The Origins of Christmas & Easter

EngliscHeritage

THE ORIGINS OF CHRISTMAS AND EASTER

 

In the last chapter it said of the baptising of thousands of Jutes in Kent on Christmas Day, and as the festival of Christmas, as we know it, was introduced into Britain by these Jutes and Anglo-Saxons themselves, a few words in regard to it will not be out of place at this point.

 

Let say at once, however, that Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, now so important a feature of the night of Christmas Eve, is neither Anglo-Saxon nor British. He is simply St. Nicholas, a much persecuted Continental (from what is now Turkey) Bishop of Roman times, who became patron saint of Children, and whose festival on 6th December, was marked by the giving of presents to good little boys and girls at school by master dressed up for the occasion in red robes supposed to be suggestive of those of a dignitary of the Church, some places the robe is blue, and some have a helper called Black Peter, who holds a sack for any naughty children! This custom was common in early England and on the Continent, and it was carried by Dutch settlers to New York, where the name Sankt Nickolas became corrupted into Santa `Claus, and was given back to Europe in that form; while the prize-giving ceremonies of his festival gradually were postponed till, and became identified with, the Christmas presentation of gifts.

 

In regard to Christmas itself, the date, 25th December, was not recognized by the early Church as that of the birth of our Lord, for no record of the actual day had been kept; and, curiously enough, there was no wish to celebrate the Nativity as a festival. Origen, for instance, writing in the year 245 A.D., says, that it would be sinful to keep Christ`s birthday, as though He was a mere King or Pharoah.

 

In the Fourth Century, however, the ecclesiastical authorities were anxious to counteract the Manichaean propaganda, which declared that Jesus had been a purely spiritual entity and had had no physical birth; and for this reason, amongst others, they began to favour the recognition of a definite date for Christmas, as a means of emphasizing the fact that Christ had been human as well as divine, but they did not advocate any festive rejoicings to mark the occasion.

 

Certain Christians favoured 6th January as the date of the Nativity, and others preferred 25th or 28th March. Yet others suggested 19th April, 20nd May and 17th November; and it is not until the year 354 A.D., that we hear of 25th December as being the adopted date, but even then there was no festival connected with the day.

The text of a letter from the Emperor Honorius (395-423 A.D.) to his mother has been preserved, in which he speaks of Christmas as being a new solemnity recently introduced at Rome; and in 400 A.D., an imperial rescript mentions Christmas, Easter and Epiphany, as three holy days on which the theatres were to be closed. But it was not till the year 534 A.D., that Christmas Day became a `dies non` in the law-courts.

 

Meanwhile the Syrian church continued to favour 6th January as the date of the Nativity, and they angrily accused Rome of sun-worship and idolatry in having fixed upon 25th December as the sacred day.

 

This is quite understandable, for the reason why the latter date had been chosen was simply because in many countries and in various pagan religions 25th December had from time immemorial been regarded as the date of the birth of the sun-god. It was, for instance, the date of the birth of Mithras, a solar deity whose worship was very wide-spreading during the Second and Third Centuries; and amongst the Germanic tribes it was the date of the birth or beginning of the solar year.

 

The Venerable Bede, writing in the early part of the Eighth Century, tells us that “the ancient people of the Anglian nation,” by which he means the English before their migration to Britain, “began the year on 25th December, when we now celebrate the birthday of our Lord”; and we know from other sources that, like the worshippers of Mithras and others, this day was regarded by them as the turn of the year, the date when the sun, after its winter`s death, was born again.

 

The Anglo-Saxons and kindred peoples in their pagan days gave the name Yule to the whole season of December and January, and this word seems originally to have meant “noise” or “rejoicing,” 25th December being its culminating point. According to Bede, again, the night of 24-25, “which is,” he says, “the very night now so holy to us, was called in their tongue Modranecht, that is to say `Mothers` Night,` by reason of the ceremonies which in that night-long vigil they performed.

 

They brought in the Yule log on 22nd December being the celebration of Middanwinter/ Yule night the shortest day, the Yule log would burn the whole of the celebration up the Wassail night, on the 24th what was to become Christmas Eve where Christ was born at midnight, Mothers` night in pagan terms where the new sun was born, and the New Year where Woda 7 Beretha came down to celebrate the next twelve days, which became the twelve days of Christmas, ending on Wassail night where on the last day you wished your friends and family well for the coming year, and kings would have the witan with them to celebrate their friendship and get ready for the new year, which became Epithany when the three wise men came to celebrate the birth of the son of God, with Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.

