History of Christmas: Before Christ
The beginning of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight. In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year.
The end of December was a perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking.In Egypt, there was the celebration of the rebirth of Horus, the sun god. Because the Egyptians honoured Horus with a twelve month calendar, the festival lasted twelve days with each day symbolizing one month. Buildings were decorated with all sorts of greenery, such a palm branches. Each branch had twelve fronds, making it a small calendar. This was an ideal representation of the birth, death, rebirth cycle of the Sun.
Word of this festival traveled to Egypt's neighbors, the Babylonians, in Mesopotamia. The believed that these rituals were the heart of the Egyptians prosperity and they quickly adopted some similar festivities. Called Zagmuk, this festival incorporated their sun/creator god, Marduk. They believed that Marduk created the world, and made it one of order and peace. This wasn't easy though, to create the world Marduk had to fight the monsters of chaos.
Each year, as the days became shorted and the nights cooler, the monsters regained their strength and challenged Marduk's reign. This battle took place around the dates of the winter solstice, December 21 in our calendar. The Zagmuk festival started five days before the solstice and lasted six days after, with the peak of the festival falling on the day of the solstice itself. On the seventh day after the solstice, the Sun stayed longer in the sky, a sign that Marduk was on his way to victory. This resulted in parades and parties, and the occasional exchange of gifts. The world was renewed for another year and all was right with the Babylonian people.
Next time: Romans and Greeks
Source: thehistoryofchristmas.com and Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth by Dorothy Morrison