The Ancient Origins Of Christmas
Christmas is by far the most anticipated day of the year for some of us, with everyone looking forward to a large meal, warm company, gift giving and general merriment – indeed the holiday is traditionally a multi-sensory extravaganza, with sights, sounds, smells, tastes and the feeling of warmth personified in one single day.
But how do those feelings relate back to the holiday’s historic roots? Is it simply a continuation of ancient and mysterious traditions of Celtic Europe, or has Christmas truly transcended the original meaning and become something else altogether?
Starting as far back as the days of the druids, people gathered close to the same day Christmas is celebrated today to celebrate the longest night of the year – the winter solstice. Indeed, the same traditions of burning large fires and roasting meat were alive even as early as before the days of Christianity in England – the burning of the Yule Log and the eating of the Yule Boar being one of the oldest of these practices.
The word ‘Yule’ stems from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Yula’, meaning ‘Wheel Of The Year’, an ancient festival marking the shortest day of the year but also deeply associated with the concept of the ‘rebirth of the sun’. Superstition would have it that the sun itself was returning as winter retreated towards spring, and even back then the ancient Celts and Saxons would hang colorful decorations on a pine tree.
Jumping forward hundreds of years to the arrival of Christianity in the British Isles, and Christmas was made ‘official’ – becoming a threefold combination of ancient pagan fire festivals of the Yule, an old Roman festival Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, “the birthday of the Unconquered Sun” as well as the newer Christian belief that Christ was also born around the same time.
So even since the dark ages Christmas was an amalgamation of different traditions, but all stemming from the same idea – that winter will be over as the days will become longer, and the new year is about to be ‘reborn’. Amalgamations of different traditions still define Christmas today – although the holiday fell in and out of favour with the rise of the Protestant movement in England and elsewhere across the world.
Today, Christmas traditions come together from across Europe to complete the holiday. Father Christmas or Santa Claus was originally a figure based in Scandinavian mythology, but was joined with the gift giving exploits of the Christian faith’s Saint Nicholas. Many believe he was also inspired by a more ancient tale, the Norse fable of the wild hunt of Wodan. These old stories of a jolly gift giver all popularised the tradition of Christmas presents that we still see today.
And finally, the iconic Christmas tree was popularised in Britain in Victorian times, with the old custom of hanging decorations on a pine tree having been passed down through the ages all the way from Celtic Europe to the famous husband of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert. The tree had already arrived in Britain as early as the time of George III, but it became a staple of the Christmas celebrations as the rest of the country were often quick to adopt the habits Victoria and Albert in an attempt to be more fashionable.
So, today’s holiday might be far, far different to the ancient rituals of the Celts, the Roman festival of the Sun god and the original celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, but what remains, and what has been passed down, is still the concept of a multi-sensory explosion in celebration of the new year, the concept of gift giving, feasting and goodwill to one another. As long as those traditions remain at the core of the holiday, the Christmas spirit should presumably carry on.