By: Jonathan Baca, Senior Reporter | Photo By: Jonathan Gamboa, Production Manager
The ghosts of holidays past
From the worship of the Roman god Saturn to the crowds at the mall on Black Friday, Christmas has evolved with each new culture that celebrates it, said Part-time Religious Studies Instructor Sarah Egelman.
Some of the season’s most cherished traditions have surprising origins, she said. The celebration itself is a result of the many hardships societies faced during the winter months.
“It’s the middle of winter, and life is hard. So people have always had festive celebrations this time of year,” said Egelman.
Early Christians first agreed to celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25 around the fourth century, she said. They knew this was not the actual day that Jesus was born, but chose that date to gain followers, she said.
“Christianity was becoming the dominant religion in the Roman world. They chose the date partly because they had to compete with the pagan holidays that came before it,” she said.
Ancient Romans celebrated the midwinter feast of Saturnalia, honoring the god Saturn with feasting, lighting of lights, and the exchanging of gifts, she said.
Christians were practical, it seemed, timing their new holiday to coincide with the existing religious festival. Early Christians borrowed some of the same traditions, giving gifts, lighting candles and sharing meals with family and friends, said Egelman.
Other cherished traditions were borrowed from other beliefs, she said.
Around the year 1000, Jesus’ birthday merged with the Norse holiday of Yule as well, she said.
“That’s when you start seeing the Yule log, possibly Christmas trees and, early on, certain leaves and branches used as decorations,” she said.
These elements came from pagan traditions held by Norse, Germanic and Celtic people, she said.
As more of Europe converted to Christianity, existing traditions were incorporated into the celebration of Christmas, she said.
“People think of religion as being really rigid, but it has to be flexible. Otherwise it doesn’t survive,” she said.
Christmas is a perfect example of how new religions evolve and change when they arrive in a new place, incorporating what came before and giving old symbols new meanings, she said.
“People don’t want to give up everything that means something to them, so to have these old symbols carry over meant a lot to them,” she said.
The modern day image of Santa Claus came to be in a similar process, she said.
Gift giving was already a part of the holiday, and different cultures had different gift givers, she said.
Baby Jesus was the bringer of presents in many places, along with Father Christmas in France and England and Christkindl in Germany.
Santa Claus as he is known today came from the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Turkish bishop known for his generosity and love of children. His feast day in early December was celebrated with the exchanging of gifts, she said.
During the Protestant Reformation, many Christians refused to recognize the saints, and the gift-giving holiday was moved to Dec. 25.
By the sixteenth century, he became the plump, bearded Santa Claus known today, she said. His sleigh and reindeer came from the winter traditions of countries like Sweden, she said.
“Over time he becomes Americanized into this jolly, plump guy used in marketing. He is pretty much a mixture of four or five different characters,” she said.
Other parts of the world created their own unique traditions. In Germany, the character Krampus was the evil counterpart of Santa, punishing children who were naughty.
In Mexico and Guatemala, the tradition of Las Posadas emerged, where people reenacted the scene of Joseph going from inn to inn looking for a room for Mary and the infant Jesus, she said.
“Las Posadas is unique to this part of the world. It is still done in New Mexico,” she said.
Traditions may change, but the importance of family, generosity and the lighting of lights to ward off the cold and darkness of winter are universal, she said.
“It is a hard time to survive all over the world. So when you make it to the winter solstice, you’ve made it halfway through the hard times of winter, and that has always been a reason to celebrate,” she said.