THE ORIGIN OF THE NAME
The Hungarian word for Christmas is ‘karácsony’, a word with Slavic origin, of ‘korcsun’, stepping or transitioning. This represents transitioning into the new year, giving it an ancient, sun-cycle related meaning. The English word, ‘Christmas’ refers literally to Christ’s name, whereas the German ‘Weihnacht’ and the Dutch ‘kerstmisse’ comes from the religious celebration of this holy night. In Latin, and all languages in the Latin family, the names come from the word ‘natalis’, and its equivalents are e.f. ‘noël’, ‘natale’, ‘navidad’, and even the Welsh ‘nadoling’.
Its connection to the sun-cycle is also referenced in the Scandinavian ‘Jul’ word, from which the ancient English ‘Yule’ also comes from. Its exact original meaning is unknown, it might have something to do with the winter holiday period’s original name.
CHRISTMAS – A CELEBRATION OF JESUS’S BIRTHDAY
According to the Bible, Jesus was born into poor circumstances, in a barn, because no one would open their homes to a pregnant Mary on the eve of his birth. In the story, the three Wise Men went on their way to greet the Messiah with gifts, and were led to the barn by a shining star.
Most researchers agree that the 25th December wasn’t the actual day Jesus was born. Early Christians didn’t celebrate his birthday, and so they didn’t even try to find out the actual date. The earliest celebration of Jesus’s birth was in Egypt, where they calculated it to be sometime in spring.
From the 4th century, they started celebrating the 6th January and later the 25th December. The Armenian Catholic Church still celebrates the 6th January, whereas other branches of Christianity have settled on the 25th December. In 350 AD, Julius I has officially solidified the celebrated date of the Saviour’s birth as the 25th December.
David Reneke, an Australian astronomer and his colleagues set up a computer programme to determine the object that could have been the star that led the three Wise Men to Jesus. They calculated that it was most likely due to the fact that Venus and Jupiter were so close to each other that their individual lights converged into one, so they could appear as one giant shining object from Earth. According to their calculations, Jesus was born on 17th June.
THE HISTORY BEHIND CHRISTMAS
Celebrations with the same spirit as Christmas have existed before Christianity as well, such as the Roman celebration of Winter Solstice, Saturnalia. In ancient Rome, this celebration dedicated to Saturn (the god of agriculture) was held between the 17th-25th December. It included grand dances all over the realm, rejoicing in the victory of light over death and darkness.
Winter Solstice was a turning point in the year that helped frame the year. While during Summer Solstice, the sun is at its highest point, resulting in the shortest night of the year, at Winter Solstice it’s at its lowest, making it the longest night of the year. On the northern hemisphere, it’s on 21st-22nd December, whereas on the southern, it’s on 21st-22nd June.
But how did Winter Solstice merge with Christmas? Christ’s person and the mysterious sign from the sky symbolises light coming to Earth – which coincides with the symbolism of the Winter Solstice, a day, from which the world becomes, quite literally, brighter.
According to Matthew and Luke, Jesus of Nazareth was born to Mary and Joseph, he was a descendant of King David and he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. His date of birth in Bethlehem, however, doesn’t completely coincide with the calculations of our time’s point 0.
Christ’s birth only became significant in popular culture because of the advances of Christianity, but it slowly merged into one with the pagan celebrations of Winter Solstice. Constantine the Great reformed the religion of the realm and instituted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. He also officially recognised the celebration of Jesus’s birthdate through the Synad of Nicaea. The point of this was to end contradictions and arguments surrounding Jesus Christ’s person, and to popularize the Synod’s decrees with liturgical methods. (This meant officially declaring Jesus’s person to be both god and man.)
There were other suggested dates at the Synod, but in the end, the 25th December was set. They’ve also settled the earlier suggested date of the twelfth-night as the date Jesus was christened; and before Christmas, they’ve added the period of ‘advent’, which was four weeks of preparations for his birth.
Through the 4th century, most eastern religions have also claimed the 25th December. In Jerusalem, it took a little while longer, but they gave in as well. The Armenian branch of Christianity, however, still celebrates Christmas on 6th January.
But when did our Christmas become what it is today, and when did our Christmas traditions came about? In the 16th century, reformation filled the holiday with new meaning. The liturgical parts of church ceremony started moving into the home. People could now begin to develop their own traditions, having the Bible at home to come up with their own interpretations. For example, setting up a Christmas tree spread all the way across Germany by the 18th century, then in the 19th century it reached Austria and all of Europe, and with immigrants from the continent, in got to the US as well. First, they were decorated with sweets and fruits, glass orbs came about later. Christmas started to become a staple holiday in non-religious families as well, using it to celebrate love and peace.