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The History of Christmas

      The history of Christmas goes back many hundreds of years, even before the time of Christianity. While today it’s considered to be a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, many Christmas traditions are actually drawn from other celebrations around the winter solstice, such as Zagmuth, Yuletide and Saturnalia.
Zagmuth was a 12-day festival honoring the Mesopotamian god, Marduk, for fighting the chaos that they believed came with winter. This celebration was in support of Marduk and his battles, and it is believed that this is where the story of the 12 Days of Christmas originated. 

      Yuletide was an ancient Scandinavian celebration during the darkest days of winter. Scandinavia is so far north that there are places where the sun doesn’t rise at all around the winter solstice, and Yuletide was a festival of light that symbolized the light provided by the sun. Scandinavians burned a Yule log in a special fire, and hung apples from branches on trees to symbolize their faith in the return of spring and therefore, life.  The theory is that Christmas balls and other Christmas tree ornaments come from that tradition.

     Saturnalia was an ancient Roman celebration in honor of the Roman god Saturn, which ran from late December through the first of January. During this festival, it was customary for Roman citizens to decorate their homes with garlands and candle-lit trees, have huge feasts, and pay visits to each other to exchange gifts for good luck in the coming year. It’s likely that the use of Christmas tree decorations originated with Saturnalia as well.


     The Roman emperor Constantine was originally a pantheist with faith in the entire spectrum of the ancient Roman gods, however he became a Christian convert following a vision of a cross of light, on which he saw writing that said he would be victorious in the battle he was fighting. He believed this was a sign from God.  In the year 336 A.D., it is thought that Constantine declared Christ’s birthday to be December 25, at the start of Saturnalia, so that the people would not have to lose a holiday even if they declared themselves to be Christians. 


     In the 16th century, devout German Christians began having decorated trees in their homes specifically to celebrate Christmas. Christmas trees weren’t seen U.S. until the 19th century though, along with Christmas tree ornaments, glass Christmas balls and other Christmas tree decorations. In fact, many European Christmas traditions did not make their way into American culture until the 19th century. For the Puritans that populated the U.S., Christmas was only about commemorating Christ’s birth, and festivities, including trees and decorations, were considered “pagan mockery.”


     Christmas has had a strong influence on various world events. In 1914, during WWI, there was a truce on Christmas Day between German and British troops on the Western Front. It was not a planned truce; it more or less began with troops receiving gifts of food and warm clothing from home. The Germans managed to send a chocolate cake over to the British, with a request for a temporary cease-fire, which was accepted. The Germans and the British joked with each other across the lines and eventually met in no-man’s land between the trenches; songs were sung and gifts were tossed to each other. The war slowly resumed over the next several days.


     The holiday itself is essentially an amalgam of many different traditions from different cultures around the world, and affects people of very different cultures in surprising ways.  Christians see it one way and the non-religious see it differently, yet all who observe Christmas celebrate the joy, happiness and hope of the season. 

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