A Brief History of This Thing We Call Christmas
Here it is, Christmastime once again. The Holidays are upon us. It seems like just two weeks ago we were taking down the tree, but again time has shown us no mercy as it continues to fly by at an alarming pace.
So…Christmas time. Is there a better time of year than December? I love it, and I’m as curmudgeonly as they come. But why? I’m not big into organized religion, so why has this time of year become the time of year? I’m a fairly curious type, so several years ago I read a book called ‘The Battle for Christmas‘ about the long history of this most celebrated of seasons. It’s a great book, and sheds so much light on the traditions we hold so dear at this time of year. It’s well worth a read. But if you don’t have time for that, I thought I’d jot down a few quick notes on how this thing called Christmas came to be. ‘Christmas for Dummies’ if you will. Or my take on it, anyway.
Ye Olde Times B.C. (Before Christmas)
The Romans got things off to a great start way back with their awesome festival of Saturnalia, an annual feast honoring their god Saturn that ran yearly from about December 17 through the 23rd. This week-long bacchanalia took over the Empire, with non-stop partying and gift-giving. The Roman philosopher Seneca described the events:
It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business. … Were you here, I would willingly confer with you as to the plan of our conduct; whether we should eve in our usual way, or, to avoid singularity, both take a better supper and throw off the toga.”
The Romans later had another festival they called ‘Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun)’ created by emperor Aurelian around A.D. 270. The reason for the partying this time was to honor the sun god, as well as to celebrate the winter solstice. The date they held the celebration? December 25. And oh, it was a raucous and wild celebration, as only the Romans could do it. Lots of drinking, and eating, and general carousing of the less than savory variety.
The early Christians, who were really just starting to get things going as a full-blown religion, took one look at all of the joy that Saturnalia, and the Roman New Year, and the Sun God Celebrations, begat, and they thought to themselves, “You know what? Why should these dirty, hell-bound pagans get to have all the fun? It’s cold, it’s dark and the weather’s totally shitty. But look how much fun they’re having! We should take all these festivals and traditions and turn them into our own late-December holiday. But what can we celebrate? Oh yeah! The birth of Jesus! Nobody knows really when he was born, but if we celebrate his birthday on December 25, by golly we can turn all these heathen celebrations into something really worth celebrating!”
And just like that (give or take a few hundred years,) Christmas was born. An unnamed scribe to the 12th-century Syrian bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi added his own notes to one of Bar-Salibi’s manuscripts that laid it all out:
It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day.”
You can see how some of our most-cherished holiday traditions were already starting to take shape, even way back then.
The Middle Ages: Christmas Comes of Age and Things Get Misruly
The celebration of Christmas kind of came and went through the Middle Ages, as Christianity grew into more and more of a major religion. Truth be told, the medieval people living back then had a lot on their plates to worry about, mainly not starving to death or being slaughtered by disease or marauding bands of barbarians. Life during the Middle Ages sucked. Throwing a kick-ass Christmas party wasn’t high on their list of priorities. But still, they took pause each December.
Things got rolling after Charlemagne was made emperor in the year 800. The date? December 25. King Edmund the Martyr was anointed on Christmas Day in 855, and the King of England, William I, was crowned on Christmas Day 1066. With each passing year, Christmas was becoming more and more of kind of a big deal.
During the High Middle Ages, as technological advances (relatively speaking of course) and improvements in human health started to make life slightly less shitty, Christmas truly began to take its place as the most prominent religious holiday on the calendar. And the Middle-Agers began to throw bigger and more elaborate celebrations. For example, in 1377 king Richard II threw a big ol’ shindig at the castle, where twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep were consumed. Around this time, the yule boar was becoming popular on Christmas dinner tables. When year-round gluttony wasn’t always possible as it is today, a Christmas feast was indeed something special.
The act of Caroling was also getting popular at this time. Early caroling groups consisted of a main singer surrounded by dancers who sang the choruses. I’m sure there was also some lute playing thrown in there at some point, what with it being the Middle Ages and all. Proving that the ‘War on Christmas’ pre-dates Fox News by several hundred years, many writers at the time decried caroling as a lewd act, and complained incessantly and annoyingly that the earlier decadent traditions of Roman Saturnalia and all those other sinful pagan holidays were being continued under the auspices of Christmas.
And they had reason for their complaints (not that I agree with them.) You see, another important part of the Christmas season during this period of the Middle Ages was known as ‘Misrule.’ Misrule included such activities as public drunkenness, gambling, and promiscuity. Towns in England would appoint officers, known as Lords of Misrule (or the Abbot of Unreason in Scotland) to oversee the festivities. This Lord of Misrule was usually a peasant or sub-deacon of the church, and they were in charge of the Christmas activities, including the aforementioned reckless drinking and wild partying. What their actual duties were are a mystery…The Lord of Misrule, and misrule itself, again dates back to Roman Saturnalian times. Sounds like fun to me.
Public festivals included the use of holly, ivy, and evergreens as decorations, and exchanging gifts, typically between tenants and their landlords, also grew in popularity. Still more modern traditions being born. Still no amazon.com, though. Gifts in the middle ages were made by hand (everything was made by hand back then, come to think of it,) thus making them probably much more meaningful to their recipients.
