Christmas feels like it's always been here, in one way or another. In modern memory, Christmas is mainly associated with gift-giving and spending time with family. This single day has great significance to billions worldwide, along with the custom of bringing a traditional Christmas plant, usually in the form of a Christmas tree, into the home for the duration of the festive season.
Even if you don't celebrate Christmas, it's hard to ignore its reach and appeal. The concept of a holiday, in the middle of Winter, giving joy to everyone, is quite nice. Often a time of charity and a symbol of hope for a better world, Christmas is just a lovely time for anyone who wishes to see it as such.
It does beg the question, which are the origins of Christmas come from? Was it purely an invention of the early Christian Church? Why do we have traditional Christmas flowers and a Christmas plant in our living room every year? What even are Christmas time flowers? Indeed, the origins of Christmas may surprise many.
What have the Romans done for us?
As with most things we celebrate and hold dear to us today, Christmas started in Rome. It's easy to think that Rome, the first Christian state to exist in the world, would have made Christmas popular. But the origins of Christmas are far earlier than that of Christianity being widespread.
In ancient Rome, long before the time of the First Emperors, a new celebration was brought forward to honour the God of the Heavens, Saturn. The Festival of Saturnalia was celebrated throughout the Roman world. It lasted from the 18th of December until the 23rd, culminating with the Winter solstice.
Its association with the solstice likely hints at even deeper origins. Specifically, that Saturnalia was a reformatted pre-Hellenic celebration, one that only became more "greekified" as the Romans invaded their neighbours to the East.
Like with many holidays from ancient times, such as Diwali, Saturnalia was a festival of lights, feasts and social healing. Slaves and servants would sit at banquet tables, where their lords and masters would cook them food and serve them wine. Saturn, being a god of Agriculture, was praised through such banqueting and offerings of food and wine.
Even here, you can see the start of Christian traditions beginning to form. Though we don't yet have a Christmas Plant in every Roman Villa, there's a pattern forming.
Solis Invicti and the Christianisation of Rome
After the Emperors, more and more changes to the celebrations of this large, multi-ethnic religion began to emerge. Roman Hellenism, the old faith of the Romans, was not large on proselytising or converting people.
Instead, there was a great effort to syncretically link conquered regions' religions to the Roman Gods. Many Egyptian deities, for instance, were merged with old cults of the Roman faith. The Goddess Isis is one example of taking a popular, Mediterranean goddess and romanising it.
Under Emperor Aurelian, Saturnalia was reformed to worship a new God of his design. He elevated the Roman Cult of Sol from minor worship to outweigh Saturn, the Roman version of Zeus. His conquests of the Middle East largely inspired this. He was fascinated by the monotheistic religions of Judaism, and the sun worship of Zoroastrianism.
Barely 50 years later, Constantine further impressed the importance of the Cult of Sol onto Roman minds. He even began marking Sol Invicta on coinage, opposite his face, a custom that lasted throughout the later stage of the Western Roman Empire.
The Cult of Sol, as well as such decrees as making Sunday (the day of the sun) a Roman rest day, began laying the groundwork for Roman Christianity.
The Early Christians and Christmas
Constantine converted to Christianity on his deathbed. During his career, he ended the persecution of Christians. Early Christianity had grown into the very roots of Roman society, which led to their prime position to Christianise the entire Empire.
Some historians even posit that Christmas takes place on December 25th every year because this was the feast day of Sol Invictus. Others even go as far as to say that Christianity assimilated the religion. This makes Jesus himself Sol Invictus to convince Romans to convert.
Under Constantine, the First Council of Nicaea unified Christianity into one reformed church known as the Nicaean Creed, which still forms the basis of Catholic and Orthodox teachings.
The first recorded Christmas celebration was in Rome on December 25th, AD 336. From now on, December and the solstice had a strong association with Christ.
The Decline of Christmas’ Popularity
Christmas then began to be overshadowed by other religious Holidays. The Epiphany, which celebrates the visit of the Magi to Jesus (the three wise men) at his birth, became more important than his birth itself. This was largely because of the declaration by the Magi that he was the son of God, according to the Gospels.
However, Christmas made a comeback after Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas day in 800 CE. This royal association with Christmas gave the day more significance to Western Christians. Meanwhile, in the East, the preference for the Epiphany was even more significant. Amongst other things, this led to the schism between the West and Eastern churches.
Other kings of Europe would follow Charlemagne's example. King William I of England was crowned on Christmas day, for example!
Over the next few centuries, Christmas would fall in and out of favour. Extreme reformers such as the Puritans and even some Catholics saw Chrismas as an indulgence of misrule and anarchy.
The Introduction of Traditional Christmas Flowers and Plants
The Middle Ages also saw symbols of Christmas start to diverge from Roman origins. The concept of dried flowers as a decoration caught on, especially during the Winter months. Soon, Christmas would be home to a whole set of Christmas-time flowers. Ivy, Holly, and other evergreen symbols of traditional Christmas flowers began appearing.
The concept of a Christmas plant comes from Pagan religions. Largely, this was possible thanks to the Christianisation of the Baltic and Slavic regions. They had a far greater nature-based paganism. So Christianity learnt to associate their religion with the traditions of the conquered, just like the Romans - thus, we have some of our favourite traditional Christmas flowers today!
The best-known Christmas flowers are the Christmas Tree. This is a tradition dating as far back as Polish Slavic folklore. The Slavic believed it was seen as good fortune to bring an evergreen wreath or an entire branch or tree into your home.
As Christianity modernised and changed, so did its celebrations. By the time of the reformation and beyond, much had changed indeed. The courtly culture of European royalty introduced fantastic dinners, pageants and balls. King James I insisted that a play be acted on Christmas Night, which originates the idea of a Christmas Panto quite nicely.
The Modern day with Modern Ideas
Christmas has changed significantly over the years, but the basic ideas of goodwill and gift-giving have remained central. The main gift giver has altered from magical spirits to a Christ Child giving presents to St Nicholas and eventually Santa Clause.
Many famous authors in the 19th century captured the imaginations of a more literate population. Stories like Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" and Clement C. Moore's "Twas the Night Before Christmas" have earned their way into modern consciousness. Every time you see Christmas time flowers, like trees or wreaths, you have these artists to thank for their popularity.
These stories, along with the modern phenomenon of Capitalistic Christmas, all have solidified Christmas as a yearly celebration of gifts, food and good times. Though, as with much in the world today, there's a threat.
An Environmentally Conscious Christmas
Too often, Christmas is seen as a time of wastefulness. One where we focus on price tags rather than the smiles of our friends and family as they open their gifts and we spend time together. Even more so, Christmas can be seen to contribute to an increase in deforestation. As climate conditions worsen, many corporations struggle to meet the demand for traditional Christmas flowers and gifts without harming the environment.
Eco-Sustainable Christmas Flowers
That's why this year, give a gift that truly holds the spirit of Christmas: something renewable and environmentally conscious. Amaranté's dried flowers are the perfect way to decorate your home and give the best gift you can. Our traditional Christmas flowers are entirely carbon neutral: having a Christmas plant in your home will not harm the world.
Flowers that Last Years not DaysThese Christmas-time flowers can last for as long as three years, and truly light up a room in a way that would make the Romans proud to see where we are rather than being ashamed of what we have become.
So enjoy the season! Drink and be merry. And most importantly, think about the world we live in and how we want to ensure Christmas is still celebrated for centuries to come.