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The Sciences

How Ancient Holiday Traditions Have Changed Over Time

Many of the holiday traditions we hold today stem from celebrations our ancestors held. And some traditions have all been lost.

By Emilie Le Beau LucchesiDec 20, 2023 8:00 AM
yuel log with greenery and candle
(Credit: MalNindo/Shutterstock)


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Black Friday used to be an important, one-day shopping ritual. People lined up before dawn outside of stores and eagerly waited for the doors to open. The sale prices were only valid for that day, and quantities were limited. Some shoppers burst into the store as soon as it opened.

Online shopping forever altered the decades-long ritual. Sale prices are available at different times throughout the season, and there's really no need to shiver outside a store and then battle like a Gladiator over a Furby.

The ancients also had traditions surrounding their celebrations. Many of these traditions were far longer-lasting than Black Friday and persisted for hundreds if not thousands of years. But eventually, many of them came to an end.

The End of Opet

(Credit: iStock / Getty Images Plus)

During Egypt's New Kingdom, an annual festival that was a street party/religious event mash-up was introduced. Egypt was known for having many state holidays and festivals, but one in particular lasted for more than a millennium. 

What Was Opet?

Experts credit Hatsheput (1479-1458 B.C.E. ) with initiating the first Opet Festival to celebrate the god Amun-Re. Opet took place in Thebes, where a shrine to Amun-Re was removed from the temple and paraded two miles to Luxor. A massive procession followed as priests carried the shrine and stopped at six designated spots.

Why Was Opet Celebrated?

Opet was a seasonal event that happened after the waters of the Nile had receded and planting had begun. People believed the celebration was needed for their crops to succeed. People danced and played music. The temple served bread, cake, and beer.

For rulers like Hatsheput, Opet also served another purpose. She inserted herself into the celebration so she could benefit from an association with Amun-Re. If the god was needed for the country's prosperity, then she was too.

How Long Was Opet Celebrated?

Egyptians celebrated the festival for more than a thousand years. Various rulers made changes to the festival during their reigns. When the treasury was full, then Opet was more opulent.

Under some rulers, the festivities and feasting lasted for weeks. The tradition eventually waned under Roman occupation.

Read More: Ancient Holiday Celebrations

Stomping Out Sun Worship

(Credit: Halawi/Shutterstock)

By the fourth century, Roman occupation in Egypt meant that Opet was no longer a thing. Across Europe, other traditions were also beginning to end as Christian authorities banned pagan rituals, particularly those associated with the sun gods. Over time, they found that attaching new rituals to solstice celebrations helped to ease the transition. 

Who Was Sol Invictus?

Ancient Romans worshipped many gods, including Sol Invictus, the sun god. Sol Invictus was one of many Roman gods until the third century when Emperor Aurelian tried to strengthen the empire by promoting the worship of just one god. Because many people worshipped some variation of a sun god, Aurelian seemed to think Sol Invictus would be the god most likely to pull off monotheism.  

What Was December 25 Before Christmas?

Aurelian selected December 25 as the day to honor Sol Invictus. The day conveniently fell during Saturnalia, a week-long celebration honoring Saturn, the god of sowing. The celebration already included chariot races, gift giving, feasting, dressing up, and drinking wine, which fit the emperor's party itinerary for Sol Invictus.  

When Did December 25 Become Christmas Day?

While the Romans were toasting Sol Invictus on December 25, Christian leaders were debating when the nativity occurred. It was a debate that lasted centuries, with December 25, January 6, and March 25 all being contenders.

By the early fourth century, Romans opted for December 25 and changed Sol Invictus to Christmas.

Read More: DNA Analysis of Ancient Rome Reveals a Cosmopolitan Megacity

Getting Into the Christmas Spirit

As the Holy Roman Empire came to dominate other parts of Europe, they had to contend with cultures that had their own winter traditions they didn't want to give up. 

What Was Yuletide?

(Credit: MalNindo/Shutterstock)

By the late 500s, pagan people across Europe and the British Isles resisted converting to Christianity. Pope Gregory advised Augustine, the archbishop of Canterbury, to work with what he had. Rather than build a new church, for example, it was better to ritually cleanse a pagan temple and use that for worship.

And rather than force pagans to give up their traditions, it was better to find a way to have them merge with Christian celebrations.

Yuletide was the feasting tradition that came along with Giuli, a midwinter ceremony. Rituals like burning a yule log and hanging a sprig of mistletoe were traditions practiced since Anglo-Saxon and Celtic prehistory.

Suggesting that people give up these long-held rituals was a Big Ask, so the pope advised the archbishop to find a way to incorporate them into Christmas celebrations.

How Did We Get the 12 Days of Christmas?

(Credit: Andy Lidstone/Shutter

The 12 days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day and last until early January. This designated party period was created in 567 by the Council of Tours and was meant to address competing pagan celebrations. 

For many pagan cultures, the days before and after the winter solstice were sacred. In Norse cultures, Yule stretched three days and included a major feast and their new year's rituals. The new year's traditions were particularly troubling to church officials. One archbishop described them as "nonsense" that involved "sorcery." 

When Did Christmas Become a Holiday?

Old habits die hard, and some European peoples celebrated Christmas for centuries before they actually called it that. In 877, Alfred the Great ordered the 12 days following "midwinter" to be free days for servants.

Anglo-Saxon literature kept calling Christmas midne winter or middum wintra. Only in 1038 was it recorded as Cristes Maessan, meaning Christmas.  

Read More: We May Kiss Under the Mistletoe, but are These Berries Poisonous?

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