The roots of the holiday of Christmas were always more Pagan than Christian, associated with a multitude of pre-Christian traditions in many countries around the world.
The Christmas season was closely associated with the birth of gods and heroes that pre-dated the Christian calendar. Some, like Britain's own King Arthur, had a traditional cyclical tale of mystical birth, destiny of death for the greater good of their people, and a glorious resurrection, or Second Coming, that was similar to that of the Christian Jesus.
The year's seasonal cycle culminates in what we now know as Christmas celebrations. In 46 BC, Julius Caesar in his new Julian calendar established December 25 as the date of the Winter Solstice in Europe (though scientifically speaking, the date varies and will take place on December 22nd in 2011). The winter solstice occurs exactly when the axial tilt of a planet's polar hemisphere is farthest away from the star that it orbits (our Sun for planet Earth). Since this lasts just a brief moment in time, it's also known as Midwinter Night, the longest night and shortest day of the year, or the first day of winter.
The Winter Solstice was of huge import because communities were not certain of living through the winter. Starvation was common. This festival was the last celebration before deep winter began. Cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a ready supply of fresh meat was available. The wine and beer made throughout the year was ready for drinking.
Since the event is seen as the reversal of the Sun's fading presence in the sky, concepts of the birth or rebirth of sun gods have been common and the year as "reborn" has been celebrated with new beginnings such as Hogmanay (Scotland), a New Year's tradition.
Christmas in Pagan tradition is the birthday of the new Sun King. On the darkest of nights, the Goddess becomes the Great Mother and once again gives birth. The Sun King is the new spark of hope, the Sacred Fire, the Light of the World.
There had been a tradition in the Christian religion that the Virgin Mary gave birth to the infant Jesus on the twenty-fifth day, but no one could seem to decide on the month. Finally, in 320, the Catholic fathers in Rome decided to make it December, in an effort to co-opt the Mithraic celebration of the Romans and the Yule celebrations of the Celts and Saxons.
By the year 529, it was a civic holiday, and all work or public business was prohibited by the Emperor Justinian. In 563, the Council of Braga forbade fasting on Christmas Day, and four years later the Council of Tours proclaimed the twelve days from December 25 to Epiphany as a sacred, festive season. Christmas, due to the slow spread of Christianity throughout the sprawling Roman Empire, wasn't celebrated in Ireland until the late fifth century or in England until the seventh century.
Pagans had long been celebrating in this season by bringing in a Yule log, wishing on it, and lighting it from the remains of last year's log. In the northeast of England it was commonly called a Yule clog, and in the Midlands and West Country, the term Yule block was also used. In Cornwall, the term Stock of the Mock was used to refer to it. In Wales, the log was termed Y Bloccyn Gwylian, meaning the Festival Block, whilst in Scotland, Yeel Carline (meaning the Christmas Old Wife) was used, and in Ireland, it was called Bloc na Nollaig, which means the Christmas Block. Originally the trunk of an entire tree was blessed and placed into the depths of the hearth to obtain maximum heat and light for the celebrations.
In ancient Druidic practice, a log, usually oak, was drilled with holes and candles inserted. The entire log was then decorated with holly and evergreens to represent the intertwining of God and Goddess. Hopes for fertile crops, herds, and families were invested in the Yule log image.
The Christmas wreath is also a Pagan symbol of the wheel of the year, creating a visual cycle decorated similarly to the Yule log. From pre-Christian times, people brought branches from evergreen plants indoors in the winter. Mistletoe was especially venerated by the Celtic Druids, who believed it to be an aphrodisiac.
The heart-shaped leaves of ivy were said to symbolize the coming of Jesus, while holly's thorns and red berries represent the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus at the Crucifixion and the blood He shed. The traditional colors of Christmas are green and red. Red symbolizes the blood of Jesus, which was shed in His Crucifixion, while green symbolizes eternal life, and in particular the evergreen tree.
Outdoor coniferous trees (pines, firs, spruces) were decorated at this time of year with images of what people wished the new year to hold for them, such as fruits and strings of berries for successful harvest, charms for love and happiness, and nuts for fertility, in additional to placing candles on the boughs or in a circle around the tree. Eventually this would evolve into our modern decorated Christmas tree.
