6000 Years of Christmas

Marduk vs. Tiamat, from a Babylonian cylinder seal (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Marduk vs. Tiamat, from a Babylonian cylinder seal (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Holidays are protean things; not only do the rituals by which we celebrate them change, but also their rationales and even their names.  Over the course of millennia a celebration may eventually change so much that it no longer appears to be anything like it was to start with, yet there are always similarities and survivals, threads which connect the past to the present to the future to form one tapestry stretching across time and into many different places.  Christmas is both the oldest existing human holiday and the most widely celebrated, and I’ve written a great deal about it in my blog over the last few years; today I’d like to synopsize some of that, thus providing a brief history of Mankind’s favorite festival.

The story began about 3900 BCE, when all over the world the climate abruptly cooled and dried; this led to the settlement of river valleys, the first large, centralized governments and the development of agricultural calendars.  One can imagine the dread with which those early people would have reacted to the failure of the rains and the shortening of the growing season; over time the stories of how pleasant things used to be would have become exaggerated until they grew into the belief that man had once existed in a paradise from which he had been expelled due to some dreadful offense against the gods.  Because they saw each winter as a threat of worsening conditions, nearly every temperate-zone agricultural society developed some sort of religious rituals for this time of year, to placate the gods and bring back the sun.  The Sumerians incorporated the ritual into their creation myth, in which the sky-god Anu triumphed over the forces of chaos; the Babylonians inherited that ceremony, and though they held it at the end of winter rather than the beginning, their festival of Zagmuk is one of the direct ancestors of Christmas.  The battle in which their god Marduk defeated the dragon Tiamat was believed to have lasted for 12 days, so the festival did as well; this is the origin of our 12 days of Christmas.  The priests and nobles enacted a pageant (the ancestor of our Christmas pantomime) in which the king played Marduk, and he was supposed to be sacrificed so as to join the god in the underworld and fight by his side.  But because it was impractical to have a new king every year, what actually happened was that on the first day of Zagmuk, the king abdicated his power and a condemned criminal was invested as king.  He was feted and given homage, and played the part of Marduk in the early part of the festival; he was then sacrificed and the true king resumed his station.  And while the ruling classes enacted all this, the common people helped by burning dragon effigies in bonfires.

The Zagmuk festival spread to the Near East, and though it changed as it spread its influence can be clearly seen.  The dedication of a human sacrifice to represent the death of the god was adopted by the Ancient Greeks, but their ceremony was far more horrible than that of the cultured Babylonians:  at Lenaea, women (the givers of life and representatives of Mother Earth) would drink wine, work themselves into a religious frenzy and go out into the forest, running wild until they encountered a lone hunter from another tribe, whom they would then literally tear to pieces and devour so as to restore fertility to the earth.  Afterwards, a newborn male baby was dedicated as a symbol of the reborn Dionysos, god of the vines which were their most important crop.  But over the centuries, both the Greeks and the Middle Eastern cultures began to find human sacrifice repugnant; the human victim was replaced by an animal, which was cooked rather than being consumed raw.  By the 5th century BCE a festival named Kronia had been added just before the solstice, and eventually most of the celebrations became attached to it rather than Lenaea (which became a formal festival rather than a popular one).  When the Romans “borrowed” much of Greek culture and religion, Kronos was identified with their popular and important harvest-god Saturn, and Kronia thus became Saturnalia.  In the meantime, Zagmuk had spread all over the Middle East and was now called Akitu; the old custom of a criminal being crowned king had developed into the tradition that during the twelve days of the festival the social order was reversed, with masters waiting upon slaves and one slave chosen to be the head of the household for the duration.  This, too, was adopted by the Romans and incorporated into their Saturnalia.  The Romans were not merely imitators, however; it was they who changed the tradition of giving a gift to the gods (i.e. a sacrifice) into the giving of gifts to each other.