As time wore on, we’re now well into the 15th and 16th centuries, the popularity of eating, singing, dancing, and drinking to celebrate the holiday continued to accelerate. According to Wikipedia, “by the 17th century the Christmas season featured lavish dinners, elaborate masques, and pageants.” Not to mention card playing, the performances of plays, sporting events, and of course, gift-giving.
The Reformation Through the 18th Century: The First War on Christmas
A little schism in the Church known as the Protestant Reformation happened, which saw the birth of many new religious denominations around Europe. Split though they were, they all continued to celebrate Christmas in some form or another. Donald Heinz, a professor at California State University, states that Martin Luther “inaugurated a period in which Germany would produce a unique culture of Christmas, much copied later in North America.” And everywhere, the eating and drinking and partying continued. A good time was had by all. Well…almost all. A religious group in England, calling themselves the Puritans, condemned all of this foolish merriment, and they put the kibosh on all of it. They were the original party poopers. They considered Christmas to be a tool of the Catholic church, and they raged against the “trappings of popery” and the “rags of the Beast.” Geez, lighten up there, Waldo.
The party animals over at the Anglican Church, meanwhile, “pressed for a more elaborate observance of feasts, penitential seasons, and saints’ days. The calendar reform became a major point of tension between the Anglican party and the Puritan party.” I’ll say. And the Catholics just kind of did their own thing, and went all-in on the religious pageantry of the holiday. King Charles I of England, a big-time supporter of Christmas, was defeated by Puritans during the English Civil War in 1647. And you can probably guess what the new Puritan leaders did. Before they even had a chance to measure for the curtains in their new offices, they officially banned Christmas.
Pro-Christmas citizens lost their minds and rioting soon broke out all over England. Rioters hung holly wreathes and shouted royalist slogans. You want a War on Christmas? This was the real deal.
The official ban on Christmas was ended in 1660 by King Charles II, but many religious leaders continued to discourage its celebration. These are the Dark Days of Christmas. Scotland banned Christmas in 1640; it wasn’t reinstated as an official public holiday again there until 1958.
Over here in the New World, the Puritans who populated New England were as fiercely anti-Christmas as their European brothers and sisters. Boston banned Christmas outright from 1659 to 1681.
But things weren’t so bad everywhere in the colonies; residents of New York and Virginia celebrated Christmas openly. German settlers brought over their Christmas traditions to places like Pennsylvania. They also brought over their brewery equipment and their brewing expertise, building beer-brewing empires and livening up Christmas parties everywhere with their ales and lagers.
Christmas took another big hit over here during and after the Revolutionary War, when it was looked down on and seen as a largely British custom. Anything British was not cool colony-side in the 1770s. We used our enemy’s love of the holiday against them on the day after Christmas, December 26, 1776, when Gen. Washington led his troops across the Delaware River to attack Hessian soldiers (Germans, fighting for the British,) as they slept off their Christmas hangovers, a battle that became known as the Battle of Trenton. War Planning 101: Catch ’em off guard.
The 19th Century: Chuck D Saves Christmas
Enter the 19th century. The 1800s, when Christmas as we know it, modern Christmas, really takes shape. The resurgence of Christmas, and the holiday spirit overall, can be attributed to one man, and one work. In 1843, Charles Dickens published his short novel ‘A Christmas Carol.’ It was an instant, massive hit. And just like that, Christmas meant merriment, compassion, spending time with family, and an overall spirit of goodwill. The story added ‘Scrooge’ as someone who was anti-Christmas, and ‘Bah, humbug!’ as being dismissive of the holiday season, to our vocabularies.
Also around this time, many of the Christmas carols we still sing today were being written. I’m talking classics like The First Noel, I Saw Three Ships, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen…and on and on.
What about the Christmas tree? Why do we take a pine tree, put it in the living room, and decorate it with ornaments and lights? Well, it was originally an old German tradition, brought to England in the early 1800s. When the future Queen Victoria wrote about her love of the Christmas tree experience in 1832, the tradition caught on in a big big way. She married a German cousin, Prince Albert, in 1841, and before long everybody who was anybody was putting up Christmas tree. Then, like now, people love love love their Royal Family.
The American writer Washington Irving spent time in England in the 1820s, and experienced many of the old English Christmas traditions that had long been ignored in America. Taking his inspiration from that 1652 book ‘The Vindication of Christmas,’ he captured these traditions, long abandoned in the new country, and brought them to the States in the form of several short stories.
Another writer, Clement Moore, in 1822 published a poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’, now known more commonly as ‘The Night Before Christmas,’ that further popularized and re-energized the old tradition of gift giving in the form of a visit from old St. Nick. I’m guessing you could probably recite large chunks of it from memory right now. What else can you recite from memory that was written in 1822? I didn’t think so. That’s how popular Moore’s little poem was, and still is.
