Holiday History - Christmas
Perhaps THE most popular holiday around the world, Christmas is a holiday that has many traditions that vary throughout history and culture. In our present-day American context, the typical Christmas celebration usually has elements that stem from the Christian, pagan and secular traditions that were characteristic of this time of year - i.e. the winter solstice (the shortest day/longest night of the year). But why this time of year specifically? What are the origins of some of the holiday's most iconic traditions? Well, let's try to unwrap some of these questions and more by delving into the history of our modern Christmas celebration.
The History of Christmas Day
As a Christian holiday, Christmas is the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus as described in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The origins of the name "Christmas" come from "Christ's mass," which was the old name for the church's celebration of the holiday. While Christmas was not observed in the earliest years of the church, it was added to the church calendar by the mid-300's AD. Biblically, the exact date of Jesus' birth was never specified, though many scholars believe it was sometime in the spring. So, why did Christians choose to celebrate the birth of Christ in the dead of winter on December 25th, as opposed to sometime in the spring?
The placement of the holiday on December 25th is due to the pagan celebrations that had occurred about that time in cultures around Eurasia in the centuries preceding the Christian holiday. In pagan cultures, it was noted that late December was the coldest and darkest time of the year, yet also the time when longer hours of daylight would begin to return to the world, and agricultural communities would start to look forward to the coming season of planting and new livestock being born. In observance of this time of year, pagan cultures would hold feast days commemorating the return of the sun's light to the world, and also have holidays honoring the deities they saw as having a connection to this natural phenomena.
In the Roman Empire, two holidays were celebrated at this time of year that eventually influenced the placement of Christmas on the calendar - those of Saturnalia and the birthday of Mithra. Saturnalia was a holiday held in honor of Saturn, a Roman god of agriculture. It was a month's-long celebration that began the week before the winter solstice, and was a time when the citizens of Rome would engage in various hedonistic activities, societal norms were cast aside in favor of partying, and citizens from all walks of life were encouraged to be merry and participate in the celebrations. On the other hand, the birthday of Mithra - a Roman god of the sun - was a holiday that tended to be reserved for the upper classes of Roman society, and was a holiday commemorating the birth of Mithra on December 25th. This holiday was symbolic of longer daylight hours returning to the world, and was considered by some Romans to be the most sacred day of the year.
As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, it is believed that in the 300's AD, Christians (under Pope Julius I) chose December 25th as Christmas Day so that the pagan traditions surrounding the winter solstice could be adopted by the church while also imbuing them with Christian meaning. Instead of celebrating the birth of Mithra, Christians now celebrated the birth of Christ. While still incorporating the symbolism of daylight returning to the world, the Christian holiday also imbued the holiday with the symbolism of Christ as the Light that would save humanity from the darkness of their sins. While many of the hedonistic practices of Saturnalia were condemned by the church, they did maintain the tradition of this time of year as being one of feasting and merriment, and was a holiday accessible to people from all walks of life and not just the upper classes.
In turning to ancient Germanic peoples in northern Europe, the custom of Jul (aka. "Yule") was the season they would celebrate the return of the sun. On the longest night of the year, people would cozy up in their homes with fires burning in their hearths, and winter greenery hung throughout their homes. Beginning December 21st, the season of Jul would usually be celebrated until the beginning of January, and it was customary to burn a Jul log for the occasion as a symbol of good fortune for the coming year. (Some Jul logs were said to burn for as long as twelve days.) After Christianity was adopted by the Germanic peoples, many of their Jul traditions also found a place in the holiday of Christmas. While some of these traditions are fairly obvious in their application and development, two iconic traditions that warrant further explanation are those of Santa Claus and the Christmas tree.
The History of Santa Claus
Like many folkloric figures, the person of Santa Claus as we know him today is a combination of several figures and stories throughout Eurasian mytho-history, that have been brought together into this one character. One figure that greatly influenced the development of the character of Santa Claus was Saint Nicholas - a 4th century Turkish saint. While the historical existence of Saint Nicholas is debated, it is believed that if he did exist, he was likely the Bishop of Myra in Turkey. According to legend, Saint Nicholas was known for his generosity towards the poor and less fortunate. Often times this generosity was in the form of gift-giving, and at other times it was in miracles of healing and resurrecting deceased children. During the Middle Ages, Saint Nicholas's popularity spread throughout Europe, and he became a patron saint of children, sailors and charitable organizations. His feast day was eventually set to December 6, and thus his association with Advent and Christmas. After the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, devotion to Saint Nicholas waned in the Protestant countries. However, in Holland, the legend of Saint Nicholas persisted. Known as "Sinterklaas" by the Dutch, the name eventually morphed into "Santa Claus," as his popularity saw a resurgence in the English-speaking countries.