As the Roman Empire aged and became more cosmopolitan, many previously-local cults spread far and wide and their adherents met and mingled.  One of the most important of these cults was that of the Persian sun-god Mithra, who was very popular with warriors; like all sun-gods his birth was at the winter solstice, which in the Roman calendar was December 25th.  Mithra eventually became so popular that the Emperor Elagabalus (218-222) declared that he was actually the same as the Roman sun-god Sol and the Syrian sun god El-Gabal, and gave him the new title Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun).  The syncretised deity soon absorbed many smaller cults, and in 274 the Emperor Aurelian declared him the chief god of the Empire and officially transferred all of the Saturnalia celebrations to his birthday.  Christianity was, of course, quite popular in the Empire by this time, and the association of Jesus with Sol Invictus was so natural that it quickly became an established fact, much to the consternation of church leaders.  By the beginning of the 4th century many Roman Christians celebrated the birth of Christ on December 25th, thus giving the public holiday their own private meaning; earlier writings on the subject theorize that Jesus was born sometime in the spring.  And when the Empire was Christianized a few years later, the Sol Invictus festival seamlessly turned into Christmas, with all traditions intact and the Christian nativity myth added to it.

The Church fathers weren’t too happy about Christ’s birthday being celebrated with pagan rituals, but they were eventually forced to admit that Christmas was not going to go away; by the Middle Ages the Church embraced the celebration and worked to insert as much Christian symbolism into it as possible.  Nativity scenes first appeared in 10th-century Rome, and were popularized by Saint Francis of Assisi beginning in 1223 (St. Francis also popularized religious Christmas carols sung in the vernacular).  Christian explanations were developed for pagan traditions, and apologists even denied that the date of Christmas had anything to do with the festival of Sol Invictus.  Meanwhile, the Celtic and Germanic peoples had long celebrated their own solstice festival, which the Germans called Yule.  In their darker, colder countries the death of vegetation was more pronounced than in sunny Italy, so the symbolism of evergreens was more important; evergreen branches or small trees were brought into their houses as a reminder that spring would indeed come again, and these were sometimes adorned with candles to symbolize the returning sun.  When the Church expanded into these countries, Yule merged so smoothly with Christmas that we still use the former as a synonym for the latter, and the holiday gained the Christmas tree, Yule log, mistletoe and other Northern elements.

By the Renaissance Christmas was fully established as an important Church festival, but the Reformation brought preachers who thundered against Christmas as “heathenism”.  The Church responded by trying to make the festival more religious, and many German Protestants continued the celebration quietly but replaced Saint Nicholas or other traditional gift-giving figures with the Christkindl (Christ child), a term corrupted in English to “Kris Kringle”.  In the English-speaking world, Christmas was actually banned in England under the Commonwealth from 1647-1660, and in Boston from 1659-1681.  You can’t keep a good holiday down, though, and the influence of German, Dutch, French and Spanish settlers made Christmas popular in the United States by the first quarter of the 19th century; that’s why Americans call Father Christmas “Santa Claus”, a corruption of the Dutch “Sinterklaas” (Saint Nicholas).  In England, industrialization and the resulting explosive growth of cities had broken up extended families, and many people had begun to think of Christmas as old-fashioned.  Some writers began working to re-popularize the holiday, but none succeeded as well as Charles Dickens, whose immensely popular 1843 novella A Christmas Carol did more to revive Christmas in England than any other single influence; even the modern preeminence of the phrase “Merry Christmas” over all other holiday greetings is largely due to its prominent use in the book.  Dickens emphasized the secular, family-centered celebration and the display of generosity toward the poor over the church-centered religious elements of the holiday, and that soon became the pattern of Christmas in England.

And that, of course, brings us to the present.  By the mid-19th century the festivities were not very different from those of today, and by the early 20th they were almost indistinguishable.  Though conservative Christians blather about a “war on Christmas” and insist that the holiday belongs to them and them alone, history demonstrates not only that they are wrong, but that for much of their history they were the ones conducting a “war” against it.  The festival of the reborn sun is older than civilization itself, and has had many names and many rationales; it will doubtless have many others in the millennia to come, and will continue to exist for as long as humans value coming together to celebrate with those we love.

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