Why do we celebrate Christmas
Every year, on December 25th, much of the world celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Traditionally, a ‘Mass’, or church service, is held in celebration of Christ on this day and this is where the word Christmas derives, Christ’s Mass. Sometimes, we abbreviate this to Xmas. This is because the western ‘X’ is equivalent to ‘chi’, the first letter of Christ’s name, and a holy symbol, in Greek.
Jesus Christ was born over 2000 years ago. The exact birth date of Jesus is unknown, but in the second century AD, Christians chose 25th December to celebrate His birth, as this was already a special date on the contemporary calendar.
Long before Jesus was born, the 25th of December was amid the celebrations for the passing of the shortest day of the year. People worshipped the sun with special services where they prayed to the sun to return and give them another summer. Christians believed that God made the sun and decided to worship the ‘Son of God’ on this day.
Contention among the early church fathers extended beyond disputes about the exact date of Christ’s birth. Many, among them the early Christian scholar Origen, argued that birthday celebrations were simply pagan rituals and should be retained only for pagan gods.
In the fourth century AD, when the Romans adopted Christianity, they began to celebrate Christmas with great processions to church, and nativities. It wasn’t until 521 AD that Christmas was celebrated in England, when King Arthur went to York Minster to remember Christ’s birthday after we had won a great battle against the Saxons. As Christianity began to spread, Christmas celebrations replaced the pagan winter solstice celebrations honouring the sun. A central part of these pagan celebrations was the sacrifice of animals. In 601 AD, Pope Gregory issued an edict that Christians must “no longer offer beasts to devils, but worship God by feasting”. By the Middle Ages, Christmas had become a very jolly celebration. Great feasts were held and the otherwise stern lords of the castles gave up their places to the “Lords of Misrule”, whose task it was to play jokes and tricks on others, and keep everybody merry.
When Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector of England, the Puritan Parliament made laws that Christmas should be a solemn time. Feasting was forbidden because the Puritans thought merrymaking had more to do with pagan sun worship that with Christ’s birth. Charles II resumed the old style celebrations when he was restored to the throne shortly after, although strong opposition 50 Charles II in Scotland meant that the Scots kept the Puritan ways. This is why Christmas in Scotland is not the festival it is in England.
Over time, many of the pagan practices and rituals were subsumed in to what we now consider recognized Christmas celebrations. For example, the use of light and lights is a common symbol used in Christmas celebrations. Long ago, pagan sun worshippers would build large fires on the solstice which they believed would strengthen the sun god that he might return. So, long before Jesus, fire and light played an important part in the December worship. Similarly, before Jesus, the Jews had a festival of lights in which candles were burnt. It was a festival to remember the rebuilding of Solomon’s Temple, and the candles were lit to show that truth would once more be heard in the Temple. The light of a flame has since been the emblem of truth. Today, there are many rituals that were founded in the recent decades, or even years.