A Brief History of Christmas

_CLWhere did “Christmas” begin? Is there still a place called Bethlehem? Anyone interested can read the history of Christmas from assorted sources. One online resource says this:

In the Western world, the birthday of Jesus Christ has been celebrated on December 25th since AD 354, replacing an earlier date of January 6th. The celebration of Christmas has evolved over 2000 years. The earliest English reference to December 25th as Christmas was in 1043 AD. “Christmas or Christmas Day (Old English: Cr?stesmæsse, meaning “Christ’s Mass”) is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed generally on December 25 as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world. A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it closes the Advent season and initiates the twelve days of Christmastide, which ends after the twelfth night. Christmas is a public holiday in many of the world’s nations, is celebrated culturally by a large number of non-Christian people, and is an integral part of the Christmas and holiday season.

Roman pagans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17th and December 25th. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman. The ancient Greek writer poet and historian Lucian (in his dialogue entitled Saturnalia) describes the festival’s observance in his time. In addition to human sacrifice, he mentions these customs: widespread intoxication; going from house to house while singing naked; rape and other sexual license; and consuming human-shaped biscuits (still produced in some English and most German bakeries during the Christmas season).

In the 4th century CE, Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival hoping to take the pagan masses in with it. These Christian leaders named Saturnalia’s concluding day, December 25th, to be Jesus’ birthday. Christian leaders succeeded in converting to Christianity large numbers of pagans by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians. Christians had little success, however, refining the practices of Saturnalia. Stephen Nissenbaum, a professor history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, writes, “In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.” The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets (a precursor of modern caroling), etc.

The Reverend Increase Mather of Boston observed in 1687 that “the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones. Because of its known pagan origin, Christmas was banned by the Puritans and its observance was illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. However, Christmas was and still is celebrated by most Christians.”

A Christian holiday honoring the birth of Jesus Christ, Christmas evolved over two millennia into a worldwide religious and secular celebration, incorporating many pre-Christian, pagan traditions into the festivities along the way. Today, Christmas is a time for family and friends to get together and exchange gifts.

Is there still a place called Bethlehem the Biblical birth place of Jesus? Yes, Bethlehem is located in Palestine on the West Bank about 5 miles from Jerusalem.

Merry Christmas!

Copyright 2014 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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