History of Christmas: How ‘Pagan’ cultures were incorporated into the current celebrations

It’s about 2,000 years ago, the evening of December 25. Mary rides into Bethlehem on a donkey with Joseph, urgently needing to deliver her baby Jesus. (FILE PHOTO)

KAMPALA- In fact the Bible in John 3:16-17 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” And the true meaning of Christmas is the celebration of this incredible act of love.

But the Christmas holiday is a lot older than you might think, dating from thousands of years before Jesus was born.

Maybe this explains why early Christians rejected the celebration of Christ’s birth as they saw birthdays as a pagan ritual, followed in the bible by figures like the Pharaoh.

It all started with New Year celebrations that marked the northern hemisphere’s shortest day of the year in Mesopotamia, Persia, Babylon, Greece and Rome.

The Roman celebrations began in mid-December, ended on January 1, and included big meals, visiting friends, gifts, decorations made from green trees, and observing the birthday of Mithra — the infant god of the unconquerable sun — on December 25.

Although most Christians nowadays celebrate the birthday of Jesus on the same day, the early Christians were aware they didn’t know exactly when he was born.

Even the Gospels contain a few mistakes on the subject — as was first noticed by Emil Schuerer in 1885.

For example, we read that the Nativity took place while Quirenius was governor of Syria, with authority over Judaea. Quirenius was appointed in AD 6, when the province was brought under Roman rule. Jesus’ birth is also linked with King Herod, but by AD 6 Herod had died.

He died shortly after an eclipse which took place in March 4 BC — and so he was no longer king when Quirenius became governor of Syria.

Then there’s the “decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered”. Joseph, a man of Nazareth in Galilee, would not have been subject to it, because in AD 6, Galilee was still under an independent ruler, and so Joseph had no earthly reason to go to Bethlehem.

Of course, one of this affects the essential truth or power of the story. But it remains true that some details are shrouded in mystery. This includes the precise reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25.

It’s likely that the date was chosen to coincide with the existing pagan celebrations.

This also explains how so many of their customs came to be included in the celebration of Christmas, including carol singing.

That first started in Europe thousands of years ago, when pagan songs were sung during the shortest day festivals.

The first Christian carol was sung in Rome in AD 129, but they didn’t begin to get popular until 1223 when St Francis of Assisi started Nativity Plays where the performers sang “canticles” telling the story.

Perhaps the most famous modern carol service is the service of Nine Lessons and Carols. First performed in 1918 at King’s College Cambridge in celebration of the end of the First World War, it was traditionally started by a choirboy singing the first verse of the Carol “Once in Royal David’s City” as a solo.

And now, all over the world people gather for Christmas, drawn together by the power and joy of the story, and by traditions that go back long before Christianity — and nowhere more so than in Africa where most try hard to get home by Christmas Eve to be with family and friends.

Today, the celebration of Christmas has become more popular – and even the liturgical practices that go with it.

Christmas Mass has now become a central fixture in the church calendar, which has made the day become Christ’s Mass, something that started by the 11th century.

For my friend David Wandeka, who’s Mugisu, people get together to eat chicken, play music and dance.

Mr Wandeka who works at NTV Uganda, says they will go to church on Christmas morning before starting to eat and drink until late. The food will be rich and special.

In Bugisu, a special meal of mashed Matooke and chicken will be on December 25, while among the Luo and Iteso, families will enjoy Atapa and Kwon [a mixture of cassava flour and millet bread], chapati, rice and meat together.

All over Uganda, East Africa and Africa, Christmas is a time of fellowship and joy. Of eating and drinking and celebration. A time to remember the real meaning of the Christmas story. And to be with friends and family.

In fact, all over the World, the aim is to have lots of food and welcome visitors. Ends




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