Advent conspiracy 9: the invention of Christmas…

Today, Bob Fraser takes us on a bit of journey about the origin of our seasonal festivities.

Photo by Samuel Becerra on

In this reflective season of Advent, I’ve been thinking about traditions and religious festivals, and last week I re-watched the seasonal film ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’.

At this time of year the amount of daylight is getting less and my brief and rather unscientific research suggests that the Norse tradition of Yule marked the winter solstice – the day with least sunshine, which occurs around 21st or 22nd December in the Northern Hemisphere. Dec 25th was also when the Romans celebrated with a festival for one of their Gods, Saturn, (Saturnalia).

In our western culture, an eclectic mix of secular and sacred have, over the years, been fused together to form something else altogether – a bit like copper and tin making bronze.  Somehow The Roman good luck practice of using Holly and the Celtic Druids use of Mistletoe have found their way into the mix. The Druids seemed to be reflecting the ancient Greek practice of people kissing underneath mistletoe during weddings to symbolise peace and people coming together. Even the German tradition of candlelit Christmas trees, has its origin in symbolic use of evergreens in ancient Egypt and Rome. The giving of presents was part of Roman tradition too, as gifts were offered in worship of the God Saturn. It seems then that many of the traditions we associate with Christmas have their origin around two thousand years ago.

So here we are in the Christian season of Advent with Christmas on the horizon, and, as a believer, I am about to embark on a journey of stories and traditions, many of which have their origins in pagan celebrations.

Perhaps the Romans would have been aggrieved at their traditions being hijacked and trampled on, in just the same way that I felt a tad upset some years ago when the Post Office had a spell of not producing stamps with a religious image on them, and some local authorities banned the word Christmas, in an attempt to reflect a more inclusive and multi-cultural approach.

To be honest, I’m way more accepting now of differing traditions than I used to be when I was younger. Issues are no longer as black and white. Yes, I’m uncomfortable with some of the excesses of this season, but it’s good to mark these celebrations in some way. Cultural traditions, beliefs and expressions change over time. Each generation may adapt things from earlier practices. So I don’t expect everyone to align with all the things that I might believe in, just as I might not align with theirs. Surely, a measure of mutual acceptance of the differing stories is more likely to bring peace on Earth than haggling about whether celebrations should be secular or sacred.

So despite it being an enjoyable film, it wasn’t Charles Dickens or the Victorians who invented all of our western Christmas traditions after all. Perhaps they just pinched ideas from the Romans and the Druids and forged them into a new narrative for Christmas. 

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