attis, the Phrygian sun god. The festival was known as the Saturnalia and was a period of celebrations from 17 December right through to the New Year (Kalends) when the Latins rejoiced that the days were getting longer and the power of the sun stronger.
It was a time of real merrymaking, when bonfires were lit, homes were decorated with special greenery, people gave each other presents, and there were lots of fun and games. We’re not talking about blowing up balloons and playing computer games, but an early form of charades in which slaves dressed up as their masters, and lords pretended to be servants, and it is said that people danced through the streets wearing very little except some blackened faces and a smile!
These pre-Christian celebrations didn’t just take place in ancient Rome, for at the same time in Europe the winter solstice, when the sun is farthest from the equator and at the point when it appears to be returning, became known as the Festival of Yule. In Britain, France (Gaul), Germany, Denmark, Sweden and especially Norway, the Yule or ‘Juul’ celebrations became the highlight of the year.
Yule logs and candles were lit to the gods Odin and Thor, houses were decorated with evergreens, Yule food and drink were prepared, and mistletoe was ceremoniously cut. Although over two thousand years old, the Yule traditions are still continued today.
In Britain, the Druids celebrated the Festival of Nolagh and it is thought by some that Stonehenge was built as a temple to the sun, constructed in such a way that it cast shadows wherever the sun happened to be.
In fact, practically every country in the world, from China to India, from South America to the Middle East, held celebrations at this time of year.
In Greece it was the birthday of Hercules, Ceres and Bacchus (an excuse to indulge in the grape) while the Egyptians claimed it as the feast day of Horus. But it was not until the fourth century that Pope Julius I decided that 25 December should be celebrated as the birthday of Jesus Christ, and Christmas as we know it began.
We now celebrate Christmas every year, but with a little bit of pagan tradition: a Norse Yule log; Druid candles; a drop of wine from Saturnalia; and a feast from the winter solstice. The evergreens and mistletoe still decorate our homes, and each year we continue to give presents to those we love. That’s the magic of Christmas.