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Here's the History of Christmas

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It’s a given that what we know as Christmas evolved, in large part, from an ancient Pagan festival.

“There were people who had been celebrating the Winter Solstice, long before Christ existed,” said Andy Barbero, a historian at Pensacola State College.

“The Winter Solstice — it was this idea that they’re coming into winter, spring will be here soon,” he said. “It’s the idea of the circle of nature and the circle of life. And early peoples absolutely celebrated that.”

From those rituals came some of the images that are associated with Christmas today. One example, the Yule log.

“They would burn it and it would be a feasting time and a time to be thankful,” said Barbero. “People would also pray to the Norse god Odin; and that’s one of the original kind of ideas of the early Christmases — that Odin was their leader and it was part of this Pagan ritual.”

The end of the year was also a time of relative inactivity in the agricultural communities. The harvest was in, planting had yet to begin, and with the slaughter of animals, fresh meat is available. That in turn, lent itself to a time of celebration.

Another symbol originating from the Pagans, says Barbero, is the Christmas tree.

“They symbolize this green life of spring, the evergreen tree, it symbolizes this green life of spring and the return of the sun god,” Barbero says. “And so, the Christmas tree and other ideas stayed with the Germanic people for generations, and eventually made its way over to the United States.”

Dave Dunwoody WUWF Public Media
Dr. Andy Barbero, Historian, Pensacola St. College

Over time, the observance moved from northern Europe into the Roman Empire, especially a holiday they celebrated honoring Saturn — the Roman god of agriculture.

“They called it ‘Saturnalia’ and it was a time of hedonism — it was a time of excess,” said Barbero. “It was a time when the Roman social order was briefly turned upside down, and enslaved people were given their freedom and treated as equals. And it was this idea of celebrating the Winter Solstice [and] the turn in the seasons.”

When Christianity came onto the scene, says Barbero, the various rituals and practices were combined into what we now recognize as Christmas. Barbero says the early Christian Church was trying to figure out how to capitalize on the Pagan traditions and rituals, and since there’s no exact date in the Bible on when Christ was born.

“If you look at evidence in terms of shepherds out in their fields and everything else, there’s a lot that makes you think that maybe Jesus Christ was born in the spring,” said Barbero. “But we celebrate it in December because it was an attempt in the early church to wean people away from those Pagan rituals of the Winter Solstice, and into the celebration of Christmas.”

Spiritual matters aside, Barbero says the celebration of Christmas in December, the dead of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, also serves as a time to lift the spirits in an otherwise gloomy time of the year.

“And this was a time for people take those few moments, even if the weather was terrible, and turn them into something to celebrate,” Barbero said. “As Rome Christianizes, the celebration goes from a celebration of Saturn or these other gods to a celebration of the birth of Christ.”

As it replaced Paganism, Christianity changed how people would look at celebrating Christmas, which really didn’t start to take hold in Rome until about the 4th century A.D. In the early days, Barbero says, Christmas was more of a raucous bacchanal than a solemn observance.

“You would attend church, but then what was happening was much more along the lines of a combination of Mardi Gras and trick-or-treating,” said Barbero. “There was lots of excess; there was lots of drinking; there was feasting. And a time that, briefly, the social order was being turned upside-down.”

As for the impact of the Biblical story of Christ’s birth — references were spread through the Books of Matthew, John, Isaiah, and Luke — enter Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans in England.

“They looked at Christmas and all of this mixing of Christianity and Paganism with incredible disdain, said Barbero. “Oliver Cromwell himself really pushed England not to celebrate Christmas in terms of having carols and decorating trees, and having adornments. He thought that all of that was far removed from the actual story of Christ itself.”

After Cromwell loses power and King Charles II takes the throne, PSC’s Andy Barbero says that signaled the Anglicanism of Christmas.

“When the Pilgrims come over to the New World, come over to colonial America, one of the things that they’re determined to do is to make sure that Christmas is not celebrated the way it is in England — or throughout the world — because they believed that it has very little to do with the actual birth of Christ.”

In part two, Christmas in early America, and the evolution of both.