I was wondering the other day: Why do we wish each other “Merry” Christmas but “Happy” Easter, “Happy” Thanksgiving, and “Happy” New Year? What is it about Christmas that calls for merry making but not the other holidays? The answer to that question lies in Christmas’ origins, I have since discovered.
To find those origins, one has to travel back in time to pagan Rome, to the festival known as ‘Saturnalia’. The most popular day in the ancient Roman calendar, Saturnalia was a festival held on the 17th of December to honour the god Saturn, god of seed and sowing. No work was done that day. Rome closed up shop. The day’s celebrations began with a sacrifice to the god at the Temple of Saturn, followed by a public banquet. Togas were exchanged for colourful dinner robes. Jovial, exuberant singing accompanied the feasting and drinking. Those citizens who had sufficient means celebrated at home by sacrificing a suckling pig.
A role reversal between master and slave, only for the duration of the festival, of course, was a feature of the festival. Slaves got to eat the best of food at this time, served by their masters. Gift-giving was a big part of the festivities, too. Rome’s emperors had compelled citizens to bring offerings and gifts to them at the time of Saturnalia, an idea which caught on with the general populace. Wax candles and small earthenware figurines were typically exchanged with each other. Children commonly received toys as gifts.
The celebrating could go on for days, lasting even as long as a week. Not surprisingly, given human proclivities, rampant overeating and drunkenness were the rule of the day rather then the exception at this time. One can see why the people, both slaves and freemen, regarded Saturnalia as the best of days. Saturnalia was the time to “let loose”!
With the Emperor Constantine’s legalization and patronage of Christianity in the 4th century, a new celebration was incorporated into December’s festive calendar. In AD 336, Constantine held a feast day in honour of Jesus’ Nativity for the very first time on December 25. Why this particular date? Historians can’t say for sure. For one thing, the people were already in a celebratory mood, Saturnalia having barely ended. There is perhaps another reason behind Constantine’s choice. When the Julian Calendar was adopted by Rome in 43 BC, December 24th became the shortest day of the year, and the 25th the first day that daylight began to increase again. Impressed by this phenomenon, the Roman Emperor Aurelian in AD 274 had established a feast day on the 25th of December in honour of the sun, Sol Invictus, ‘the Unconquered Sun’.
In AD 350, Pope Julian I decreed that from hence forth, December 25 should be acknowledged as the date of the Nativity of Jesus. As to the reason behind the Pope’s decree, again, one can only speculate, but one thing is certain: The Saturnalia was a decidedly “unChristian” festival, characterized by gluttony, drunkenness, and rampant licentiousness. By introducing a Christian feast day into the December festivities, the Pope may have been trying to purge or, at least, mitigate the excesses of the season by introducing a holy day which called for solemn reflection on Jesus’ birth by the people. When issuing his decree, did the Pope entertain the possibility that a day set aside in December to honour Jesus’ Nativity might, in turn, be influenced by the pagan culture he sought to change? Because that’s what happened, with the Christian feast day taking on many of the aspects of Saturnalia. More than 1600 years after the Pope’s decree, we moderns celebrate Jesus’ Nativity with an excess that would have been familiar to the pagan Romans.
And how about that seasonal greeting, “Merry Christmas”? The expression is first recorded in the 1565 Hereford Municipal Manuscript: “And thus I comytt you to God, who send you a mery Christmas.” Have Christians ever stopped to consider what a nonsensical greeting that is? The Old English term Cristes maesse, or‘ Mass of Christ’, refers to the solemn observance of Christ’s death in the Eucharist and has nothing to do with his birth. Stranger still, we are called to be “merry” on such an occasion. The Old English word for merry, myrige, originally meant “agreeable, giving pleasure’, a word closely connected to the Old English word myrgth, ‘mirth’, a word with connotations of gaiety and laughter, which is how we think of ‘merry’ today. Interestingly enough, in the UK, the word ‘merry’ has acquired the alternative meaning, ‘slightly drunk’.
It would be so easy to be cynical about the whole “Christmas thing.” But I’m not. Two nights ago in the nearby cathedral, I and five hundred others rose and together, with one voice, sang “Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King” to the accompaniment of pipe organ and trumpet fanfare. As the glorious music soared heavenward, it became, for me, a transcendent moment in time. In the midst of all the activities we associate with Christmas, the true meaning of December 25 still shines through. I know, because it did for me that night. And so, to any who might chance to read this blog: I wish you an awesome Christmas!