Christmas Unwrapped (The True Origins and Meaning)

Oh, Christmas… We barely recognise you anymore. We unwrap, dismantle and explore the origins and meaning behind everybody’s favourite day
Jason Snyman
2017-12-21
Christmas is an annual cultural and religious festival, celebrated by billions of people all around the world. Commonly, every 25th of December marks the commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ. People go to church, spend time in the company of loved ones and follow other traditional customs. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s about the gist of it. To young children, and many adults these days, Christmas means something entirely different. We’ve got Santa Claus, Christmas trees, colourful decorations, milk and cookies, a big roast for lunch and of course, mountains of gifts. These two are capable of existing side by side, and have done so for ages in the Western world. There’s a change in the tide, though, and the Christmas as we know and love it is barely recognisable anymore. Over the years a number of historians have been so kind as to poke holes in the holiday, pointing out fallacies and dubious (frankly quite unholy) origins. The unwavering need to be politically correct at all times, as well, even has us replacing the term ‘Merry Christmas’ with the more all-encompassing ‘Happy Holidays.’ Some changes, such as the aforementioned, aren’t necessarily a bad thing. The more we change, though, the further we stray from what the festivity is really about. But, what is it about? And did it ever truly mean anything to begin with? We took a look at the humble (or not so humble) beginnings and true meaning of it all, and where Christmas is today.  

First, Introducing Person Christmas

Fast forward to present day and the face of Christmas, that jolly old Santa Claus, is finding himself in the hot seat. Children around the world have cherished Father Christmas for ages, and now, according to Unilad, we’ve got a bunch of people calling for him to be renamed. As Person Christmas. That’s right. Father Christmas isn’t allowed to be a man anymore. People are fighting over the gender of a fictional being. The concept of gender fluidity has become more and more mainstream this year especially. For those who haven’t heard of this, it’s the idea that our gender identities, such as male and female, are not fixed and that people may identify as a mix of both male and female and whatever else they want. Wanna be a Christmas tree? That’s cool. You can be a shiny Christmas tree. It could be argued that Father Christmas, though, should be a male. This is because the magical being who brings joy to all the children of the world is based on St Nicholas, a real-life 3rd-century Turkish man who travelled in red Bishop’s robes and gave gifts to the poor. And even if they did manage to change his name and gender identity, as Unilad rightly points out, it only raises more issues. If Father Christmas changes, who will we have to change next?  

The Origins of Christmas

As much as we’d all love to, we can’t blame the liberals and the millennials for ruining everything. Truth is, Christmas as we’ve known it for a long time has been a bit of a mixed bag from the start. Early church leaders merged the Jesus nativity celebrations with other pre-existing midwinter festivals in order to reel in and convert all non-Christians. As a result, we’ve got a bunch of pagan and non-Christian traditions showing up all over the place. The act of gift-giving is inextricably tied to Christmas. People originally used to do this on New Year’s Day, a way of making loved ones feel good as the year ends. It wasn’t until the 1800s, the Victorian era, and with the royal family, that this custom shifted over to Christmas. Everything that Christmas is has been warped and changed over thousands of years, only arriving in the current, most well-known state about a century ago. Everything we now do, from Christmas trees to mistletoe to wreaths, has links to pagan traditions. The Christmas Tree, for instance, could have been derived from the pagan practice of bringing greenery indoors as decoration during midwinter.  

In The Beginning

As Christianity began to spread throughout Europe during the early centuries, missionaries ran into a variety of local and religious creeds. They simply lumped all of these together under the same umbrella term – pagan. Early Christians didn’t necessarily think of paganism as a good thing, but certainly thought it interesting and worth remembering. Perhaps that is the reason, then, that as Christianity grew certain pagan traditions remained. If one were to have a look through history, the festivity that resembles Christmas best may be the Roman pagan holiday of Saturnalia. Similar customs include gift giving, lighting of candles, feasting, singing, dancing and take place in late December. Saturnalia was known to have run from December 17 to 23 or even 25. According to historians, the midwinter would be a natural time for a feast. The harvest work is all done for the year and people finally have the time to devote some time to their religion. And frankly, everybody needs some cheering up during the winter solstice. It is widely believed that, in order to appease would-be converts, early Christians adopted the closing day of Saturnalia as the birth day of Jesus. Since the exact date is never given in the Bible, or anywhere else, nobody really cared to question it. This both humanised Jesus and allowed the newly-converted pagans the other holiday traditions they’d grown so accustomed to. Stephen Nissenbaum, professor of history at the University of Massachussetts, writes;
“In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Saviour’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.” 

The Day Jesus Was Born

It is also reported that the man who decided on 25 December as the birth day of Jesus was Pope Julius I. He promptly made this a religious holiday, because what better way is there to humanise a divine being than to give him a birthday, right here on earth, among us, and to celebrate it every year as we would a close family member? Other accounts, such as the De Pascha Computus, which is an anonymous document believed to have been written in North Africa around 243 CE, placed the birth of Jesus on March 28. Then Clement, a bishop of Alexandria, thought Jesus was born on November 18. Furthermore, based on historical records, Joseph Fitzmyer concluded that the birth of Jesus occurred on September 11, 3 BCE. It’s all up in the air, really.  

The Puritans Take Issue

The reformist-minded Protestants considered Christmas little better than paganism. That is, after all, where it has its roots, and the holiday was outright banned in New England for about 25 years during the 1600s. Christmas celebrations were often conducted in a disorderly, vulgar and boisterous fashion, and the Puritans weren’t having any of it. Forget all about Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas… This war was serious. Saturnalia, on the whole, tended toward the barbaric and extreme, and just wasn’t a great idea. Let’s fast forward a couple of dreary years. Following a poem – A Visit From St Nicholas – presumably written by Clement Clarke Moore, and cheerful depictions of Santa by cartoonist Thomas Nast in the mid-19th Century, with a heavy focus on children enjoying his jolly company, the heavily-religious finally began to ease their stance. This video, by the folks over at Fast Company, explains what happened next, and how the modern day Christmas came about: In modern times, the excess and spending and secular embrace of Christmas has some religious groups incensed once more. To some, the mass consumerism over the festive period seems to contradict the religious goal, of celebrating the birth of Jesus. In some ways, the excessive spending and gluttony is the modern equivalent of everything the Puritans of old frowned upon, and ultimately banned. All we know for sure is this: If you’d like to save money this Christmas, discuss religion and politics on Facebook. Happy Holidays to all our readers!