By MARY ANN MANJA BAYANG
Early Europeans believed in evil spirits, witches, ghosts and trolls. As the winter solstice approached, with its long cold nights and short days, many people feared the sun would not return. Special rituals and celebrations were held to welcome back the sun.
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. During the winter months the sun would disappear for many days. After 35 days, scouts would be sent to the mountain tops to look for the return of the sun. When the first light was seen the scouts would return with the good news. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year. This great festival was called the Yuletide and the special feast would be served around the fire burning with the Yule log. In some areas people would tie apples to branches of trees to remind themselves that spring and summer would return.
The ancient Greeks held a festival similar to that of the Zagmuk/Sacaea festivals to assist their god Kronos who would battle the god Zeus and his Titans.
In Germany, people honored the pagan god Oden during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Oden, as they believed he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people, and then decide who would prosper or perish. Because of his presence, many people chose to stay inside.
The Roman’s celebrated their god Saturn, the god of agriculture. Their festival was called Saturnalia which began the middle of December and ended January 1st. Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drinks were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, the slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone can join the fun. With cries of “Jo Saturnalia!” the celebration would include masquerades in the streets, big festive meals, visiting friends and the exchange of good-luck gifts called Strenae (lucky fruits). The Romans decked their halls with garlands of laurel and green trees lit with candles.
Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year.
“Jo Saturnalia!” was a fun and festive time for the Romans, but the Christians thought it an abomination to honor the pagan god. The early Christians wanted to keep the birthday of their Christ child a solemn and religious holiday, not one of cheer and merriment as was the pagan Saturnalia. In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated.
But as Christianity spread they were alarmed by the continuing celebration of pagan customs and Saturnalia among their converts. At first the Church forbade this kind of celebration. But it was to no avail. Eventually it was decided that the celebration would be tamed and made into a celebration fit for the Christian Son of God.
Some legends claim that the Christian “Christmas” celebration was invented to compete against the pagan celebrations of December. The 25th was not only sacred to the Romans but also the Persians whose religion Mithraism was one of Christianity’s main rivals at that time. The Church eventually was successful in taking the merriment, lights and gifts from the Saturnalia festival and bringing them to the celebration of Christmas.
The exact day of the Christ child’s birth has never been pinpointed. Traditions say that it has been celebrated since the year 98 AD. In 137 AD the Bishop of Rome ordered the birthday of the Christ Child celebrated as a solemn feast. In 350 AD another Bishop of Rome, Julius I, choose December 25th as the observance of Christmas. #