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origins of Christmas

The Origins of Christmas—it started before the Christian era

Here in Maine it has been gray, rainy, generally overcast, but today it is sunny—cold but sunny. What a welcome change!

The days are short now—how can it be so dark at 4 PM!—but the reversal has begun. The darkness reminds us of the holidays we celebrate at this time of year. These holidays are inspired by the winter solstice which was just a few days ago. After the solstice (in Latin, sol = sun and stice = standing [still]), there is a turn in the sun’s migration, a stop in its descent in the sky. Then, the days begin to lengthen as we make our way through winter. With the longer days comes a prospect of renewed life on the planet. Without sun, we die.

Just about every culture in the world has a commemoration of this descent into the dark and many expressions of our fervent hope that the sun will return to warm us—to save us from freezing. Hannukah is a festival of lights. The ancient Teutons burned a tree in the forest to symbolize the light they so desperately wanted to see return. (The origins of our Christmas tree lights are to be found in this tree burning.) Christians placed their Light Holiday at this time of year, too.

In the dominant Western culture, we call the festival of lights Christmas. (John 8-12: “Then spoke Jesus again to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world: he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life’.”) Early Christians adopted a dominant light imagery to counter the Roman celebration of a winter holiday that lasted 7-10 days.

Their Saturnalia was a festival of light encompassing the winter solstice, with an abundant presence of candles (sound familiar?). The renewal of light and the coming of the new year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun,” on December 25. ( Sunday, being the day of the Unconquerable Sun, was a logical choice for Christians to adopt for “God’s day.”) Any wonder that the early Christians, wanting to obliterate and remake the Roman holiday, assigned the same day (December 25) for their holiday celebration of the birth of Jesus and changed the name of Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus to Christ’s Mass?

So much for the origins of Christmas. As memoir writers, aren’t we always interested in where and how things began?

However you name the winter holidays and however you celebrate, we at The Memoir Network wish you and your family a warm and happy time. May the light we all seek—by whatever name you call it—shine on you and yours.

Denis and the Memoir Network team (in the office: Bruce, Sally, and Shanna; our editors: Sarah, Steve, and Frances)

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