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The history of Christmas

(Note for clarity: We live in the year 2023 AD. Next year is 2024 AD. That means it has been 2023 years since 1 AD. BC is a countdown to AD, meaning BC starts at a large number and counts backwards towards AD. (Ex: If you lived in the year 200 BC, the next year would be 199 BC.) 

Christmas — a time full of joy, giving, family and fun. The Christmas holiday as we know now celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ in the Christian faith, but for many families it is about Santa Claus and decorating a tree. Several families celebrate both. Well, why is there such a variety around Christmas? Where does the holiday come from? Why is it celebrated the way it is? Well, it all traces back to a celebration that is over 12 thousand years old, thought to start in the year of 10,200 BC.   

The year of 10,200 BC is thought to be the first year the winter solstice was observed and celebrated by humans of the late stone age. This is shown by the positioning of ancient structures, such as the Newgrange in Ireland and Maeshowe in Scotland, which line up with the sun’s positioning during this time.  The first well recorded celebrations trace back to ancient European civilizations, the Germanic people of Europe and the Scandinavians. While the exact date of these traditions beginning are debated, the societies they took place in began in the end of the bronze age, roughly 900-700 BC. These societies celebrated the Winter Solstice because it represented the passage of the worst of the winter months in Europe. The original celebrations were Yule in Scandinavia, and in the German societies it was to celebrate the Pagan god Odin who they believed determined who lived or died.

The Christmas we know now begins with, like most things, the Romans. In Ancient Rome (or the Roman Kingdom 753–509 BC), the Romans had a few festivals around the time of modern Christmas: the festival of Saturnalia (Dec 17-21), the roman god of seed and sowing, and The birthday of Mirth (Dec 25), a Persian god who some Roman Soldiers and Rich Romans celebrated. As the Roman Kingdom grew, these celebrations did, and with the rise of Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire a new calendar emerged. With the installment of the Julian Calendar suddenly there were dates for all these celebrations, the winter solstice was labeled to take place on Dec 25th. As the Roman Empire grew more and more of Western Europe fell under its control, these areas were heavily pagan. 

Then in the year 33 AD, Jesus died, and that began the creation of Christianity as a religion that eventually grew world-wide. Christianity became wide-spread in the Roman Empire, and with it came the establishment of the Catholic Roman Church. The Pope is the head of the Catholic Church, and determines most things around holidays, beliefs, and conversion. One of the main ways conversion took place was the Pope re-labelling pagan or other religions celebrations, traditions and practices as Christian. There were a few specific celebrations that made it difficult for conversion as there was no Christian holiday for it to fall under: The winter Solstice and the festival of Saturnalia. It was because of these celebrations that the Pope wanted a winter holiday and under Pope Julius the First, the birth of Christ was placed as a winter celebration on December 25th. The reason for the date being exactly December 25th is heavily debated, and in actuality unknown. One theory is based on a common belief at the time, that Jesus was conceived on the same day as his crucifixion years before. The Crucifixion was traditionally celebrated on March 25th(in modern years that date has been put into question), and 9 months after March was December 25th. Another theory is based on the beliefs of the ancient romans. Around this time many people in the Roman Empire continued to celebrate holidays like Saturnalia, which were holidays based around the past roman gods. One specific holiday was Mithra’s birthday, which took place on December 25th. It is thought that in an effort to convert the upper class of Rome the Pope chose this holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ as well. 

So, in actuality, Christmas has a lot of crazy history behind it, all continuously debated in religious studies today. The Christmas we know is a lot more than a religious holiday but is built on hundreds of years of a variety of different cultures, traditions, and has hundreds of different meanings. No matter how you celebrate Christmas, or if you do, have a lovely one!

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