From Germany the custom was re-introduced to Britain, first via Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz, queen of George III, and then by Prince Albert during the reign of Queen Victoria. By 1841 the Christmas tree had become even more widespread throughout Britain. By the 1870s, people in the United States had adopted the custom of putting up a Christmas tree.
Putting up Christmas lights in modern times is a holdover of Pagan candles and fires lit when the Sun is at its lowest ebb. It's still an Irish custom to leave lights burning all through the house on Midwinter Night to honor the Sun's return. Candles in windows are meant to demonstrate the fact that Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the ultimate light of the world.
In the Pagan tradition, riddles were posed and answered, divinations (of Viking origin, via the casting of runes), magic, fertility rites, and rituals were practiced, animals were sacrificed and consumed along with large quantities of liquor, and they went house to house caroling. Many of these customs have entered the mainstream of Christian celebration.
The tradition of gift-giving during this season has its roots in Roman practice. The Pagan celebration of Saturnalia was a New Year's festival where gifts were given in honor of loved ones who had died during the previous year. Early Romans brought this tradition to the British Isles, where it caught on as part of the Yule celebration. Christmas gifts were banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages due to its Pagan origins. It was later rationalized by the Church on the basis that it associated St. Nicholas with Christmas, and that gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were given to the infant Jesus by the Biblical Magi.
In Druid tradition, the Holly King (king of the waning or old year) does battle with the Oak King (king of the waxing or new year). Vestiges of the Holly King can be seen in our modern Santa Claus, who also wears red, wears a spring of holly in his hat, lives but one night a year, and drives a team of eight deer. Eight is symbolic of the eight annual Pagan cerebrations and deer are sacred to the Celtic gods. The robin is also symbolic of the waxing year, and the wren is symbolic of the waning year.
Many Christians carried the celebrations through to forty days after Christmas, the date of an ancient Pagan festival (Imbolc) on February 2nd. This is now celebrated by Christians as Candlemas, AKA the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, AKA the Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple, AKA the Feast of St Blaise, including the blessing of throats for good health. Blessed candles were taken away from the day's Catholic Mass to be used for giving comfort to the sick and dying.
The prominence of royal Christmas celebrations increased gradually after Charlemagne was crowned Emperor on Christmas Day in 800. Edmund the Martyr, an Anglo-Saxon king of England, was crowned on Christmas in 855, and William I of England AKA William the Conqueror was crowned on Christmas Day 1066.
Christmas in the Middle Ages was a public festival that incorporated ivy, holly, and other evergreens. Gift-giving during the Middle Ages was usually between people with legal relationships, such as courtier and king. The annual indulgence in eating, dancing, singing, sporting, and card playing escalated in Tudor England, and by the 16th century the Christmas season featured lavish dinners, elaborate masques, and pageants. It was during the Reformation that the date of giving gifts changed from New Year's Day or St Nicholas's Day (December 6th) to Christmas Eve.
This merrymaking period climaxed on Twelfth Night (January 6th, AKA the Feast of the Epiphany), which became the traditional end of the Christmas season. In Tudor England, Twelfth Night itself was forever solidified in popular culture when William Shakespeare used it as the setting and title for one of his most famous stage plays.
Following the Parliamentarian victory over Charles I during the English Civil War, England's Puritan rulers banned Christmas in 1647.
Protests followed as pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities, and for weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted Royalist slogans. The book The Vindication of Christmas argued against the Puritans, and made note of English Christmas traditions. The Puritans in colonial Massachusetts, who were virulently anti-Catholic, also banned this "Popish" celebration, its Pagan roots having been all but forgotten.
Christmas celebrations returned in England following the Restoration of Charles II to the throne and have merrily carried on ever since, the ancient traditions melding into the Christian. Christmas at the royal court was especially elaborate and of course we shall *get smarter here* about such things in future articles ;-)
If you missed the seed A Right Royal Christmas: Medieval and Tudor Christmas Courts, you've missed the kickoff to A Right Royal Christmas. They summed it up better than I could and did all the work for me. Go see, it's nice :P