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Jay O'Dell: Ancient winter festivals contributed to our holiday customs

Dec. 17, 2008 @ 08:58 PM

The word Christmas originated as a compound word meaning "Christ's Mass," referring to a gathering of people to worship Christ (Jesus). The Roman letter X was used as an abbreviation for Christ, hence Xmas is often used as an abbreviation for Christmas today.

But many Christmas traditions were celebrated for centuries before Christ was born. Many of the Christmas traditions originated in ancient Mesopotamia within Asia (present day Iraq and Iran).

Celebrations before Christ included traditions such as the 12 days of Christmas, yule log, giving of gifts, parades, songs, holiday feasts and church gatherings.

The Mesopotamians believed in many gods, the chief god being celebrated in a winter festival for 12 days. The Persians and Babylonians celebrated similar festivals. Special winter celebrations also were held by the Europeans. The Scandinavians held a large winter festival called the Yuletide with bonfires and a feast. In English, the Yule celebration and word Yule mean the same as Christmas. Apples were tied to branches of trees during Yule as a reminder that spring and summer would return.

The ancient Greeks and Romans also held winter festivals to celebrate the Greek God, Kronos, and Roman God, Saturn. The Roman festival called Saturnalia lasted two weeks and included large meals, exchange of gifts and visiting friends, similar to the present Christmas.

Christians thought it was wrong to honor pagan gods as with the Romans, Greeks and other cultures. The Christians wanted to keep the birthday of their Christ as a solemn religious holiday.

Eventually, Christians decided that a broader Christmas celebration would help compete with pagan December festivals.

Dec. 25 was sacred to the Romans, Persians and Greeks since their festivals were held during this time. The Christian church eventually used the tradition of lights, gifts and merriment in starting a celebration of Christmas. In 137 A.D., the Bishop of Rome ordered the birthday of Christ to be celebrated as a solemn feast. In 350 A.D., another Bishop of Rome, Julius I, chose Dec. 25 as the observance of Christmas. Our current Christmas date is, therefore, more than 1,600 years old.

The exact day of Christ's (Jesus) birth has never been determined. One reason is that the calendar has been changed with a time adjustment. Christ's birth has been celebrated since around 98 A.D. The actual season of Jesus birth is thought to be in the spring.

Christmas was slow to catch on in America. The early settlers in the colonies considered Christmas to be a pagan ritual. The celebration of Christmas was banned by law in Massachusetts during colonial days (1600s and 1700s)

But eventually, Christmas, with its inherited traditions such as a tree, ornaments, feasts, exchanging presents, visiting relatives, use of holly and other symbols, became a widely celebrated holiday on Dec. 25.

Jay O'Dell is a former teacher of history and other subjects in public schools and college. Suggestions for column content or other inquiries can be sent to him at: P.O. Box 469, Lavalette, WV 25535.

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