There is a fine line between gift-giving and being overly commercialized. And it’s right around this time, as the industrial revolution gave us whole new worlds of mass-produced consumer products, that the tug of war between the religious and the commercial aspects of the holiday began. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote an 1850 book called ‘The First Christmas in New England’ in which a character complained about the spirit of Christmas being lost in a shopping spree. She has no idea what’s coming a hundred years down the road…
As Christmas celebrating grew in the U.S., poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of “a transition state about Christmas here in New England” in 1856, where “the old puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful, hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so.” By 1875, the country’s first Christmas greeting card had been introduced by Louis Prang. Ten years later, the holiday was finally declared an official U.S. federal holiday. Christmas was back, baby!
The 20th Century: Christmas As We Know It
The 20th Century saw the large-scale electrification of America; Christmas lights were among the first types of lighting both on city streets and in people’s homes. Advances in broadcast and recording technology in the form of records, radio and television helped popularize the Christmas season, and most of the Christmas songs we love to this day were recorded. Entertainers from Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley sold their Christmas recordings by the millions. Songs commissioned by large corporations became perennial holiday favorites (I’m looking at you, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, created for the Montgomery Ward company in 1939.) Holiday movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, A Christmas Story, and Elf are seen and loved by millions every year. Christmas specials from Charlie Brown, Rudolph, and Frosty are perennial favorites.
Santa Claus, who doesn’t get much mention here due to word count constraints, becomes the modern Santa we know and love, thanks in large part to the Coca Cola company’s popular Christmas ads, started in the 1920s and featuring Santa as a plump old man in a (Coca Cola red) suit as painted by Michigan-born artist Haddon Sunblom.
The 21st Century and Beyond: Keeping Christmas Traditions Alive
And so here we are today, in the early years of the 21st Century. Christmas is bigger than ever. It’s become a commercial juggernaut that anchors the bottom lines of the world’s corporations, big and small. It’s still the largest religious holiday, by far, around the world. It’s all of these things, and much more. Which is why I started writing this thing in the first place.
Why do we celebrate Christmas? What makes it so special, and so important? Is it because of the religious aspects of the season? Of course it is. Is it because of its commercial implications? For better or worse, yes it is.
But for me, my reasons for loving this time of year could, I guess, be traced back through all those centuries back to its very earliest days, as our ancestors gathered at years’ end to celebrate. To celebrate the end of another long harvest season. To celebrate the winter solstice, as our side of the planet tips back to its farthest angle away from the sun. They gathered to celebrate good food, good wine, and good company. They gathered together because all they had really was each other. The world grows cold, and it grows dark, this time of the year. They gathered to fight back the darkness with light, to shake off the cold with each others’ company. They gathered to celebrate the fact that they were, in a world much more dangerous than our own, still alive.
Down through the centuries, these traditions carried on, as new traditions were added. The reasons for celebrating morphed and changed, but they carried on, right through to today.
Why do I love this season? I owe a lot of it to my Mom, who was as exuberant about the Holidays as anybody I know. And I owe a lot to her father, my grandfather, who gave his holiday spirit to his daughter. My parents, and grandparents, created a magical world for us when I was young, a world filled with twinkling lights, and joyful music, wonderful food, and of course lots of special gifts. And I see those traditions that they had, all those traditions that had been passed down through the millennia, right down to me.
It’s a big bad world. You know that; I know that. We live in a world filled with war, and horror, and chaos, and disagreements large and small. But the world’s always been a dangerous place, much more so than today. We just get an overwhelming sense that today, right now, things are as bad as they’ve ever been. But I don’t believe it. Look at the Romans; look at the folks trying to make it through the horrors of medieval times. Folks who were lucky if they made it to age thirty. Look at the folks who suffered through, and lost loved ones by the millions, through all the wars our species has fought, and will sadly always fight. Wicked people and stupid politicians are nothing new; Life is hard. Every life is hard.
And when the calendar turns over to December, and here in the North the days grow short, and the air grows cold, what better time is there to turn on the colored lights, play and sing the happy holiday songs, to share gifts and time with the ones we love the most? There’s no better time. The world’s a dangerous place, but it’s also a miraculous place. So instead of complaining about how some people are or are not celebrating the holidays, let’s just all celebrate the holidays, any holidays. In whichever way we feel like celebrating. Mine is a more secular holiday season, but God bless those who focus solely on the religious aspect of the holiday. Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, Festivus…it’s all good stuff. Let’s push back the darkness with the light, and celebrate each other, because despite all of our advances, in the end we’re just like every other human who’s ever walked this planet, and all we have to get through this thing called life is each other. There’s so much divisiveness in this world, and it’s nothing more than wasted energy. It’s an over-complicated, overly busy world; instead of letting the holidays make things worse, I’d like it if we’d all just sit back, relax, and take stock of the blessings we have, the people in our lives, and the memories of those loved ones who are no longer with us.
‘Tis the season to be jolly, so be jolly! Cheers!
What’s that? No holiday spirit yet? What are you waiting for? I’m gonna let Steve and Eydie give you that holiday feeling. (Again, I’ve got my mother to thank for my love of a 50+ year old song.) Let’s go!