The Origins of Christmas
The origins of Christmas go back before Christianity where many ancient cultures celebrated the changing of the seasons. In the northern hemisphere in Europe, for example, the winter solstice, which was the shortest day of the year, occurs around Dec. 25th. These celebrations were based on the decline of winter. Since during winter animals were penned, people stayed in doors, crops didn’t grow, etc., to know that winter was half over and on its way out was a time of celebration.
In the ancient Roman system of religion, Saturn was the god of agriculture. Each year during the summer, the god Jupiter would force Saturn out of his dominant position in the heavenly realm and the days would begin to shorten. In the temple to Saturn in Rome, the feet of Saturn were then symbolically bound with chains until the winter solstice when the length of days began to increase. It was this winter solstice that was a time of celebration and exchange of gifts as the hardness of winter began to wane and the days grew longer.
December 25th specifically coincided the day of the birth of the sun-god named Phyrgia a culture in the ancient Balkans.
In the Roman Empire, by the time of Christ the winter festival was known as saturnalia. The Roman Church was unable to get rid of saturnalia, so early in the 4th Century, they adopted the holiday and tried to make it a Christian celebration of Jesus’s birth. They called it the Feast of the Nativity. This custom has been part of western culture ever since.
The Christmas Tree and Mistletoe
One of the symbols of the life found in the celebration of saturnalia, was the use of evergreens. These plants which stayed green all year long, were often used in different cultures as symbols of life and rebirth. They were sometimes decorated as a form of worship in varied cultures in religious ceremonies dealing with fertility.
Mistletoe was considered a curative plant and was used in many ancient medicine recipes. The Celts even believed that the plant, which is a parasite that lives on trees, contained the soul of the tree on which it lived. The Druids used Mistletoe in their religious ceremonies. The Druid priests would cut it up and distribute it to the people who would place the cuttings over the doorways of their homes. This was supposed to protect the dwellers from various forms of evil.