Christmas celebrations date back as far as many as 4000 years ago preceding the birth of Christ by hundreds of years. The bright fires, the Yule log, the giving of gifts, carnivals (parades) with floats, carolers who sing while going from house to house, the holiday feasts, and the church processions can all be traced back to the early Mesopotamians. Many of these traditions began with the Mesopotamian celebration of New Years. The Mesopotamians believed in many gods, and as their chief god – Marduk. Each year as winter arrived it was believed that Marduk would do battle with the monsters of chaos. To assist their chief god Marduk, the people would hold a festival leading to the New Year. Tradition held that the King be killed at the temple at New Year in order to assist the god in battle. To spare their king the people created a mock king by selecting a criminal. The criminal would be dressed in royal attire and paraded around town and given all the privileges of the real king. Once New Year arrived the mock king would be stripped of his regal attire and slain.
The Persians and the Babylonians celebrated a similar festival called the Sacaea. Part of that celebration included the exchanging of places, the slaves would become the masters and the masters were to obey.
Early Europeans believed in evil spirits, witches, ghosts and trolls. As the Winter Solstice approached, with its long cold nights and short days, many people feared the sun would not return. Special rituals and celebrations were held to welcome back the sun.
In Scandinavia during the winter months the sun would disappear for many days. After thirty-five days scouts would be sent to the mountain tops to look for the return of the sun. When the first light was seen the scouts would return with the good news. A great festival would be held, called the Yuletide, and a special feast would be served around a fire burning with the Yule log. Great bonfires would also be lit to celebrate the return of the sun. In some areas people would tie apples to branches of trees to remind themselves that spring and summer would return.
The Romans decked their halls with garlands of laurel and green trees lit with candles. Again the masters and slaves would exchange places.
Some legends claim that the Christian “Christmas” celebration was invented to compete against the pagan celebrations of December. The exact day of the Christ child’s birth has never been pinpointed. But as Christianity spread they were alarmed by the continuing celebration of pagan customs and among their converts. At first the Church forbid this kind of celebration. But it was to no avail.
Eventually it was decided that the celebration would be tamed and made into a celebration fit for the Christian Son of God. However, activities such as decorating trees and feasts only grew larger coupled with the creation of St. Nick (Santa Clause). The evolution of these traditions has become the most celebrated holiday in Europe and America. Celebrations are now centered around the birth of Christ, which we see depicted in scenes such as the nativity.