Christmas or Noël
Christmas – or Noël in French – is celebrated from Christmas Eve to New Year.
The origin of the French name Noël is unknown.
Noël is a major celebration fin France as the majority of the population is Roman Catholic – even if most don’t practice.
It’s indeed a time for Happiness and Peace.
Christmas celebrates the Birth of Jesus, even if no one knows his exact date of birth!
The celebration unofficially started in the late 1st century AD.
In 137AD, the Church of Rome indeed decreed that Jesus’ Birth should be officially celebrated.
However, it was not until 350AD that December 25 was officially chosen.
According to tradition, Jesus was born at night.
Midnight Mass is therefore celebrated on Christmas Eve and at midnight (of course!) in order to commemorate his birth.
Cristes Maesse – Christ Mass evolved into Christmas.
Why December 25?
Early Western Europeans were pagan and celebrated the Winter Solstice, which occurs on December 21 or 22 in the Northern Hemisphere.
However, in 46BC Emperor Julius Caesar marked in his Julian calendar December 25 as the official date for the Winter Solstice.
The pagan Winter Solstice celebration was highly important.
Our distant ancestors indeed believed that evil spirits, ghosts and witches thrived in the short, dark and cold winter days.
No one knew if the sun would come back in Spring, if the light would win over darkness.
It was therefore necessary to have special celebrations and rites in order to make sure that the sun would return!
When the Romans colonized France some 2000 years ago, they brought their own pagan deities.
At this time of the year they would therefore celebrate Saturn, their God of Harvest, Agriculture and Fertility.
The Saturnalia Festival started in mid-December and ended on January 1st.
It was a happy celebration and an occasion for masquerades, gifts exchange with friends and big meals.
Master and slave swapped roles, morality was forgotten and rules of good or bad behaviour entirely ignored!
This massive pagan festival of course coincided with the Winter Solstice.
The Catholic Church transposed some (not all as you can easily guess!) of the Saturnalia’s traditions to the celebration of Christmas-Nativity of Jesus.
This occurred 313AD after the signature of the Edict of Milan when Emperor Constantine granted the freedom of worship to all.