When it comes to holidays – and the Christmas holiday season in particular – we all have our favorite traditions: decorating the tree (real or artificial), baking your favorite cookies, giving gifts to our loved ones. No matter how much we love our traditions, most of us know little about them – and the reasons behind them, often buried in ancient history. Read on for the top four historical holiday facts that will change the way you see Christmas.
1. What we know as the “holiday season” predates Christmas.
Like the ancient Romans celebrating Saturnalia, modern celebrators of Christmas around the world will enjoy festivities like gathering and feasting with loved ones and giving and receiving gifts. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Long before the existence of anything resembling our modern Christmas celebrations, ancient cultures celebrated different wintertime holidays that have left their mark on the traditions we know and love. In ancient Rome, a festival called Saturnalia was held on December 17th – today, coincidentally – each year to honor the god Saturn (Cronus in Greek mythology). The festivities stretched through December 23rd at some points in history, and eventually moved to December 25th.
While the name of the holiday might be unfamiliar, many of the traditions are not. Saturnalia celebrations often included gift-giving, singing, feasts, wreaths for decoration, and an abundance of candles. In fact, some sources go so far as to claim that early Christian evangelists reframed the immensely popular holiday of Saturnalia as Christmas to reflect Christian values and biblical figures as means of conversion to the religion.
Other ancient pagan holidays have also made an impression on our modern Christmas traditions. Ancient Persians celebrated the birthday of a god called Mithras on December 21st by eating dried fruits and nuts (“chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” anyone?). Historians have traced back the tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe to the Viking goddess of love and marriage, the BBC reported. Regardless of religious differences, December has long been a time of celebration for cultures throughout the world and the centuries.
2. Christmas trees are newer than you think.
Early tree “ornaments” included candles, apples, nuts, and sugar wafers. By the end of the 19th century, electric lights had been invented and artisans in Germany were exporting handcrafted bulbs. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
Christmas trees are unquestionably one of the holiday’s most beloved traditions. A full 88 percent of Americans put up Christmas trees each year, according to the History Channel. Yet the cherished tradition hasn’t been around all that long – only since the mid-1800s or so, at least in mainstream America, About Education reported. Some families in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, decorated Christmas trees during colonial times, but mostly only those who had immigrated from Germany, where the tradition was already established as early as the 15th or 16th century. The tradition caught on in Britain after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (who was German by birth) decorated a tree in Windsor Castle in 1841, and its popularity in magazines across the pond eventually brought the idea here to the U.S. Not until the 1870s did the Christmas tree become a fixture of the holiday season in America.
But why decorate a tree to begin with? The rationale for the practice dates back much farther in history, to ancient times, when the Vikings and the Saxons worshipped trees. Saturnalia may have been an influence on this tradition, too – guess what type of plant the ancient Romans used to make their wreaths and other greenery decorations? That’s right – evergreen.
3. Christmas hasn’t always been popular. In fact, it was once banned in America – and you’d be surprised who banned the holiday.
For most of us, there are plenty of things to enjoy about the holiday season. However, Christmas has at times been highly controversial – and I’m not talking about the “happy holidays” versus “Merry Christmas” kind of controversy.
First of all, it took literally centuries for Christmas to become an observance in the first place. Even once early Christians decided to celebrate the birth of Christ, they couldn’t reach a consensus on when the event would have occurred. Today, it’s believed that the real date could have been mid-June, half a year away from Christmas. So why was December 25th chosen as the annual celebration? Probably to allow early evangelists to incorporate the existing and highly popular pagan festivals into this new holiday.
However, even after the holiday was established – and well-loved across Europe – not everyone appreciated the occasion. In 1659, the Puritans who settled in Massachusetts forbid any non-religious observance of Christmas, fining those who dared to celebrate.
4. Christmas falls on the same day each year, but it’s not the same day in every country or culture.
Christmas is always on December 25th –in America, that is. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
Unlike certain other major holidays – such as Thanksgiving and Easter – Christmas is the same day each year. This makes it easy to keep track of, whether mentally plotting your holiday shopping route or counting down with an advent calendar. Yet in other cultures, asking what day Christmas is will get you an unexpected answer, something other than December 25th. The difference can be as large as a few weeks. Germany and the Netherlands, for example, start Christmas early by our standards, on December 6th. On the other end of the spectrum, Russia and the Ukraine don’t celebrate the holiday until January 7th.
There are countless holiday traditions, from writing letters to Santa to making gingerbread men. It doesn’t matter what traditions you practice – all that matters is that they bring joy and meaning to your family. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
It’s shocking how drastically Christmas celebrations have changed over the centuries to become the joyous occasion we think of today. Even now, we’re witnessing more changes in how we celebrate, from the popularity of pre-lit trees to phenomena, like the Elf on the Shelf, that could be the start of new traditions. However you celebrate, we hope your holiday season is full of joy and all of your favorite traditions.