The Winter Solstice was traditionally celebrated on December 21 in the northern hemisphere. Well before the birth of Jesus, ancient peoples marked the Winter Solstice with celebrations and rejoicing that the coldest part of the year was behind them. From December 22, the days start to lengthen and the days gradually get warmer.
Christmas celebrations are, to some extent, the modern day equivalent of the Winter Solstice celebrations.
The actual birth of Jesus is widely believed not to have occurred in December. Nevertheless, the celebrations of Jesus's birth occur on approximately the same day as the Winter Solstice. Christmas now serves as the mid-winter celebration for the northern hemisphere. Of course, in the southern hemisphere, Christmas falls in mid summer - at approximately the time of the Summer Solstice.
Saturnalia was also a celebration of the Winter Solstice that occurred in ancient pagan Rome. Saturnalia was celebrated in honor of the god of agriculture, named Saturn. During the time of Saturnalia, servants and peasants spend time with and celebrate the holiday with people of higher classes, which certainly did not occur throughout the rest of the year. The Saturnalia festival in itself could last as long as a week in Rome. During that time, people rejoiced all over Rome. The phrase 'eat, drink, and be merry' was played out to its fullest.
So celebrations at the time of the Winter Solstice were well established prior to the birth of Jesus. But what about some specific Christmas traditions with which we're all familiar?
Do you think the Christmas tree originated as a Christian tradition? Well, think again - In Scandinavia during the Winter Solstice, men and their sons used to go in to the woods to cut a tree down. After the tree had been felled, a nicely sized log was cut out of it, and the men would carry the log back to the home. This log was dubbed a Yule Log, and the Yule log was burned in the fireplace. The entire time the Yule log burned, the family would feast. Again, this was a Winter Solstice tradition rather than a specifically Christian tradition. Often, the Scandinavian Yule log might burn for a whole twelve days! Nowadays the Yule log is represented in the form of an iced log-shaped cake, and is associated with the Christian Christmas experience.
As the Yule log burned it sent sparks out of the hearth and as the sparks flew out of the fire place, the family would count the sparks, as they believed that each spark represented a farm animal that would be born on their property that year. These beliefs have little to do with Christmas beliefs and celebrations, but the Yule log is now firmly associated with Christmas in the minds of many.
Even the Christmas story is thought by some to have been influenced by a pagan myth. But despite that, the story itself and all the traditions which have come to be associated with it form a firm part of the Christmas experience of millions, both in the northern and southern hemispheres. So whether you celebrate Christmas in the snow, or on the beach, you're likely to identify Christmas with Christmas trees, Yule logs, lots of food, and family time.
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