A YAC history of Christmas
Here at YAC we’ve been getting into the festive spirit and looking at the history of Christmas. Although we usually think of Christmas trees, Santa and presents, there are all sorts of other traditions around the world and through history. Christmas hasn’t even always been called Christmas!
While Christmas is a traditionally Christian festival, early Christians were fascinated by other religions and borrowed lots of traditions for Christmas. Several of these ideas come from the ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia and the Birth of the Unconquerable Sun. Saturnalia was dedicated to Saturn, the god of farming, and could last for several days! During this time, people feasted, gave presents and swapped jobs – masters would serve meals to their servants and the servants could say what they wanted. The presents were usually small models or funny gifts and children often received toys. The idea of hanging up your stocking for presents also comes from the Romans. Saint Nicholas, who lived in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, thought that childhood should be enjoyed but lots of children had to work to support their families. Saint Nicholas decided to give these children presents but didn’t know how to get the presents to the right children. Children would hang out their stockings and Saint Nicholas would fill them with presents.
In Scandinavia and Germany, people celebrated Yule. They would bring in a large log for the fire, called the Yule Log, and party until it went out. These parties could last for days and involved lots of feasting. Winter was a natural time to celebrate in these countries as they had lots of animals that would need feeding through the winter if they weren’t eaten. The tradition of Christmas trees and wreaths probably came from these countries as people would often bring green plants into the home during winter.
Festival of the Nativity
As Christianity became more popular, Easter became the main holiday in the year. It wasn’t until the 4th century that Christians began to celebrate Jesus’ birth with the Festival of the Nativity (it wasn’t called Christmas until hundreds of years later). There is nothing in the Bible to tell people when this was (although the shepherds being there might suggest it was in spring) so the Church had to choose a day. By putting in on the 25th of December, people who were used to celebrating on that day could keep doing so and just change the name! The Roman Emperor Constantine declared that Jesus, as the ‘sun of righteousness’ was the ‘unconquerable sun’ whose birthday had been celebrated on that day. Christmas celebrations were a lot like Saturnalia ones with lots of feasting, drinking and merrymaking right through the medieval period. It was only in the 19th century that it was reinvented as a holiday focussed on family and children.
Blog by Andy Jarvis
Dig deeper into our blog by clicking on one of the words above, or search using this box.