Life was tough for those living in northern latitudes during prehistoric times. When the growing season ended they had to survive on what food they stored and what animals they could kill. Each day the darkness came a bit earlier and lasted longer into the next day. They feared the sun would disappear forever and leave them in permanent darkness and cold. After the solstice passed, they would begin to take heart that the sun would return, giving them reason to celebrate and to hope. Even without instruments, to measure the solstice, after a few days they could tell the sun was moving higher on its path, giving cause for celebration.
Beginning in the 3rd century BCE, the Romans honored Saturn, the god of the harvest. The Saturnalia celebration began on December 17 and lasted for a week. The festivities included giving gifts and lighting candles. Romans being Romans, over time it degenerated into a week of debauchery and revelry.
An ancient Syrian god, Sol Invictus (“The Unconquered Sun”) became the chief god of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century CE. The Roman citizens celebrated his holiday on December 25.
Theologians and religious historians estimate that Yeshua, later known as Jesus, was born in the autumn, sometime between the years 7 and 4 BCE. By the 4th century CE, western church leaders felt they needed to celebrate Christ’s birth. They chose December 25 because that date was recognized throughout the Roman Empire as the nativity of various pagan gods. There being no central church authority at the time, it took centuries for December 25 to be universally accepted. Ireland began celebrating Christmas in the 5th century. England, Austria and other European countries did not begin until the 8th century.
Christians adopted many pagan symbols, such as holly, mistletoe, decorated evergreen tree, gift giving and, yes, magical reindeer. The Romans decorated trees for their Saturnalia festivities. Vikings adorned evergreen trees with pieces of food and clothing, and small statues of the gods to persuade the spirits to return in the spring.
Santa Claus is an amalgam of a number of pre-Christian stories. German mythology includes the character Odin, a wise old man with a beard who rode an eight-legged horse. Ancient Anglo-Saxon solstice celebrations featured Father Time, King Frost or King Winter, dressed in a green hooded cloak wearing a wreath made of holly or mistletoe.
Our pilgrim antecedents were not enthusiasts of Christmas. In the mid 17th century, Christmas was actually outlawed in the city of Boston. The first Congress under our new Constitution was in session on December 25, 1789. It was not until the years after the Civil War that Christmas started to gain popularity in the U.S.
The religious – “Christ’s Mass” – and the profane – St. Nicholas – both gained recognition. Washington Irving (The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent), Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol), Clement Clarke Moore (A Visit From St. Nicholas) and Thomas Nast (Santa Claus illustrations) helped popularize the celebration. Christmas finally became an official U.S. Holiday in 1885. Now we celebrate Black Friday.
A final thought: what does this have to do with Starbucks and the war on Christmas? Historically, the war on Christmas has been waged mostly by Christians.
Special fun bonus link: The story of the Starbucks mermaid.