Though Christmas is a Christian holiday (holy day), there is so much secular Christmas that surrounds us from mid-Novemer until the New Year that the religious aspects are often lost.
Did you know that there is no mention of December 25th anywhere in the Bible? There is no mention of when Jesus was born at all.
There was much debate amongst early Christians and it wasn’t until the fourth century AD in the Roman Empire that Jesus’ birthday was celebrated on December 25th. The most popular theory as to why this date was settled upon is that it was borrowed from pagan traditions that already occurred on that day.
Because of those pagan festival roots, Christmas was not accepted by the religious quickly. It might surprise you to know that from 1659 to 1681, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Boston.
Many of the popular Christmas traditions today found their roots in Saturnalia. Saturnalia was the pagan Roman winter solstice festival and honoring of the god Saturn. Branches from evergreen trees were used during winter solstice as a reminder of the green plants that would grow in spring when the Sun gods grew stronger. These evergreen branches became the foundation of the Christmas tree, so it has no religious connection to Jesus. Germans are thought to be the first to bring “Christmas trees” into their homes during the holidays and decorate them with cookies and lights.
Other purely secular aspects connected to this time include:
St. Nicholas, a Christian bishop living in the fourth century A.D., gave away most of his inherited wealth to the needy and became the protector of children. (Sint-Nicolaas in Dutch or Sinter Klaas.) He evolved into Santa Claus – although the modern image of Santa owes a lot to advertising, such as those by Coca-Cola.
The idea that Santa Claus delivers presents comes from Holland’s celebration of St. Nicholas’ feast day. Children would leave shoes out the night before and, in the morning, would find little gifts that St. Nicholas would leave them. I emphasize “little” gifts.
The image of Santa flying in a sleigh seems to have started in 1819. It was the creation of author Washington Irving – the same author who created the Headless Horseman.
Santa’s Rudolph the reindeer was conceived by the department store Montgomery Ward as a marketing idea to get kids to buy holiday coloring books. They didn’t give him a red nose because that was a sign of chronic alcoholism and the company didn’t want that association. A poem introduced us to the other eight reindeer. In “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” Duner and Blixem became Donner and Blitzen, the names coming from German words for thunder and lightning.
“Jingle Bells” was originally written to be a Thanksgiving song. Nothing Christmas about it. It is just about sleighing with the first days of the snow season.
My mother got angry when people abbreviated Christmas as Xmas because she said they were “taking Christ out of Christmas.” I didn’t learn until a college religion course that the “X” comes from the Greek letter “chi” which happens to be the first letter of the Greek word for Christ (Χριστός), and Greek was the original language of the New Testament. The word was simply created as an abbreviation and was first used in the mid-1500s. I told my mother that, but she never believed me or changed her mind about it.
To me, Xmas has come to represent everything about this day that has nothing to do with the religious meaning of the holiday. All the gifts, wrapping paper, commercials, movies, and decorations all over stores and towns tend to depress me. I don’t object to all of the secular aspects of this season. If it means you donate food and money to charities, help those less fortunate, and act nicer to people around you, I am all for it.