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Christmas is a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. For 2,000 years, people have been observing Christmas with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular in nature.
Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Popular customs include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends, and waiting for Santa Clause to arrive. Dec. 25 – Christmas Day – has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1870.
An Ancient Holiday
The middle of winter has been a time of celebration around the world for centuries before the birth of Jesus. Early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. The shortest day of the year is Dec. 21, Winter Solstice. Many people rejoiced during Winter Solstice because it meant the worst days of winter had passed. They could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Christmas (Yule) from Dec. 21 through January. To recognize the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs and set them on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out. This 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 the perfect time to celebrate in most areas in Europe. At that time of the year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many people, it was the only time of the year when they had a fresh supply of meat. Additionally, most wine and beer made during the year was fermented and ready for drinking.
In Germany, the people honored the pagan god Oden during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Oden. They believed he made nocturnal flights to observe his people and decide who would prosper and who would perish. His presence made many people choose to stay inside.
In Rome winters were not as harsh as those in the far north. Saturnalia – a holiday to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture – was celebrated. Beginning in the week before Winter Solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time. Food and drink were plentiful, and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. During this time, slaves would become masters; peasants were in control of the city; and businesses and schools were closed so everyone could be part of the fun.
Additionally, during Winter Solstice, Romans celebrated Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. Members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on Dec. 25. The people believed that the infant god Mithra was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year.
In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the primary holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. It was in the fourth century when church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. The Bible does not give a date for Jesus’ birth. This is a fact that Puritans later pointed out in order to deny the legitimacy of the celebration.
There is some evidence that would suggest Jesus was born in the spring: Why would shepherds be herding in the middle of winter? Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival.
The celebration was first called the Feast of the Nativity. The custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the sixth century. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread to Scandinavia.
In the 21st century, Greek and Russian orthodox churches celebrate Christmas 13 days after Dec. 25, which is also referred to as the Epiphany of Three Kings Day. The is the day it is believed that they three wise men found Jesus lying in the manger.
Holding Christmas as the same time as traditional Winter Solstice festivals, church leaders increased that chances that Christmas would be embraced but gave up the ability to dictate how the holiday was to be celebrated.
By the Middle Ages, Christianity, for the most part, had replaced pagan religion. On Christmas Day, believers attended church, the celebrated “raucously in a drunken carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras,” according to History. Every year a beggar or student would be crowned the “lord of misrule” and the other celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would demand the best food and drink from the rich and if they failed to comply, the poor would terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes would repay their real or imagined “debt” to society by entertaining the less fortunate.
An Outlaw Christmas
In the early 17th century, religious reform changed the way Europeans celebrated Christmas. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645. They vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of the effort, cancelled Christmas.
Charles II was restored to the throne by popular demand and with his return came the return of the Christmas holiday.
The pilgrims that came to American in 1620, were more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas of outlawed in Boston. Anyone who exhibited the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings.
By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.
After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. The celebration was not declared a federal holiday until June 27, 1870.
Irving Reinvents Christmas
Americans did not begin to embrace Christmas until the 19th century. American reinvented Christmas. It was changed from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia. What about the 1800s peaked American interest in the holiday?
The early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. Throughout this time, unemployment was high and rioting by the disenchanted classes would often occur during the Christmas season. In 1828, the New York city council instituted the city’s first police force in response to a Christmas riot. This spurred members of the upper class to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America.
In 1819, Washington Irving, a best-selling author, wrote “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent.” This book was a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. According to History, “The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth of social status.”
The fictitious celebrants in Irving’s book enjoyed ancient customs, including the crowning of a Lord of Misrule. The book, however, was not based on a holiday celebration Irving had actually attended. In fact, historians believe that Irving’s account actually “invented” tradition by implying that the book described true customs of the season.
A Christmas Carol
Around the same time as Irving’s book was changing tradition, Charles Dickens wrote his classic holiday story, “A Christmas Carol.” The message of the story, the importance of charity and good will toward all humankind struck a powerful chord in England and the United States. It also showed members of Victorian society the benefits of celebrating Christmas.
At this time, families were becoming less disciplined and more sensitive to the emotional needs of children during the 1800s. Christmas provided families with a day they could lavish children with attention and gifts without appearing to spoil them.
As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a family holiday, old customs were unearthed. People looked toward recent immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches to see how the day should be celebrated.
Over the next 100 years, Americans created a Christmas traditions that included many pieces of other customs, including decorating trees, sending holiday cards, and gift giving. “Americans had really reinvented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation.”
The English term Christmas means “mass of Christ’s day.” Yule, the earlier term, may have originated from the Germanic jōl, or the Anglo-Saxon geōl, which referred to the feast of the Winter Solstice.
Since the early 20th century, Christmas has also become a secular family holiday. It is observed by Christians and non-Christians, devoid of Christian elements and marked by an increasingly elaborate exchange of gifts.
In the secular Christmas celebration, a mythical figure named Santa Claus plays the pivotal role.
The early Christian community distinguished between the identification of the date of Jesus’ birth and the liturgical celebration of the event. The actual observance of the day of Jesus’ birth was long in coming. In particular, during the first two centuries of Christianity, there was a strong opposition to recognizing birthdays of martyrs or for that matter, of Jesus.
Numerous leaders within the church offered sarcastic comments about the pagan custom of celebrating birthdays when, in fact, saints and martyrs should be honored on the days of their martyrdom – their true birthdays, from the church’s perspective, according to Britannica.
The precise origin of assigning Dec. 25 as the birthdate of Jesus is not clear. The New Testament does not provide any clues. Dec. 25 was first identified as the date of Jesus’ birth by Sextus Julius Africanus in 221 and later became the universally accepted date. One widespread explanation for the date is that Dec. 25 was the Christianizing of the “dies solis invicti nati” (“day of the birth of the unconquered sun”). This was a popular holiday in the Roman Empire that celebrated the Winter Solstice as a symbol of the resurgence of the sun. Christian writers quickly made the connection between the rebirth of the sun and the birth of the Son.
