The season to be jolly is finally here. Fir and pine trees all around the world are laden with pretzels, candies and twinkling incandescent lights. Carrying an ebullient air about it, the ocassion has always been associated to the big red jovial man we fondly call Santa Claus. The streets are draped with bright lights just as we are with our scarves. The positivity and happiness that the holiday cheer brings can be felt in every nook and corner. Panic driven spending sprees and all the excitement never leaves us with an opportunity to question the reason for our gaiety.
This mood is justified as it brings forth the idea of celebrating the birth of the leader of the Christian faith, Yeshua, commonly known as Jesus Christ. The word Christmas can be broken down to Christ’s mass, or simply put, a gathering to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. While this may be the reason for celebration today, was this always the case? Throughout the annals of history books and across the timeline of humankind, we have been celebrating the birthday of Jesus Christ on the 25th of December. Why did we start celebrating the birthday in the first place? And if so, why on that particular date? Christmas, as it turns out to be, was not always a global birthday party for one of the greatest leaders of humanity.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JESUS?
Christmas, before it was called so, was a celebration of light in the darkest days of winter, especially during the winter solstice. Many people rejoiced that the long nights were now over and that they could look forward to brighter days. In Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe, the Winter Solstice is known as Yule. Fathers and sons would bring home large logs-Yule logs that would be set alight. The feast would continue for as long as the fire burnt; sometimes lasting up to twelve days.
The Romans celebrate Saturnalia to honour Saturn, god of agriculture, starting from the week leading up to the Winter Solstice. December 25th is celebrated as Dies Natalis Solis, or rather the birthday of the unconquered sun, as the Romans thought the Winter Solstice took place on this day. It is also considered as the day the Pagan Sun god Mithra was born. Saturn wasn’t exactly the jovial and cozy Santa of the modern age; in fact, ancient astrologers considered being born under Saturn bad news. The ‘mascots’ of celebration were quite similar- only that instead of the red bag filled with presents, Saturn carried a grim bayonet, and instead of providing gifts to children, he used to eat his own (yes, his own children).
Channel the Nordic roots for a while, and one comes to realize that the mistletoe that is heavily frequented and accounted for in the Christmas celebrations is also closely linked with Baldur, the son of Freya and Odin. Baldur was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe. The point here is that Christmas celebrations and festivities vary a lot and draw heavy influence from other revels in the winters.
WHEN IS CHRISTMAS?
It was not until about two millennia ago that Jesus, and with him, Christmas, was born. Although celebrated so, no sign in the New Testament indicates December 25th to be his actual birthday. The first recorded date for Christmas being celebrated on that date was during Constantine’s reign in 336. A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared December 25th as the day Jesus was born.
The possibility that we are celebrating a game-changing moment for mankind on a wrong day may enliven the festive mood. However, if an assumption was to be made, why was December 25th considered the appropriate one?
Some believe that date was chosen after the Dies Natalis Solis while others believe in an early Christian belief that Mary was told that she would have a special baby on March 25th. Nine months from this event is December 25th. The Spring Equinox could also have been chosen as some early Christians thought the world was created on this day, the day of Jesus’ conception. For a long time, the celebration of his birth was considered to be on January 6th, the day he was baptized.
Another theory is based on Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. This festival is celebrated on the 25th of Kislev, the month in the Jewish calendar corresponding to the same time as December. Since Jesus was a Jew, this could be another possible explanation as to why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th.
WHAT IS CHRISTMAS?
Ambiguous history does not mean that the Christmas spirit is completely surrendered; it’s just that the credibility of the reason is not very cognizable.Do you know why stirring a pudding from east and west during Christmas considered lucky? It is because the Sun god has the same trajectory. Guess the direction the three wise men travelled in for the birth of the Christ-child? East to west. Christmas, just like every other festival, is characterized by a few things so inherently Christmas that we cannot imagine a December without them.
We keep in touch with folklore through the commercialisation of festivals. We all would recognize the Nativity scene as a piece kept at every commercial space. The scene narrates the birth of Jesus through two accounts, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Luke’s narrative mentions an angel announcing the birth to shepherds who then visit the site to see Jesus lying in a manger. Matthew’s narrative suggests the wise men who follow a star to the house of Jesus. Both, however, have no mention of the other.
Santa Claus. Father Nicholas. Santa, or popularised by Gene Autry’s rhyme ‘Up on the house top,’ Saint Nick, is supposed to make his first appearance in a weekly magazine’s cover in the 1860s. Donning green robes, he was supposed to rule the woods. Give the credits of all this fiery red associated with the festival to Coca-Cola who featured Santa sipping on a Coke in their ad-campaigns of 1931.
Whether it is the burning of logs or jamming to Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You,’ December has always been a month of celebration for people all over the world. The open-ended history is what makes Christmas the unique holiday it is. Although the date of the festivity is likely to be an assumption, the joy and glee brought by it are not. For over 2000 years, Christmas has always been about the fun and enjoyment in togetherness. From timeless carols and movies to brightly lit trees and colourful sweaters, it really is the time to be jolly.
–Aarohi Sarma and Siddharth Sharma for MTTN