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Origins of Christmas
11/24/2008 - By Thomas O Donovan

Origins of Christmas

There was a time when Christmas did not exist. It was simply, in one culture or another, a pagan celebration of the winter solstice.

The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year which usually occurs on the 22nd or 23rd of December. During the solstice the ancient Egyptians filled their homes with palm rushes to protect themselves from evil and celebrate the return of their Sun God Ra. European and Mediterranean cultures also have episodes in this long saga that is part of the history of Christmas (and Christmas trees). In ancient Rome, the Romans held their own December festival, Saturnalia, and even decorated their homes with evergreen boughs. This honored the God Saturn whose domain was agriculture. Further north, the Celtic Druids also celebrated the winter solstice and used evergreens on the darkest day of the year to symbolize eternal life.

This has all evolved to the present day when Christmas is the time that Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The name "Christmas" literally comes from the early English phrase, "Christes Masse" which means the Mass of Christ. While the actual date of Jesus' birth remains a mystery, Christians in many countries observe it on the 25th of December. The birth of Jesus is described in the first couple of chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the New Testament.

Why December 25th? There were competing groups of early Christian believers who felt that Jesus' birth and his ascendancy into divinity might have been on two different occasions.

Before the fourth century, early followers of Jesus did not have a festival for His birth, fearing that it might be interpreted to place him on par with King Pharaoh. Around the third century, many believed that Jesus' spiritual and physical birth occurred on the same day, January 6th that is the feast of Epiphany.

Eventually, December 25th was finally selected when St. Cyril of Jerusalem requested that Pope Julius I settle the matter definitively. That date however, was likely selected to coincide with existing pagan holidays. It made converting the pagans to Christianity that much easier.

Christmas or Xmas? Many people feel that 'Xmas' is a secular substitute for Christmas. Some feel that it takes the "Christ" out of Christmas. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the Greek letter X represents the first letters of Christ's name (Ch). Therefore, X was taken to represent the word "Christ" in the early Christian Church.

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