Lights are being switched on in main streets throughout the land; store windows are filled with tempting goodies, ad agencies are working flat out to create irresistible TV for their client’s products and soon forests of conifer will be cut down for private decoration as pantomimes offer new productions from Puss in Boots to Mother Goose. All of them contributing to the arrival of that great Christian festival of Christmas. Yet though it may come as a surprise, many of the traditions we take for granted as part of the Christmas celebration were taking place thousands of years before the birth of the Christ child.
The history of this feast dates back over 4000 years. Many of our present day Christmas traditions, the 12 days of Christmas, the bright fires, the Yule log, the giving of gifts, carollers going from house to house, the holiday feasts and the church processions can all be traced back to the early Mesopotamians. Their chief God was Marduk and throughout the winter it was believed that Marduk battled with the forces of chaos. With the coming of New Year the Mesopotamians held a celebration of thanks called Zagmuk which lasted for 12 days during which the king would go to the temple and swear his faithfulness to the God. Tradition required the king to die then return with Marduk to fight at his side, but to spare the King the Mesopotamians would chose a criminal as a mock king who was dressed and treated as the king until the end of the celebrations when he was stripped of his regal clothes and slain. Similar festivals called Sacaea were celebrated by the Babylonians and Persians who would change places with their slaves throughout the celebrations.
During the winter months in Scandinavia, the sun would completely disappear so after 35 days scouts were dispatched to mountain tops to watch for its return. At the first sign of light they would bring back the good news and a great festival of celebration called Yuletide would be held, with a feast served around a large fire burning the Yule log. Bonfires would also be lit to celebrate the return of the sun and people would tie apples to tree branches to remind them of the coming spring. The Romans celebrated the feast of Saturnalia in veneration of their God Saturn, decorating their houses with green trees lit with candles, feasting, giving gifts and changing places with slaves. It is said the Christian Christmas was invented to compete with the pagan celebrations held in December of which the 25th day was sacred in both Roman and Persian religions. But in 350 AD Julius I, Bishop of Rome settled the matter once and for all by proclaiming December 25th as the Christian observance of Christmas day. Although there is no historical record of the traditional Christmas stocking it is said the tradition began in Europe where children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar, near the chimney for Odin's flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat. Odin would then reward children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir's food with gifts or candy.
So there it is, like so many other events we think we know so well, Christmas has been held a sacred feast day by other beliefs for thousands of years. Not that its history should mar our celebrations in any way, the fact its ancient origins are lost in the mists of time should if anything enhance them. For us it is the present celebration that is important and as such may I wish everyone a very happy Christmas.