Religious Spirituality and Its Relation to the Winter Holidays

Religious Spirituality and Its Relation to the Winter Holidays

Christmas has been a Christian holiday since about 336 A.D., but its roots are firmly planted in pagan rituals and celebrations. This article will tell you about its religious spirituality and its relation to the winter holidays.
CelebrationJoy Staff
Christmas is a Christian holiday. Specifically, it is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity and, according to Christian tradition, the savior of mankind. A closer inspection of the rich traditions of this holiday, however, reveal some truths that may at first be fairly shocking to some Christians, though in reality most of the beliefs and traditions that surround Christmas are borne from one concept of religious spirituality or another. The fact that Christians would consider much of the traditional aspects of Christmas a form of paganism, is one of the interesting dichotomies of the holiday that is widely celebrated on December 25.

Before embarking on an in-depth exploration of some of the most notable characteristics of the modern Christmas holiday, it is important to note that during the time when Christianity was being spread from a relatively small following in the Middle East to a larger portion of the Roman Empire and pagan lands, those charged with spreading the Christian ideals often took measures to soften the conversion from paganism to Christianity. In short, rather than simply replacing the old ways of doing things and the old beliefs, proponents of Christianity would try to combine the old concepts with the new in a manner that was conducive to the newer Christianity; but that maintained traditional elements of various pagan belief systems, so as not to offend or turn away would-be converts.

Old Tradition

One general example of this is the celebrations that took place among pagans to celebrate winter or the winter solstice. While Jesus of Nazareth was, historically speaking, not actually born on December 25, early Christians saw the merit of celebrating the birth of their savior in very much the same way that important figures in the Roman Empire had their birth dates celebrated. During this same time, worship of Mithras, a Persian sun god, was quite common among the Roman legions, and the practice of celebrating the birth of Mithras (not coincidentally on December 25) was common. The holiday itself was referred to as Saturnalia, and priests of the empire carried wreaths of evergreen boughs into Roman temples as a part of the celebration. Other elements of this winter celebration included exchanging gifts and a general merriment that was marked by feasting and parties.

New Tradition

Rather than compete directly with this practice, early Christians, either via some very specific plan or as an amalgamation of ideas on the matter, continued the celebration of December 25 by changing the central figure of the celebration. What is interesting, however, is that the time of year - the winter solstice - has long held a spiritual element. In a number of ancient pagan practices, it was a time of acknowledging the dark part of the year, when the amount of daylight was in small proportion to darkness. Many of the ancient rituals surrounding this time of year were based on fear, with celebrations and sacrifices designed to offer a tribute to help those worshiping life through the time of darkness. Despite that, the celebrations were generally marked by merriment, as a sort of acknowledgement of the difficulty, dark times that lie ahead.

Other celebrations, including the German and Celtic Yule celebrations were also pagan festivals that celebrated the winter solstice. Among the rituals that accompanied this celebration were singing songs (yuletide carols), eating cakes, and decorating fir trees (thus the "Christmas tree").

With a wide variety of pagan traditions centered on celebrating this time of year, it was not until over 300 years after the death of Jesus that the celebration of Christmas actually began. The Emperor Constantine, a Christian, wisely choose to follow the lead of earlier proponents of Christianity, and was the individual most responsible for maintaining pagan elements in the Christian celebration, including wreaths, yule logs, evergreens, and other elements that now define the modern Christmas.