Origins of Christmas

by Peter Leavell

When I was a youth, I read an article written by a Christian fiction writer I admired. Don’t have a Christmas tree in your home, she said. They are pagan.

When taking a present from under the tree, you’re bowing to the tree. Worshiping it. Adoring it. Christ is all we should bow to.

The thought stayed with me. And yes, I used the argument to belittle others and try to make myself look spiritual. I only did the reverse.

Now that I have a Liberal Arts degree from a University that has a great football team, and read enough theology and philosophy, I think I understand things better.

Christmas is an enigma.

Giving gifts? Absurd.

And awesome.

Flashing lights. Slippery sidewalks. Red noses. Laughing families. Hot cider. Reflection and peace. Stories we watched just one more time.

Ahhh. Christmas.

Where did Christmas come from?

Pagans.

Painful, I know. But Jesus didn’t set dates for holidays like God did with the Passover.

Christians didn’t want any association with riotous paganism. Increase Mather, a Puritan preacher, knew the origins of Christmas and banned the holiday between 1659 to 1681.

But Jesus’s birth should be celebrated. And what better way to celebrate than to supplant a raucous festival with one centered around love and selflessness?

Rome. (I’m fresh off writing a manuscript of Rome.) Saturnalia. A weeklong festival celebrated between December 17-25. This week, the Roman laws were no longer enforced. None. Here’s why—drunken people walked naked, sang, and raped people (per Greek observers). Every community picked a foreigner to enjoy every pleasure imaginal, and at the week’s end—they killed him.

Glad the holiday was replaced yet?

Constantine and Church elders believed the foundations of Christianity should displace such horrible practices, and after Constantine died, a Nativity feast was celebrated in 354 AD. But many of the traditions stayed, such as marching through the streets drunk, naked, and singing. Not too terribly Christian.

For the next thousand years, not much was written about the holiday, except that the more pagan practices fell away during the celebrations. That was, until Pope Paul II in 1466 reinstated the pagan rituals, which were enacted on the Jews. Jews were stripped naked and run through the streets, while Rome’s onlookers laughed. As late at the 1800’s, Jews in Rome were dressed in costumes and marched through the streets and pelted with snowballs and ice.

Not everyone reveled in the bad parts of Christmas. In fact, most simply partied. Christmas was a time of revelry, wild fun. But as time wore on and home grew more comfortable, the party was brought indoors with quiet traditions like the tree, mistletoe, presents, and Santa Claus.

Today, rededication to the reason for Christmas has added solemnity and focus to the holiday.

Christmas is so much more than remembering a child’s birth. Yes, Christmas has pagan roots. Yet, didn’t we? Wild then controlled. Selfish revelry then holy sacrifice? Solitary hedonism then communal worship. In total, Christmas is the birth of so much more, the meaning will take far more than twelve days to discover the holiday’s nuances.

Perhaps discovery should take a lifetime.

Do I have a Christmas tree? You betcha. Never went without one. Of course, I scoot on my back, reach over my head, and grab a present. 


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Peter Leavell, a 2007 graduate of Boise State University with a degree in history, was the 2011 winner of Christian Writers Guild’s Operation First Novel contest, and 2013 Christian Retailing’s Best award for First-Time Author. Peter and his family live in Boise, Idaho. Learn more about Peter’s books, research, and family adventures at www.peterleavell.com.