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A Christmas Story

The origins of Christmas has its roots in pagan rituals. The end of December was a perfect time for celebration. The days would become longer, cattle were slaughtered and most of the wine and beer made during the year was fermented and ready for drinking.
A Christmas Story

The long varied history of Christmas.

It has been celebrated for centuries by different people, in different places, and in many different ways. Many centuries before the arrival of Jesus, people traditionally celebrated the winter solstice, when the days would once again become longer and lead them towards the new years spring.

The Norse celebrated Yule.

From the 21st of December, the winter solstice, through January Scandinavians celebrated Yule. Fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire, to recognize the return of the sun. People would feast until the log burned out, which could take up to 12 days. To the Norse, each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year.

The end of December was a perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. Also, wine and beer made during the year was now fermented and ready to drink.

In Germany, people honored the pagan god Oden during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Oden. It was believed that he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people, and decide who would prosper or perish. A good reason to honor him, if you did not want to lose favor with him and be one of those who perished.


In Rome, the season was not Christmas. It was Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the God of Agriculture, a hedonistic time. Food and drink were plentiful and during the celebration Roman social order would be turned upside down. Slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Businesses and schools were closed. The whole of Rome joined the festivities.

Mithra (December 25th)

It was not until the fourth century that church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. But no one knew when Jesus was born? It was probably not wintertime – why would shepherds be wandering about in the middle of winter?

Never the less, Pope Julius I chose December 25th, the day that all of Rome already celebrated Mithra, the sun god; and the pagan winter festivals were celebrated for the solstice. Church leaders were confident they would have greater participation in the newly promoted holiday by aligning it with existing festivals.


When Oliver Cromwell and his puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, canceled Christmas. By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday.


Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston, since English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell.

English customs fell out of favor after the American Revolution, including Christmas. In fact, Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Winter under America's new constitution. Christmas wasn't declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.


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During the 2008 presidential election, some people actually had bumper stickers on their cars saying "We celebrate Christmas" to make a political statement. But then the question becomes: what is their celebration based on? The hedonism of Dec 25th and the worship of the Sun God Mithra? The Season itself and the Norse/Viking Yule traditions, or merely the recognition of the Winter solstice?

No, it was none of these. They were celebrating the Christian idea of Christmas. But even that was not Christian until the church of Rome decided to try to take over the holiday in the 4th century, when they arbitrarily decided Jesus was born on the same day the Romans celebrated the Sun God Mithra.

But no more powerful imagery captured the imagination of America as when, in the early 19th century, America reinvented Christmas from the traditional rowdy carnival like holiday, into a time of peace and nostalgia. This is because of a riot that occurred in New York City, when the poor were so disenchanted that they rioted during the winter of 1828. This catalyzed the upper class into action and resulted in the creation of New York's first official police force and a new strategy: 'How can we make Christmas a time of peace, rather than turmoil in the cold of winter?


Adopting traditional stories old and new helped. The Washington Irving 'Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent.' enhanced the reinvention of Christmas in America by painting easy times where the rich would invite the peasants in for food and drink. In this fanciful story the upper class and the poor got along quite well. This was also around the time that Dickens wrote the classic, ' A Christmas Carol'.

But the Christmas we know today received the icing on the cake in the year 1841 with the introduction of the shopping mall Santa. The Santa increased sales so much that stores across the nation quickly adopted the marketing method and this became the norm. Over decades of marketing and new stories, cartoons, cards and carols, Christmas has evolved into the marketing blitz that we now know. Christmas decorations start going up even before Thanksgiving and often don't come down until into the beginning of January after all the Christmas sales are over. Maybe that's just a leftover from the Viking celebrations of old that also went into January?

The plus side of all this is there hasn't been a Christmas riot since 1828, unless you count the turmoil of after Christmas sales.

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