Christmas is the day when Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus, who they consider to be the Son of God. The name itself comes from the Mass of Christ which is where they remember that Jesus died for them and came back to life. The Christ Mass was the only service allowed after sunset and before sunrise the following morning. No one is sure in which year the birth is supposed to have happened nor is the date given in the bible. Scholars have worked out that Jesus’ birth was probably between 6 and 1 BC. The first reference to 25th December is by the theologian Hippolytus, writing in 303AD when he says, in his commentary on the book of Daniel, “ For the first Advent of our Lord in the flesh when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty second year but for Adam five thousand five hundred years.” The reference to Adam is important as in another book, called the Chronicon, he explains that Jesus was born nine months after the anniversary of the Creation, which according to his calculations, was 25th March.
In 336AD the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, celebrated Christmas on December 25th and a few years later Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on that day. There are a number of reasons why this day made sense.
Firstly, December 25th is nine months after the “Annunciaton”, the day when the Angel Gabriel told Mary that she was going to conceive and become the mother of Jesus. According to the book of Luke this occurred in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist. Christians celebrate this on March 25th. As we can see from Hippolytus, this is the same day that it was believed the Earth was created and Jesus was born nine months after this date.
Secondly there are many pagan festivals around the same time, which were used by the early Christian Church to help it be accepted by people of all beliefs. This was the time of the Winter Solstice, which takes place on the day when the time is shortest between the sun rising and setting, December 21st or 22nd. To pagans this meant that Winter was over and Spring was on its way. They were celebrating the victory of the sun over the darkness of the winter. One of these occasions is Saturnalia, a pagan festival celebrating Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. This lasted between December 17th and 23rd. The second was Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the birthday of the Unconquered Sun, Mithra, which took place on December 25th. In Scandinavia this period is known as Yule. The Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah, starts on 25th of Kislev, the month in the Jewish calendar around the time of December. This celebrates the day when the Jews re-dedicated and worshipped in their temple in Jerusalem after a period in which they were banned. Christians were therefore celebrating the birth of the “Unconquered Son”.
Thirdly Christmas has also been celebrated on January 6th – Epiphany. This is the day on which the revelation that Jesus was God’s son was made known, and the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. This is also the day that the Magi, wise men, are said to have visited Jesus and marks the twelfth day of Christmas. Some Protestant churches now celebrate Epiphany as a season that extends until Ash Wednesday. For many Christians this event was more important than the birth of Jesus and was celebrated more than his birth date.
Whatever the date, it is highly unlikely that is was mid-winter. The shepherds would not have been tending their flocks in the fields as they would have been deep in snow and far too cold. Spring or Autumn would have been more likely. The Puritans of New England banned the observance of Christmas anyway because they linked the traditions to paganism and in the early years of the United States it was seen as a British tradition and fell out of fashion. It wasn’t until 1870 that it became a federal holiday.
Trees are synonymous with Christmas - especially evergreens. Those plants that remain green all year round have long had a special meaning for people in winter as it was felt that they had defeated the season, the darkness. For many it was felt that evergreens kept away witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illnesses. Not only had they survived but also they were a reminder that greenery would grow again when the Sun God was strong. The Egyptian God, Ra, had a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice when Ra recovered, Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes to symbolise the triumph of life over death. At the time of Saturnalia, to recognise that crops would soon be back, homes were decorated with evergreen boughs. The Druids of Northern Europe, the priests of the ancient Celts, decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The Vikings also thought evergreens were a special plant of their Sun God, Balder.
Germany is often credited with the first indoor Christmas tree tradition in the sixteenth century, although both Tallinn, in Estonia, and Riga, in Latvia, vie for the first documented Christmas tree but theirs were outdoors. Martin Luther is said to have added lighted candles to his tree after walking home one evening and seeing the stars twinkle between the large evergreens around him.
In Germany the first trees were decorated with edible objects – nuts, gingerbread and gold covered apples. Glassmakers then started to manufacture baubles. The baby Jesus was put on top of the tree but this gradually changed to an angel/fairy or a star to symbolise what the wise men had followed. Tinsel was first made out of strips of battered silver and, when this was then man-made, became a very popular decoration.
On December 25th 1800 Charlotte, the German wife of George III, introduced a Christmas tree at a party she gave for some children but this tradition did not take off until, in 1848, Queen Victoria and her German husband, Albert, were sketched standing by a Christmas tree with their children in the Illustrated London News. As she was such a popular monarch, especially then, this began to catch on in the houses of the aristocracy. Victoria loved these trees. In 1832 she had written that, “After dinner we went into the drawing room. There were two tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents were placed underneath.” A book describing the use of Christmas trees was on sale in 1844. Gradually the tradition of indoor evergreens was taking off.
The use of trees gradually diminished during the period around World War One as anti-German sentiment grew, but by 1930 their popularity returned to all levels of society. In 1933 the government imposed a restriction on imported trees and this led to a massive new industry in Britain. By 2013 there were over 8 million grown in the UK alone.
The Christmas tree is a powerful, visual and popular tradition today. How many would realise that we are repeating and recycling the traditions of people over 3000 years ago?