Many of us think of the Christmas holidays as consisting of only one, or at most two holidays…but there are plenty more than that.
If pressed, folklorists will admit that the Christmas holidays we enjoy today are just the latest in a string of winter solstice celebrations stretching back to the beginnings of Western history. And as special as they are, that’s actually true.
But there’s more to it than that. One of Christianity’s greatest strengths is its ability to accommodate and incorporate other traditions… and you know that as surely as you know that mistletoe and the Yule Log are classic Christmas customs.
All the Holidays of Christmas
Let’s begin with the Twelve Days of Christmas. Why 12? Probably because the Magi didn’t find baby Jesus and proclaim His divinity until 12 days after His birth. Catholics and related denominations call that twelfth day the Epiphany.
Speaking of the winter solstice, that’s the day on or about December 22 when days start lengthening again and the world quickens toward spring. Can you see how that old belief might be reinterpreted in the light of a Savior born on December 25?
And consider “Yule,” or “Yuletide.” Now accepted as just another name for Christmas, it originated as a combination of the months of December and January, called Geola in early England, and the Old Norse Jol, a pagan holiday that merged with Christmas about A.D. 1000.
The Romans celebrated a festival on December 17 called Saturnalia well into the fourth century, by which time the Empire was under Christian rule. Saturnalia may be the origin of our gift-giving and Christmas party traditions, as well as England’s Boxing Day, when the roles of master and servants are reversed.
Cycles of Renewal
By the Early Middle Ages, Christmas had fallen out of favor, having become secondary to Easter and the Epiphany on the Christian calendar. But gradually, the Forty Days of Saint Martin before Christmas evolved into Advent, which took on many of the characteristics of Saturnalia.
Later, the Twelve Holy Days of Christmastide (December 26 to January 6) ascended to prominence. Then came the British Puritans, who denounced Christmas as “popery” and succeeded in banning its celebration in 1647.
But you can’t keep a good holiday down. Pro-Christmas rioting actually broke out in some British cities, and by 1660 it was back in place as an official holiday, though some Christian leaders still frowned upon it.
Decking the Halls
One of the reasons they did so was because people started bringing evergreen boughs and mistletoe into their homes to brighten up the place in the dead of winter — a pagan tradition. Worse, they brought in and decorated trees. These evolved into today’s Christmas trees… and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Christmas holidays, in all their amalgamated glory, are here to stay.