10 Things You Should Know About The Real History of Christmas
Christmas is a key celebration in the Christian Calendar, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of God and savior of humanity.
These days, however, Christmas is a lot more than ‘just’ a religious holiday. In the United States at least, it is increasingly viewed as a secular holiday and the religious aspects are taking a back step. While over 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas, including 80% of non-Christians, only half view it as a religious holiday with over one third viewing it as a cultural event. Some evidence of this can be seen in the now annual spectacle of frenzied debates about the patterns of Starbucks Christmas Cups. More children associate Christmas with an orgy of presents than the reverence of the miracle of divine birth.
It should come as no surprise that Christmas is one of the major celebrations in our calendar. After all the United States and other Western Countries have a predominantly Christian heritage and so Christian holidays were important markers in the calendar. As the years have turned, however, most western societies have become more tolerant in the area of religious worship, both of people from other religions and those who profess none. Many of these people in their turn have adopted Christmas and morphed its traditions to fit themselves. Whether they are the atheist children of devout parents who want to allow their children to enjoy the fun trappings of the Christmas they enjoyed when they were young or immigrants to these shores whose wish to integrate means they buy in to the concept of the holiday and whose Children learn about the secular traditions at school, Christmas has proved remarkably versatile.
As Christmas has changed and become more secularized in our lifetimes it should come as no surprise that Christmas is now a very different to Christmas as it was celebrated in ancient times. Here are 10 things you should know about the origin of Christmas.
10The Ancient Christians Did Not Celebrate Christmas
Christmas seems so important to us today that many people might say that it is the most important celebration in the Christian calendar. If you ask theologians or the truly devout and observant you would get a different answer. For most Christians Easter is by far the most important celebration as it marks the time when Jesus died for our sins. By making the ultimate sacrifice in his time and for all time he ascended into Heaven to sit at the Right Hand of God the Father. It is the profession of faith, Christ has died, Christ has Risen, Christ will come again that is at the heart of every sect of the Christian religion. His birth was a miracle but his death was the ultimate miracle.
When we look at it through this lens it is probably less surprising to hear that the early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Christ. Indeed the early Christians viewed the celebrations on anniversaries as a pagan tradition. A close reading of the Gospels shows that no reference was made to the exact date of Jesus’ birth nor did the Bible exhort the followers of the new religion to celebrate the event. Over the next few centuries this upstart little cult began to take root and spread over the Roman Empire and beyond. Missionaries were pragmatic enough to know that new adherents to the religion would be more likely to remain loyal if they could continue to enjoy the pagan celebrations that had hitherto been so important in their lives and so the early church turned them into Christian celebrations. The winter solstice, important in many other traditions, was a convenient time to celebrate the birth of Christ. The first Christmas was celebrated in the year 374.
9Saturnalia: The Roman Inspiration Behind Christmas Traditions
Every December the streets of Rome and its empire would resound to the cries of Io (pronounced Yo!) Saturnalia. One of the favorite of all Roman holidays Saturnalia was a harvest celebration in honor of Saturn, god of the harvest and agriculture.
Starting with a ritual sacrifice in the Temple of Saturn the people of Rome would celebrate with a public banquet which Saturn (in the form of a statue) would attend. Although it was originally celebrated earlier in the year the festival moved to December where, despite repeated attempts by the Emperors to shorten the festival, it took up the entire week from 17-23 December. The traditions of Saturnalia inspired the early Christians as they planned how they would celebrate Christmas, the festival they had designed to replace the pagan revels.
In the days following the large public fest families would gather together to enjoy a traditional meal of suckling pig. The exchange of gifts was a popular tradition and it was common for masters to serve the Saturnalia meal to their slaves. Gambling became socially acceptable and slaves were allowed more freedoms than normal and significant volumes of alcohol were consumed there was even a king of the Saturnalia – someone not unlike the mediaeval concept of the Lord of Misrule who could command people to do the most absurd of things. It was a time when people could go that little bit crazy safe in the knowledge that the period of excess was contained and that all would return to normal after a few days.
8Yule – Norse ‘Christmas’
If the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia inspired a lot of the Christmas traditions we hold dear today the Norse celebration of Yule had a similarly great impact, particularly in the formation of a lot of the Anglo Saxon Christmas traditions that hold sway in the US, Britain and Commonwealth countries such as Canada and Australia.
Yule was the Norse celebration of the winter solstice. For many years Christians in Scandinavia celebrated both Yule on the solstice and Christmas some days later. It was not until King Haakon I (920-961) of Norway, a Christian King, decreed that the Yule celebrations should take place on Christmas Day that the two celebrations were synchronized.
