We have a lot of ideas about what constitutes a traditional Christmas, but we often fail to realize that Christmas traditions have changed a lot since the first one in Bethlehem 2018 years ago. The first recorded Christmas celebrations took place in the 4th century and we don’t know a whole lot about them other than the fact that they existed. Dec 25th was actually considered the winter solstice by the Roman calendar and many ancient theologians calculated the feast of Jesus’ birth based on a 9 month period after the feast of the annunciation, which was considered to be the day Mary conceived by the holy spirit. So in ancient times Jesus was considered to have been conceived on the spring equinox and born on the winter solstice.
It was common in the contemporary pagan cultures of the time to have celebrations which happened on solstices and equinoxes too. Yule was a long standing and wide spread holiday celebrated by Germanic peoples. It involved burning a large log and decorating the hearth with evergreens like holly. It also involved taking an evergreen tree and decorating it. The large burning fire and the use of evergreens gave hope of the coming light and the green which would return. Much of Yule was integrated into Christmas in later years as the Germanic peoples slowly became Christian. We still call it Yule even, and deck the halls with boughs of holly, we still burn a Yule log and decorate a Yule tree.
Another contemporary solstice tradition in ancient times was the Roman Saturnalia, which celebrated the God Saturn, who ruled during the golden age when food was abundant without labour and there were no social ranks or private possessions. It was a celebration which reversed the social roles of those involved, slaves would sit at the table and be served by their masters. It was also a drunk fest with gambling and dancing, and the exchange of gifts.
While our modern Christmas doesn’t sound like it has a whole lot in common with Saturnalia other than music, booze, and presents, the Christmas which was celebrated in Europe and especially Britain through the middle ages and right up until the reformation, over a thousand years later, was very similar. Peasants would bang on the doors of the wealthy and demand food with threats of violence. The streets were filled with music and drunken revelry. And a homeless person would be given a crown and named “the Lord of misrule”
These celebrations were so rowdy that the protestant reformation, with the exception of Lutherans and Anglicans, rallied against Christmas. In the 17th century the Puritan movement in England was especially against Christmas, pointing out it’s pagan roots and it’s drunken festivities. The Catholics and Anglicans responded by trying to bring a more religious focus to the holiday while the Puritans and Presbyterians abandoned it all together. Christmas was actually illegal in England from 1647-1660 But mass riots from the common folk required that it be allowed once again. The Presbyterians in Scotland banned Christmas in 1640 claiming the church had been “purged of all superstitious observation of days” Christmas wasn’t made a public holiday in Scotland until 1958.
The pilgrims of New England were famous for working on Christmas as a protest of the pagan holiday. In Boston celebrating Christmas was made illegal in 1659 and that lasted until 1681, over 30 years. Even after the ban was lifted Christmas didn’t become popular in Boston until the 19th century. In the new world it depended where the settlers were from what their views were. Germans loved Christmas but the British has a tenuous relationship with it. As more immigrants came to the new world they brought with them some of the older traditions.
There was a major shift in the 19th century in how Christmas was celebrated. Popular literature like Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol and Clement Moore’s A Night Before Christmas began to present Christmas as a quiet time for families with a focus on children. This was actually brand new in the history of Christmas and it caught on like wild fire. The protestant reformation had ushered in the age of reason and a disdain for anything resembling superstition but the romantic era of Western thought emerged in the 1800s as a counterbalance to that and people began to crave sentimental rituals and heart warming stories.
Christmas was caught up in this cultural shift and became a romanticized version of older traditions. Family, warm fires, sweet treats, reconciling of broken relationships, and sentimental music became the new norm and is still felt in the Christmas we have today. It can be seen in our movies, our songs, and our traditions. The ancient practice of gift giving inherited from the Roman Saturnalia became an expression of familial bonds and sentimental feelings.
The importance of gift giving and the widespread acceptance of Christmas in the public eye opened up a commercial market that has become the main focus of Christmas today. We still have the symbols of the Germanic Yule, we have the drinking and gift giving of the Roman Saturnalia, and we have the romantic family values of the 19th century, but what our main focus has become in Christmas today reflects the main focus of our culture in general, consumerism.
The birth of Jesus was arguably never the heart and center of Christmas, it has been mostly an excuse to practice the values and desires of the time and place each generation has found themselves in. It has been a time for peasants to demand food from the rich, it has been a time for rejoicing in the lengthening of daylight in the months to come, it has been a time to scorn and rebel against superstition, it has been a time to celebrate children and eat sweets, it has been a time for blow out sales and last minute shopping, and somewhere in there, lost in the ever changing cultural values is a consistent, if somewhat muddled thread of Christian belief and adoration of the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
So, where do you think Christmas is going next? Where do we want it to go and how can we help it get there?