 

Bede does not tell us what those ceremonies were, but it is clear that they were connected with the birth of the sun-god, and the beginning of the New Year. This night was the occasion of great rejoicing and feasting; and indeed the pagan Anglo-Saxons and their Teutonic kin seem to have made more of the festival than did any other people, though the British also regarded it as a great holiday.

 

Now, when St. Augustine and the other early missionaries from the Continent first began to convert these Anglo-Saxons in Britain to the true faith, the celebration of the Nativity of our Lord on 25th December had already become an established and solemn festival of the Church in Rome; and therefore the pagan and the most joyous `Modranecht` brought to England by the invaders transformed itself into the Christian festival of the Nativity with very little difficulty.

 

The result was that Christmas amongst the Anglo-Saxon in Britain, and later amongst other Teutonic peoples, came to be celebrated with greater rejoicings than was the case amongst the Latin nations, for so 25th December had always been celebrated in pre-Christian days in the north, whereas the Church in Rome, had not at all whole-heartedly taken to the festival. In France, for example, no great importance was attached to the feast, which is there called `Noel`, a corruption of (Dies) Natalis, “Birthday.”

 

Indeed, until quite recent times the feasting and wholesale giving of presents at Christmas was unknown outside the Teutonic nations; and even in Britain the rejoicings are to this day mainly an English custom. In Scotland New Year`s Day is the occasion of greater festivities; and in England itself there was in 1644 a recrudescence of the objection to the festive character of Christmas, and an Act of Parliament was passé in that year forbidding any merriment on 25th December, or any celebrations of the Nativity in the Churches – an Act which was repealed by King Charles II, who restored the traditional English gaiety of the festival, idolatry or no idolatry, though in Scotland the Puritan view was adhered to.

 

The Yule-log, the candle-lit Christmas-tree, the holly, the present-giving, the plum-pudding and other ancient features of the happy day, so dear to our English hearts, are all of pagan, not Christian, origin. They came in with our Anglo-Saxon forefathers from Denmark and Schleswig; and they were recognized by the ecclesiastical authorities, only because the date, 25th December, which was that of the pagan sun-festival and New Year`s Day, had been adopted by the Church on the Continent as a suitable day whereon the unknown date of the birth of Christ should be celebrated.

 

It is a question whether the Christmas-tree had its origin amongst the Teutonic races, or whether it had been introduced into Germany by the Roman legions, for it seems to be closely connected with the tree displayed in the Roman Saturnalia, the great annual frolic, and Virgil speaks of such a tree with toys hung from the branches.

The text of the letter written in 601 A.D., by Pope Gregory to Mellitus, the missionary who was then going to Britain, is preserved by Bede; and in it the Pontiff wisely tells him not to put a stop to the merrymaking and feasts of the Anglo-Saxons whom he may convert to Christianity, but to adapt the old pagan customs to the rites of the Church, and to maintain the festivities, only changing the reason of them from a heathen to a Christian impulse.

 

This advice was followed; and thus today we have our merry Christmas in England. And who shall say that we are idolaters because we have taken over a heathen holiday, with all its laughter and all its good cheer, and have turned it into a celebration of the greatest event in the world`s history.

 

True the festival on 25th December was unknown in the Church until the Fifth Century, and even then more as a solemnity than as a popular feast day; true that day was previously a festival of the pagans; but the good tidings, the tidings of great joy, needed a date for their celebration, and the old pagan holiday was there ready to hand.

The feast of the Resurrection of our Lord likewise found an ancient equivalent amongst the Anglo-Saxons with which it could be identified, for at the time of the Vernal Equinox (20th March) they celebrated a great festival in honour of Eostre or Ostara, goddess of Spring, the month of April, indeed, being dedicated to that goddess and being called Eostur-monath. A festival of the kind, whereat the resurrection of nature after the dead period of winter was celebrated, was almost universal; and the ecclesiastical historian, Socrates, states without making any bones about it, that the Christian feast was a perpetuation of an older usage “in the same way that many other customs have been established.” Bede, too, says that the feast in England was simply “the old festival observed with the gladness of a new solemnity.”

 

Here again, as in the case of Christmas, it is pleasant to think that an ancient heathen jollification has been retained by the Church and has been given a Christian impulse, and that we in England still call it in the old English manner, Easter, that is to say the festival of the goddess of Spring, although that goddess is now no more than a name.