Why do pagans celebrate Christmas
Winter solstice and the birth of light
The winter solstice on December 21 was an important date long before the birth of Christ: It is the longest night of the year. Then it goes uphill again. The days are getting longer again, the nights are getting shorter.
Midwinter was celebrated in many European cultures: for example in the Roman Empire with the Saturnalia, a festival in honor of the god Saturn, and in Scandinavia with the Yule Festival.
The powerful symbolism of the date - the birth of light in the middle of the darkness of winter - was taken advantage of by the Roman popes and emperors when they made Christianity the state religion in the 4th century.
Instead of the birth of the sun god Mithras on December 25th, the birth of Jesus was celebrated in Rome from then on - who said of himself: "I am the light of the world".
Reinterpretation of pagan customs?
So have pagan rituals been simply reinterpreted? The theological reason for choosing the date was different: Jesus' birthday was based on the calculation of the "Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary plus nine months".
March 25th is the date of proclamation and thus of conception. This results in December 25th as the due date.
This constructed Christmas date also shows a changed understanding of faith: Originally, the death and resurrection of the Messiah at Easter were much more important to Christians than his birth. It was not until the 4th century that the miracle of the Incarnation gained importance.
At the same time, the veneration of Mary as the Mother of God became more intense. In the centuries that followed, the new ritual developed its own shapes and symbols, so that our Christmas customs today have hardly anything to do with the old winter cults.
The first Christmas tree
A green branch in the middle of winter: that was already a sign of hope and new life in the Middle Ages. Mistletoe, fir or yew branches were hung up to celebrate Christmas time - and also to drive away evil spirits.
A Christmas tree was first mentioned in 1419. It was hung with apples, nuts and gingerbread in the Freiburg Heilig-Geist-Spital and was allowed to be looted on New Year's Day.
Most Christmas trees in the Middle Ages were set up in the open air, similar to maypoles - they were also called "Christmas maypoles".
It was not until 1800 that the fashion began to bring a Christmas tree into the living room - especially in Protestant families. For Catholics, the crib was the most important Christmas prop.
At that time the tree was hanging from the ceiling, by the way. And there weren't any Christmas tree candles either, because wax was expensive. It was not until the 19th century that the substitutes stearin and paraffin brought candlelight and shiny children's eyes to every household.
Many customs are not as old as you might think
We consider traditional customs to be something original and folk today. But that is not always true: The Christ Child, for example, did not arise from a popular custom. It was invented by Martin Luther as a Christmas figure that brings Christmas presents instead of Saint Nicholas.
The Protestants rejected the Catholic veneration of saints. Usually a veiled girl in a white dress represents the Christ Child.
Santa Claus is much younger than the Christ Child. However, one does not know exactly who invented this modified Santa Claus.
Hoffmann von Fallersleben was the first to mention him in his well-known song "Tomorrow comes Santa Claus" (1835). Since then he has been in strong competition with the Christ Child as a gift bringer and has replaced it in many places. With the Santa Claus from the USA he received effective support since 1863.
The Advent season - waiting for Christmas
The customs of Advent, which are popular today, are also relatively new. The Advent wreath has only existed since 1839: At that time, the Hamburg educator Johann Hinrich Wichern built a wooden wreath with 23 candles to shorten the waiting for Christmas for his pupils in the "Rauhen Haus". A new light was lit every morning.
It was not until 1900 that the wreath - now only made with four candles and made from green branches - spread throughout Germany.
Another important Christmas invention is the advent calendar. The idea comes from a Munich entrepreneur. In 1903 he printed the first Advent calendar with 24 fields on which children could stick colorful pictures. Decades later, the calendar got doors with chocolate behind them.
Christmas as a family celebration
In the Middle Ages, Christmas was celebrated in public: Christmas markets, pageants and nativity scenes took place on the streets and in the church. The family Christmas with Christmas tree and festive dinner has only been around for about 150 years.
Various developments had led to this:
The public parades and the setting up of cribs were forbidden in many places at the time of the Enlightenment - the authorities saw this as a sign of superstition. So the Christmas customs in the private sphere were further cultivated.
At the same time, the family developed into a place of familiar sociability since the 18th century. Christmas became their most important festival, when everyone should come together in harmony.
The focus was on the children. They were given rich gifts, but also admonished to behave well. This is still reflected in our Christmas customs to this day:
The many sweet rewards of Advent are actually only available if the children are well-behaved and well-behaved in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
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