Many Yule traditions will seem very familiar to many Christians. The yule log would traditionally be brought into the house and lit from the remains of the previous year’s log. The fire that burns from the log is symbolic of the warmth and life given by the returning sun. Ashes from the log would be used as fertilizer for the fields. Wassail (as referred to in the carol ‘Here we come a wassailing’) was a popular Yuletide drink of ale mulled with fruit and spices. It is also known as Lambs Wool and is still popular in the UK today although the greeting ‘waes hael’ or ‘good health’ is now long forgotten.
Mistletoe was seen by the Celtic druids as being one of the most holy of plants, sprigs were cut from the oak trees after Yule and distributed as a protective charm to the faithful, amongst its many powers it was believed to grant fertility. The Christmas tradition of kissing under the mistletoe comes from the Norse legend of the death of Balder. He was shot by a mistletoe arrow and when his mother cried over the boy her tears became the berries. He was restored to life and his mother made the plant a symbol of love in gratitude.
7Christmas Trees Are A Comparatively Recent Invention
A modern Christmas seems incomplete without a tree to adorn the house. While tradition varies across the world, with the US putting trees up sometime after thanksgiving, other countries such as the UK using 1 December as the earliest possible time and others such as Poland waiting until 24 December a tree is an enduring and worldwide symbol of the Christmas celebration. It is strange then to think that the Christmas Tree is a relatively new tradition. The first Christmas tree is said to have been decorated by Martin Luther who put candles in a fir tree. After that trees became a popular tradition amongst German Protestants although Catholics eschewed it in favor of the Nativity Crib. The Hannovers, a German royal family who became the royal house of Britain brought the tradition to England. It remained a fairly rarified tradition until the marriage between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, it is the latter who is credited with popularizing the tree as a centerpiece of a traditional British Christmas. From Britain the tradition spread around the English speaking world.
Even though the tree is a relatively recent innovation the use of evergreen plants in solstice and Christmas celebrations had long been a European tradition hence the phrase ‘deck the halls with boughs of holly’). This has its origins in an old pagan yule tradition which celebrates the battle between the Holly King and the Oak King. It is uncertain whether these two ‘kings’ are different aspects of the same god or whether they are separate entities but they battle with each other throughout the year with the Oak King being at his most powerful during the Summer Solstice and the Holly King during the Winter Solstice. The Holly King is often dressed in red and is pulled along by a team of 8 stags.
6Oliver Cromwell Hated Christmas
Martin Luther may have begun the tradition of the Christmas tree but many later Protestants disliked the celebration of Christmas in its entirety. Scottish protestants had succeeded in banning Christmas but it was still a popular celebration in England (although they shared a King the two countries were separate at that time). Seeing Christmas as a dangerous and dissolute Catholic celebration of excess that might pave the way for the return of Catholicism as the national religion many English Protestants wanted to follow the example of their Scottish brethren and ban the celebration.
Chief amongst these was the English puritan leader, Oliver Cromwell, commander of the Army of the Commonwealth, Member of the Council of State and MP following the execution of Charles I in 1649 and then as Lord Protector from 1653-1660. Cromwell was an old misery who disliked fun in any form and Christmas fun in particular. During the English Civil War of the 1640s and 50s areas under the control of Cromwell’s New Model Army (also known as the Roundheads) did not permit the celebration of Christmas Day. Parliament transacted business as normal and shops run by puritans remained open. By 1647 the celebration of Christmas was an offence. Many ordinary people rebelled against the decree and there were riots around the country.
As time went on, however, people started to realize how dangerous it was to celebrate Christmas and most public references to the holiday ceased and celebrations moved underground. Ironically this meant that while the religious elements of the celebration including church services were cancelled people clung to many of the older more pagan (and more fun) traditions in the privacy of their homes. It was only with the return of Charles II and the restoration of the monarchy that Christmas became, once again, a public celebration in England.
5Having Failed In England The Puritans Tried To Ban Christmas In The American Colonies
Inspired by the success of the English ban on Christmas the administrators of the English Colonies in the Americas sought to follow suit and Boston outlawed Christmas. The Plymouth colony went even further and decreed that it would be considered a criminal offence to celebrate the Christmas holiday. All popular Christmas traditions were outlawed, Christmas Day was considered a working day and just to make sure that everyone got this message of puritan joylessness the town criers were tasked with walking around the streets on Christmas Eve reminding people that there was ‘No Christmas’.
