The Christmas holidays, for many, are a season of generosity, family gatherings and delicious food. But did you know that Christmas has its roots in the Christian church calendar? Not only that, but there are holidays preceding and following Christmas Day for months that are still celebrated around the world. Many of these festivities have influenced secular holidays. Candy canes, Mardi Gras parades, and Easter eggs are beloved traditions that all have a deeper meaning founded in millennia of church history. Significant events in the church and their sacred text, the Bible, are celebrated on an annual basis. This church calendar ties together seemingly estranged holidays such as Advent, Christmas, King’s Day, Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Easter, uniting them together in the story of Jesus Christ’s life on Earth.
In the Christian liturgy, preparations for Christmas begin four Sundays before December 25th. “Advent” is derived from the Latin adventus, meaning “arrival.” The arrival that Christians celebrate is twofold, the past birth of Jesus and His future return to Earth. The birth of Jesus Christ, whom Christians hail as the Son of God, signals the beginning of God reuniting Himself with His beloved creation by sending His son to live and suffer alongside humans. Historically, the Hebrews longed for this savior for generations. Currently, Christians long for the second arrival of Jesus when He will bring justice to all and fully reunite with His people. Advent is celebrated religiously with devotionals and advent calendars. In a secular setting, advent calendars have included sweets or prizes for each day leading up to Christmas. Decorations, including a tree, will be set up during this time.
Christmas and the Twelve Days of Christmas
December 25th marks the day that Christians celebrated the birth of baby Jesus. They celebrate how He walks with us in our trials and ultimately will deliver us from suffering. Some seemingly unrelated traditions such as candy canes actually stemmed from the Christian tradition. This beloved treat is shaped like a shepherd’s crook because the Bible says Jesus cares for His people as if they were sheep and He was the loving shepherd. The red stripes signify His blood which He sacrificed on Good Friday (see below).
The Twelve Days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day and conclude with King’s Day on January 6th. In 567 A.D., the Council of Tours declared the series of holidays in an effort to unify the Roman Empire’s solar calendar with the lunar calendar of their Eastern provinces. The celebrations include days devoted to an assortment of historical figures and Biblical characters and events. The final celebration of King’s Day celebrates the three magi who visited baby Jesus. In the Bible, this is Jesus’ first appearance to Gentiles (non-Hebrews) declaring that Jesus came to save people of all races and nationalities. Even though many still observe these holidays, Santa Claus, post-Christmas marketing and New Year’s Eve parties have gradually overshadowed the festival.
Around the world, Mardi Gras is a celebration full of boisterous parades and indulgent feasts. But like Christmas, it originated as part of the church calendar. These celebratory weeks precede the fasting season of Lent, and so they are a time of great consumption and satisfaction. Currently, large Mardi Gras (aka. Fat Tuesday) festivals occur around the world in the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and the United States of America. Areas of the U.S.A. with strong French heritage, such as New Orleans, are particularly famous for their elaborate parades and delicious festival food.
Ash Wednesday is a holy day of prayer and fasting that begins the 40 days of Lent. During this time, Christians focus on repentance for their wrongdoings and some even observe fasting. Fasting can include abstaining from meat, eating fewer meals, denying sweets, signing off social media, generally giving up bodily satisfaction or denying one’s self of a personal vice in an act of repentance. Overall, Christians elect to give up luxuries to remember their dependency on Jesus and more fully appreciate His deliverance on Easter Sunday.
Easter Sunday is the culmination of the Church calendar. While modern festivities focus on candy and egg hunts, the original holiday celebrates Jesus Christ’s conquer over death. Christians believe that Jesus lived His entire life without committing a single evil word, thought or deed. Because He was without fault, when He was crucified by His own people on Good Friday and spilled His blood to atone for our evil actions. Three days later on Easter Sunday, he rose from the dead and left behind an empty tomb, in order to reunite us with God. Christians who were previously alienated from God because of their sin can now have a relationship with God and join Him in glorious eternity.
Many beloved Easter traditions today owe their thanks to the Christian Easter story. Dyeing Easter eggs is a tradition that goes back centuries when Christians in Mesopotamia dyed eggs red to remember the blood that Jesus spilled because He loved them. The egg is also a symbol of rebirth and reminds Christians of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead and the empty tomb He left behind. In modern times, plastic Easter eggs are filled with candy, another way to celebrate the end of Lent fasting.
All of these seemingly unrelated holidays are, in reality, very deeply connected in the Christian faith. Even those who are not Christians still benefit from the rich traditions of the church that go back thousands of years. Everything from decorating the Christmas tree to hunting for Easter eggs has its foundations in the early church. It is tempting to forget the past and partake in the festivities without acknowledging their origins. However, by remembering why these holidays are so widely celebrated, we not only learn more about world history but also have an opportunity to grow closer together as a human race. The next time you celebrate with delicious cookies at Christmas, unforgettable parades at Mardi Gras, or colorful Easter eggs, remember to be thankful for how they started.