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History of Christmas Day


In St. Vincent and the Grenadines and worldwide, the month of December holds one of the most celebrated holidays, namely Christmas. As a society built predominantly on Christianity and founded on Christian values, the Christmas holiday season is well entrenched on our culture. Nevertheless, many people celebrate this holiday without noting that is has pagan roots particularly as it relates to its date and customs.

Exactly how did we begin to celebrate December 25 as the birthday of Jesus? The answer to this question is embedded in one of many theories. The predominant idea lies in the period of time when the largely pagan Romans were about to convert to Christianity.{{more}} Before the conversion to Christianity however, it was customary that the Romans celebrated the popular holiday Saturnalia, a festival of feasting and revelry held in December in celebration of Saturn, the god of agriculture, and the winter solstice, long before the birth of Christ. Hence in 350, Pope Julius I declared that Christ’s birth would be celebrated on December 25. It is widely accepted that Pope Julius I was trying to make it as painless as possible for pagan Romans, who remained a majority at that time, to convert to Christianity as they would not have to lose their feasts around that time. Likewise, in ancient Babylon, (Babylon was a city in Mesopotamia, the ruins of which can be found in present-day Babil Province, Iraq, about 50 miles south of Baghdad) December 25 was the feast of the Son of Isis, Goddess of Nature. Raucous partying, gluttonous eating and drinking, and gift-giving were traditions of this feast.

According to historical evidence, the first known reference to December 25, as the birthday of Jesus, occurs in the year 354 AD. The reigning Emperor Honorius, mentions this date as being kept in Rome as a new festival and includes it as one of the three great festivals of the Church, the other two being Epiphany and Easter. The churches of Syria and Armenia did not approve of the date as they objected to its pagan connections. However, the eastern churches were, in the end, forced to acquiesce, and December 25 became established as Christmas Day throughout Christendom. At the time the English were converted to Christianity, during the sixth and seventh centuries, the pagan Festival of the 25 of December had long been established at Rome as a solemn festival. The origin of the Christian holiday and the idea that December 25 is Jesus’ date of birth was popularized when Julius Caesar introduced the Julian Calendar in 45 BC. December 25 was approximately the date of the solstice. In this manner our present Christmas celebration has evolved. The truth of the matter is that all of the customs of Christmas pre-date the birth of Jesus Christ, and a study of this would reveal that Christmas in our day is a collection of traditions and practices taken from many cultures and nations.

Christmas celebrations include a great number and variety of customs with either secular, religious, or national aspects which vary from country to country. For example, in the southern hemisphere, Christmas is during the summer. While in the northern hemisphere, it is in the winter. On Australia’s Bondi Beach a common sighting would be a Santa Claus surfing in for a turkey barbecue. South Korea, celebrates Christmas as an official holiday and it is the only East Asian country to recognise Christmas as a public holiday, here celebrations revolve around Santa Claus and shopping. On the other hand, after the Russian Revolution, Christmas celebrations were banned in that country from 1917 until 1992. Even today, throughout the U.S. and Europe, several Christian denominations, notably the Jehovah’s Witnesses and some fundamentalists, view Christmas as a pagan holiday not sanctioned by the Bible. Similarly, to our nine mornings, traditionally in the Philippines, Christmas Day is ushered in by the nine-day dawn masses that start on December 16, and is the most important Filipino Christmas tradition. In the town where Jesus was born, Bethlehem, the location of the Church of the Nativity, a dramatic annual procession of galloping horsemen and police mounted on Arabian horses leading the parade is the main highlight.

Christmas is typically the largest annual economic stimulus for many nations. Sales increase dramatically in almost all retail areas. As this celebration calls for feasts of magnitude above and beyond normal consumption levels, this is true for both the developed and developing nations of the world. The basic Christmas rituals, such as gift-giving, attending religious ceremonies, and re-decorating our homes, are shared by most nations where Christmas is celebrated. Planning, saving and budgeting would go a long way this Christmas in fostering some cheer as one would avert the financial pains of debt and stress. It is always mindful not to ‘over do’ the things that make Christmas a merry one for many persons, such as eating, drinking and spending excessively.

At this time last year, the Vincentian people were geared up to flex democratic muscles whilst still in the spirit of Christmas, the result was that the Unity Labour Party was returned to power overwhelmingly. This year let us borrow some of that democratic energy and shop wisely, and remember that no matter what we do, let Jesus be the centre piece of our Christmas.