Even when the people of England got a reprieve with the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 the people of New England continue to suffer under the ban. Rebellion against this strict and unpleasant ban started in 1686 when the Royal Governor of Massachusetts held a Christmas service in Boston though he had to be escorted by soldiers to ensure his safety. Even after that anti – Christmas sentiments ran high and during the fight for independence the day was often painted as an imperialist and anti-American holiday. Change came slowly with Alabama leading with way by declaring a public holiday in 1836 while the puritans of New England continued a (losing) fight against Christmas for many more decades to come. It was only in 1870 that President Grant decreed the day to be a Federal Holiday. Since that time Americans have embraced the Christmas spirit and celebrate with a conspicuous consumption of food, wine and goods. As the holiday becomes increasingly secularized one wonders if perhaps the Puritans had a point…
4Some Christians Celebrate Christmas In January
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To those of us who hail from countries whose Christmas observances are based on the traditions of the Catholic and Protestant churches the Christmas holiday is synonymous with December. That is not the case everywhere, however. In the East of Europe and through Russia and other areas with an Orthodox or other Christian tradition the celebration of Christmas occurs on 7 January instead. Why is this?
In the early years of the Christian Church the years were planned according to the Julian calendar designed by Julius Caesar in 45BC. There were significant problems with this calendar which was too long, gaining a day against the natural year every 128 years. To rectify this problem the calendar we use today was brought in in 1528 by Pope Gregory XIII.
Catholic countries adopted the new calendar almost immediately and much of Protestant Europe and its colonies followed suit over the next centuries. Many countries which followed an Orthodox Christian or non Christian traditions continued to use the Julian calendar well into the 20th century. While the Gregorian calendar is now the world standard Orthodox churches continue to use the Julian Calendar to fix the dates of religious holidays. There is now a divergence of of 13 days between the two systems and 25 January on the Julian calendar is actually 7 January on the Gregorian calendar.
3Santa Is Based On An Early Turkish Bishop
When we think of the man in red with his big belly and white beard our minds do not instinctively turn to a religious man. For us he is the bringer of gifts who flies through the air in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. His origins are, however, significantly more humble, prosaic and religious.
Santa Claus is a corruption of the name St. Nicholas, a native of southern Turkey who was known for his piety and his desire to help the poor. A rich man by birth he donated his money to the poor even saving three sisters from a future of prostitution by gifting them a dowry. His saints day is in early December and is still a popular celebration in the Netherlands and Belgium where Sinterklaas comes to give children sweets in their shoes during the night.
He crossed the seas to America where he was popularized as the patron saint of New York. Stores and the Salvation Army started dressing men up as St. Nicholas and in 1822 the now famous poem A Visit From St Nicholas (Twas the night before Christmas) burst onto the scene. Drawing a lot of inspiration from the old tales of the Holly King (see above) this poem started to crystallize the modern image of Santa.
It is also interesting to note that Santa and Father Christmas are not worldwide names. In other countries other characters bring gifts to the children: Pere Noel in France; Ded Moroz (grandfather Frost) in the Russian speaking world; St Basil in Greece and the three kings in Spain.
2Rudolph Was Not One Of The Original Reindeer
Before the Visit From St Nicholas became popular reindeer had played no real part in the Christmas tradition. Even today other countries do not conflate Santa and Reindeer, in the Netherlands, for example, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands on a ship and he rides his white horse called Amerigo.
The Visit from St Nicholas established that Santa had eight reindeer, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. None of them were called Rudolph. Rudolph only joined the festive reindeer stable in 1939 when Robert L May wrote a story in rhyming verse telling the tale of a small but plucky reindeer who saved Christmas for the Montgomery Ward Department Store free giveaway coloring book. In 1948 May’s brother in law composed the catchy tune we know today. It went on to become a best seller and Rudolph’s place in history was assured.
1Conspicuous Consumption Is A Relatively New Phenomenon
These days Christmas is, for many people, all about the presents. Children write letters to Santa listing everything they would like to have and parents get into debt to give them the ‘best Christmas ever’. It never used to be like this. Of course with America’s puritan history Christmas was, for a long time, a much more toned down affair with no adverts for Christmas gifts before about 1816. Even then most of the advertisements were related to children’s toys not adult gifts.
Like much to do with Christmas, it was the Victorians who were responsible for popularizing the tradition of Christmas Day gift giving. That is not to say that their predecessors did not give gifts over the festive period but they were often given on different nights, sometimes New Year’s Eve, sometimes Christmas Eve. We have already mentioned that other characters bring gifts in other countries (see 3 above) and in many of those countries the gifts are still opened on different days.
So there is our quick tour of interesting facts about the origin of Christmas. It is easy to imagine that the way things are now is the way things have always been but it is fascinating to realize just what a recent construct our modern Christmas tradition is. These days, of course, as we have mentioned a lot of the controversy surrounding Christmas is to do with the secularization of the holiday but 200 years ago the debate was the opposite way round. Those who were the most religiously observant (at least in the Protestant tradition) objected wholeheartedly to the concept of a Christmas celebration, believing it to be ungodly.
Whether you celebrate Christmas from a religious perspective or whether you just enjoy the secular traditions handed down over generations we wish you a very merry Christmas.