A history of Christmas through the centuries
December 20, 2011
A funny cartoon about Christmas appeared in our church bulletin recently. It was a single pane Bizarro comic depicting an angel hovering over a pair of shepherds and some sheep. The imagery harkened from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke. But the angel is saying, “… and His birth will be celebrated with snow and flying livestock and wild office parties and a magic fat man who lives at the North Pole.” In response to the proclamation, one cynical shepherd whispers to the other, “He must be drunk.” You can’t help but laugh.
Most of what is associated with Christmas in America today is far removed from the birth of Christ in Bethlehem more than two millennia ago. How did that happen?
Centuries before the birth of Christ, Europeans celebrated the winter solstice, anticipating the return of the sun. They lit bonfires to push away darkness and brought cut evergreens inside as reminders of life.
During the Roman Empire, the festival of Saturnalia in late December adopted many customs from the northern European tribes. The Romans replaced bonfires with candles, continued decorating with greenery, and expanded the feasting and revelry.
These customs were the impetus for our Christmas trees decorated with lights, as well as parties and Christmas dinners that bring together families and friends.
By the 4th century, Christianity was the official religion of Rome. Until that time, Easter was the main emphasis for Christians. Fortified with political support, the church decided to institute Christmas as a holiday.
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But there is no mention in the gospels or other biblical writings of the actual birth date of Jesus. Pope Julius I likely chose Dec. 25 to transform the established Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia into a celebration of the birth of Christ.
Like Saturnalia, Christmas was a raucous event that made today’s Mardi Gras look subdued. In the early 17th century, English Puritans wanted no association with the “pagan decadence.” As a result, Christmas was actually cancelled in England for several years.
Pilgrims emigrating to America brought the anti-Christmas sentiment with them. Christmas was banned in the colony of Massachusetts in 1659. But as more Europeans populated the burgeoning colonies, the Christmas celebration was revived with modifications. The well-to-do took an active part in moving the rowdy outdoor celebration indoors, shifting the focus to family and peace.
Despite the new emphasis on Christmas, it wasn’t an official holiday at the birth of our nation. In fact, Congress was in session on Dec. 25, 1789, the first Christmas under the new Constitution.
During the 18th century, a new element began to shape Christmas in America. Dutch immigrants imported their legend of Sinter Klaas, who brought gifts for children.
This charitable character was based on St. Nicholas, a beloved 4th century bishop in what is now Turkey. Nicholas used his family inheritance to aid the poor, tossing money through open windows where stockings were hung to dry. This inspired “good” children to hang their stockings in hopes of a gift every Dec. 6, the anniversary of St. Nicholas’s death.
Americans fully embraced Christmas in the 19th century as the reinvention accelerated. In 1822, a seminary professor named Clement Clark Moore wrote the famous poem that became known as, “The Night Before Christmas.” Almost overnight, this vulcanized the modern American vision of Christmas with stockings stuffed by Santa, the jolly, good-natured elf with a sleigh and eight reindeer.
In 1863, Thomas Nast, an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly Magazine began producing images of a rotund Santa Claus with a white beard and a pipe. An American icon was forged as Nast added other elements such as Santa’s list and his home at the North Pole.
After the Civil War, Christmas traditions spread throughout the country. It was declared a federal holiday in 1870. Children’s books emphasized trimmed trees surrounded by gifts delivered by Santa Claus. Americans enthusiastically decorated, caroled, baked and shopped for the holiday.
During the last 100 years, media, marketing and materialism further molded Christmas into what it is today.
But as you watch for “flying livestock and a magic fat man,” remember how the Grinch learned, “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!”
The core of Christmas is still about Jesus and the light he brings to a cold, dark world. Whatever your faith, peace be with you this Christmas season.
James D. Kellogg of New Castle is a professional engineer, the author of the novel E-Force, and the founder of LiberTEAWatch. com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.