According to Britannica, “one of the difficulties with this view is that it suggests a nonchalant willingness of the part of the Christian church to appropriate a pagan festival when the early church was so intent on distinguishing itself categorically from pagan beliefs and practices.”
A second view suggests that Dec. 25 became the date of Jesus’ birth by a “priori reasoning that identified the Spring Equinox as the date of the creation of the world and the fourth day of creation, when the light was created, as the day of Jesus’ conception (i.e., March 25). Nine months later, Dec. 25, became the date of Jesus’ birth. For a long time, the celebration of Jesus’ birth was observed in conjunction with his baptism celebrated on Jan. 6.
In the 9th century, Christmas became widely celebrated with a specific liturgy, but the holiday did not attain the liturgical importance of Good Friday or Easter.
Roman Catholic churches celebrate Christmas mass at midnight and Protestant churches have increasingly held candlelight services late on Christmas Eve. A special service of “lesson and carols” intertwines Christmas carols with Scripture readings narrating salvation history form the Garden of Eden to the coming of Christ.
The service, inaugurated by E.W. Benson and adopted at the University of Cambridge has become popular.
None of the contemporary Christmas customs originated in theological or liturgical affirmations and most are fairly recent to date. The Renaissance humanist Sebastian Brant recorded, in “Das Narrenschiff” (1949; “The Ship of Fools”), the custom of placing branches of fir trees inside houses. There is some uncertainty about the exact date and origin of the tradition of the Christmas tree. It seems that fir trees decorated with apples were first seen in Strasbourg in 1605. The first use of candles on fir trees is recorded by a Silesian duchess in 1611.
The Advent wreath – made of fir branches, with four candles denoting the four Sundays of the Advent season – is of even more recent origin, especially in North America. The custom began in the 19th century but had roots in the 16th century. Originally, the custom involved a wreath and 24 candles denoting the 24 days before Christmas, beginning on Dec. 1. It was too awkward to have so many candles on the wreath and the number was reduced to four. Thus came the analogous custom of the Advent calendar, which provides 24 openings, one to be opened each day starting with Dec. 1. According to tradition, the Advent calendar was created in the 19th century by a Munich housewife who grew tired of endlessly answering the question: When will Christmas come?
The first commercial calendars were printed in Germany in 1851. The intense preparation for Christmas that is part of the commercialization of the holiday has blurred the traditional liturgical distinction between Advent and the Christmas season, as can be seen by the placement of Christmas trees in sanctuaries well before Dec. 25.
Toward the end of the 18th century, the practice of giving gifts to family members became well established. Theologically, the day of the feast reminded Christians of God’s gift of Jesus to mankind, just as the coming of the Wise Men, or Magi to Bethlehem suggested that Christmas was related to gift giving. The practice of giving gifts, which dates back to the 15th century, contributed to the view that Christmas was a secular holiday that focused on family and friends. This is one reason why Puritans and Old and New England opposed the celebration of Christmas in England and America succeeded in banning its observance.
The tradition of celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday is illustrated by numerous English Christmas carols such as “Here We Come A-Wassailing” or “Deck the Halls.” It can also be seen in the tradition of sending Christmas cards, which began in England in the 19th century. Moreover, in Austria and Germany, the connection between the Christian festival and the family holiday is made by identifying the Christ child as the giver of gifts to the family. In some European countries, St. Nicholas appears on his feast day (Dec. 6) bringing modest gifts of candy and other gifts to children.
In North American, the pre-Christmas role of the Christian Saint Nicholas was transformed, under the influence of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (“’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), into the increasingly central role of Santa Claus as the one who delivers Christmas presents to the family.
However, while both name and attire – a version of the traditional dress of bishop – of Santa Claus reveal his Christian roots, and his role of questioning children about their past behavior replicates that of St. Nicholas, he is viewed as a secular figure.
In Australia, where people attend open-air concerts of Christmas carols and have their Christmas dinner on the beach, Santa Claus wears red swimming trunks and a white beard.
In keeping with the tradition that Jesus was born on the night of the 24th, most European countries exchange gifts on Christmas Eve. The morning of Dec. 25, has become the time to exchange gifts in North America. In 17th and 18th-century Europe the exchange of gifts took place in the early hours of the 25th when the family returned home from Christmas mass.
- Every year, 30-35 million real Christmas trees are sold in the United States. There are 21,000 Christmas tree growers in the U.S., and trees generally grow for 15 years before they are sold.
- Today, in the Greek and Russian orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after Dec. 25, which is referred to as the Epiphany of Three Kings Day. This is the day they believe the three wise men found Jesus in the manger.
- In the Middle Ages, Christmas celebrations were rowdy and loud – much like today’s Mardi Gras parties.
- From 1659 to 1681, celebrating Christmas was outlawed in Boston. Law breakers were fined five shillings.
- On June 26, 1870, Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the U.S.
- The first eggnog made in the U.S. was consumed in Captain John Smith’s 1607 Jamestown settlement.
- Poinsettia plants are named are Joel R. Poinsett, and American minister to Mexico, who brought the red-and-green plant from Mexico to America in 1828.
- The Salvation Army has been sending Santa Claus-clad donation collectors into the streets since the 1890s.
- Rudolph, “the most famous reindeer of all,” was the product of Robert L. May’s imagination in 1939. The copywriter wrote a poem about the reindeer to help lure customers into the Montgomery Ward department store.
- Construction workers started the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition, in 1931.
By Jeanette Smith
History.com: History of Christmas
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