Santa Claus also has connections to the pagan Germanic holiday of Jul, particularly in the figure of Odin. According to legend, not all of Jul was a happy, cozy celebration, as it was also the time that Odin - the head god of the Norse pantheon - was said to fly through the night sky, in search of corrupt souls to bring to the afterlife. If one was caught wandering outdoors on the night of Odin's hunt, there was the possibility that they could be whisked away if their soul was judged unworthy by Odin. To play it safe, Germanic peoples would remain indoors on that night in order to avoid this fate. In time, however, as Germanic peoples began to adopt Christianity, the Jul figure of Odin was combined with the Christian figure of Saint Nicholas, and this gave rise to the tradition of Santa Claus flying through the night sky on Christmas Eve to bring gifts to good children, and punishing bad children with coal or no presents at all.
When it comes to the modern Santa Claus aesthetic in America, this developed largely through pop culture influences and commercial advertising. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote his now famous poem, "Twas the Night Before Christmas," which popularized in the American psyche the image of Santa as a rotund, jolly fellow with the ability to go up and down chimneys. In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast published illustrations for the poem in Harper's Weekly, which showed Santa in his now-iconic red coat with white fur trim and a full white beard. In 1931, the Coke-a-Cola company commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to make paintings of Santa that would be used for their holiday advertising campaign. The resulting images are often credited as the final step which solidified the aesthetic and temperament of Santa in the minds of millions of 20th century Americans, and has continued to persist into the 21st century.
The History of the Christmas Tree
One of the most popular Christmas decorations, the Christmas tree has its roots in pagan Germanic culture. During the season of Jul, it was customary to set up a fir tree and greenery inside the home, as it was symbolic of good fortune and eternal life (as the fir trees would remain green in wintertime). As western Germany converted to Christianity, there also arose the tradition of taking the symbol of the Jul tree and using it as a prop in medieval plays about Adam and Eve, whose feast day was on December 24. The fir tree (also known as a Paradise Tree) would be decorated with apples (reminiscent of the fruit in the Garden of Eden), wafers (symbolizing the celebration of Communion) and candles (symbolizing Christ's light to the world). These decorations eventually morphed into our modern-day ornaments and strings of lights. By the 19th century, the tradition of the Christmas tree was extremely popular among Lutheran Christians, and its popularity only continued to spread as affluent figures, such as Queen Victoria, also adopted the tradition into their Christmas celebrations.
Christmas in America
The earliest celebrations of Christmas in North America came with the English colonists in the early 1600's. While the Puritans (aka. the Pilgrims) did not celebrate Christmas (as they believed the holiday to not be biblical), many of the other English colonies did, such as Jamestown. As time went on, Christmas fell in and out of favor with the citizens of the colonies. After the American Revolution, some citizens of the new nation saw Christmas as an English custom, and thus did not want to observe the holiday. In the 1800's, class divisions were becoming more explosive in the American public sphere, and the Industrial Revolution also brought with it new challenges for the working class (ex. child labor, dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, little pay for long hours of work, etc.). In such conditions, it was hardly likely that any large expanse of America's population would find the celebration of Christmas appealing.
Yet, it was also during this century that two great literary works appeared on the scene that would influence Christmas in America for the following century and more. The first was found in Washington Irving's The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. - a collection of stories that included famous works such as "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." In addition to these classics, the book also included several Christmas short stories, which aimed to help readers reconnect with the warm, peaceful and good-will-filled holiday that Christmas was originally meant to be. The second and most well-known Christmas novella to influence the celebration of Christmas in the 19th century was Charles Dickens' classic, A Christmas Carol. Despite the story taking place in England, the tale greatly impacted the 19th century American psyche, and solidified in Americans' minds the idea of Christmas as being a charitable, magical and redemptive time of the year, and having an idyllic aesthetic of Victorian finery, snowy streets, warm hearths, candlelight and a family gathered around the Christmas dinner table.
As Christmas's popularity took the country by storm, so many facets of American culture became influenced by the holiday to a degree no other holiday seems to be able to match to this day (even holidays like the 4th of July or Halloween). Today, the holiday is celebrated in both religious and secular capacities. Turn on the TV or radio at Christmastime, and you can find hours' worth of Christmas specials to watch, or Christmas music to listen to. Churches around the country put on Christmas pageants and hold Advent services. Wherever you go, it can feel like every building and space is decorated for the season. With the tradition of gift-giving, and the general increase in the standard of living in the 20th and 21st centuries, this is also the time of year when the economy tends to run full steam ahead. Businesses are running their holiday sales, small businesses in particular may find themselves moving into the black, and charitable organizations see an increase in donations. (While there is current debate about whether or not this has made Christmas too commercialized, there is no denying how much of an impact the holiday has on the American economy.) It has also been a time when family and friends come together to celebrate, and people strive for a general attitude of generosity, harmony and good-will towards one another. Through a centuries-long history, Christmas has come to be a highlight on the calendar for many Americans, and has solidified itself as a staple of American culture.