Yeshua. Jesus. Son of a carpenter from the little backwater town of Nazareth. Born in a stable, with the animals. His birth announced to common shepherds. Yet he was born King, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace, Savior, Lord, Messiah (Christ). At Christmas we Christians celebrate his birth.
People of the day viewed sheep farmers as low and of little value. Yet the angels announced the birth of Jesus to these shepherds that the birth of Jesus in an amazingly dramatic way.
“Christmas” comes from the Latin words Cristes maesse, or “Christ’s Mass.” Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus. Most historians peg the first celebration of Christmas to Rome in 336 A.D. But December celebrations were much older than that.
In the year 274 AD, solstice fell on 25th December. Roman Emperor Aurelian proclaimed the date as “Natalis Solis Invicti,” the festival of the birth of the invincible sun.
In 320 AD, Pope Julius I specified the 25th of December as the official date of the birth of Jesus Christ. Early Christian leaders had set the date for Christmas to December 25 in an attempt to eclipse the popular pagan Saturnalia holiday in Rome. Saturnalia celebrated the winter solstice.
In 325 AD, Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, finally changed the ancient solstice celebrations into Christmas, announcing that it would be an immovable feast, officially celebrated as the birth of Christ.
Originally, the celebration of Christmas involved a simple religious mass. But over time Christmas has replaced a number of other holidays in many other countries and a large number of traditions have been absorbed into the celebration in the process. Even so, Christmas did not become widely popular until the 19th Century.
Christmas was slow to catch on in America. The early colonists considered it a pagan ritual. The celebration of Christmas was even banned by law in Massachusetts in colonial days.
The shortened form, “xmas” comes from the Greek word “Xristos” (pronounced KREE-stows), which is the word for Christ, combined with “mas” (a shortening of the word “mass”). The use of the shortened form “Xmas” became popular in Europe in the 1500s and its use has spread since. The print media, including advertisers, like the shortened form because it sometimes fits better in the limited space for a headline or in ad copy.
Before people began measuring time in twelve-month cycles, it was measured by seasons. They celebrated the seasons with feasts and festivals to make the gods happy. In ancient mystery religions, a holy moment came when the sun’s light was weakest. Festivals were held to help ensure the return or stronger, longer sunlight. December 25th is the winter solstice. Up to that day, the hours of sunlight have been decreasing and the sun getting lower in the sky. Most vegetation has died. But after the winter solstice, the days get longer, the sun gets higher in the sky, and vegetation grows again, as if reborn. It was the time of heathen sun worship festivities.
Emperor Aurelian proclaimed December 25th as “Dies Natalis Invicti Solis,” or the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. This was because of the Eastern religion Mithraism, whose god Mithras was identified with the Unconquered Sun.
The Roman Saturnalia festival merged the Babylonian Zagmuk and the Greek Kronos, which itself came from the Persian Sacaea festival. During the Roman Saturnalia people ate big dinners, visited their friends, decked their halls with boughs of laurel and of green trees and with lit candles and lamps.
During the Saturnalia work of every kind ceased. Schools were closed. Candles and green wreaths were given as presents. The practice of giving and receiving presents was almost as common then as it is now at Christmas. Our present day “Christmas spirit” is actually the spirit of this old Roman festival. During the Kalends of January, which lasted for three days, Roman houses were adorned with lights and greenery, and presents were given to friends and children and to the poor.
The idea to celebrate the birth of Jesus came about as the church began to look at Mary, the mother of Jesus, in a new light. She had long been revered along with the saints and Apostles, but only along with them. But in the fourth century she emerged as the “Queen of Heaven” and the birth of Jesus gained in importance.
When Christians were deciding on a day to celebrate Christ’s birth, adopting the day already important in the December festivals helped give Christian emphasis to the season. Nobody knows exactly when Jesus was born, but December is a fitting month to honor and remember the birth that changed history.
History shows us that many of our modern Christmas traditions originated in pagan practices. Christianity has restructured the symbolisms in more positive, spiritual ways to focus less on the material world. “Jesus is the reason for the season”, “Keep Christ in Christmas”, and “It’s better to give than to receive” are common slogans that remind us to fight against the temptation to slide into the commercialized gift-receiving season of the modern industrial world.