Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Great Christmas Flap

In the history of the Christian Church, the celebration of Christmas is a relatively recent festival. The earliest Christians—the followers of “The Way”—did not celebrate the anniversary of the day when a person was born. Rather, they celebrated the anniversary of one’s death and the promise of the person’s resurrection. Among the festivals of the Church, Easter was the greatest, with Passiontide, a close second.

In non-Christian cultures, a winter festival was customarily the most common festival of the year. For the Romans, the festival was Saturnalia, winter solstice festival that commemorated the dedication of the temple of the god Saturn, which took place on December 17th. It eventually grew to a week of festivities, so that by the time of the Empire it lasted from December 17th to the 24th. The Romans also had a festival celebrated on December 25th, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, "the birthday of the unconquered sun," that came into being during the latter days of the Empire.

In Scandinavia there was a winter festival called Yule that lasted from late December to early January. During this time Yule logs were burned to celebrate Thor, the god of thunder. The celebrants believed that each spark from the fire forecast a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year. The festival would continue until the logs were completely burned up, which usually took about twelve days. South of Scandinavia, the Germanic tribes celebrated mid-winter night, or Mitwinternacht, which consisted of twelve Rauhnächte—wild nights—of eating, drinking and general debauchery.

In the Third Century C.E., the Roman historian Sextus Julius Africanus wrote a history of the world (Chronografiai) that chronicled the years from Creation to C.E. 221. He placed the Incarnation on the first day of AM 5501, our modern March 25, and thus the birth of Jesus nine months later, on December 25th. This is the first known reference to the birth of Jesus being on the day we now celebrate as Christmas. Even then the dating of the birth of Jesus did not inspire widespread Christian feasting or celebration.

It was not until the Middle Ages that Christmas began to be recognized as a Holy Day—and even then it wasn’t a High Holy Day; it was overshadowed by Epiphany (January 6th), which in the Christian West focused on the visit of the magi. Only after the crowning of Charlemagne, King of the Franks, on Christmas Day in 800 and King William I of England (William the Conquer) on Christmas Day 1066 did Christmas begin to take on a new significance, which was as much nationalistic as it was religious. For example, during the High Middle Ages, chroniclers habitually recorded where royalty celebrated Christmas. (King Richard II of England hosted a Christmas feast in 1377 at which featured a feast at which twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep were eaten).

During the Reformation, Protestants denounced Christmas for its "trappings of popery" and the "rags of the Beast," to which the Roman Catholic Church responded by promoting the festival in an even more religiously oriented form. In 1647, after the victory of the Parliamentary forces (Roundheads) over King Charles I and his Cavaliers in the English Civil War, England's Puritan rulers banned the celebration of Christmas. The Puritans in colonial American also object to the celebration of Christmas: it was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681, although celebrated in the colony of Virginia where many of the Cavaliers fled after the British Civil War.

It was not until the early part of the 19th Century that the celebration of Christmas began to be taken seriously in the United States. This was due partly to several short stories written by Washington Irving in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon and Old Christmas, which told of wonderful holiday traditions Irving claimed to have observed in England (that he more than likely invented). After the American Civil War, immigrants from Germany to the United States brought European Christmas customs of the Catholic and Lutheran countries. This led to a more widespread celebration of Christmas in the United States. The Federal government declared Christmas a holiday in 1870, although several of the states, especially those in New England with their Puritan heritage, refused to follow suit.

I wasn’t until the early 20th Century that Christmas began to be routinely celebrated throughout the United States. There is some evidence that this was the result of U.S. veterans of World War I bringing European Christmas customs home with them. Prior to the United States entering the Great War, in 1914, there had been the unofficial truce between German and British troops in France, during which soldiers on both sides spontaneously began to sing carols and stopped fighting. The truce began on Christmas Day and continued for some time afterward, until the generals on both sides put an end to it. For American solders bogged down in the horror of the trenches during the latter years of the war, this story of peace and comradeship between combatants offered a message of peace that many carried home with them.

The commercialization of Christmas began in the United States during the 1880s. The 1822 poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas, had begun the tradition of exchanging gifts and by the end of the 19th Century Christmas shopping began to assume major economic importance. By the Roaring Twenties (1920s), the purchase of Christmas gifts could make or break many U.S. companies. The importance of the economic impact of Christmas was reinforced in the 1930s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed moving the Thanksgiving holiday date to extend the Christmas shopping season and boost the economy during the Great Depression.

In this first decade of the Twenty-first Century, we are faced with the question: Is Christmas a religious Holy Day or an economic necessity? With stores such as Wal-Mart proscribing the words “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” being the phrase of the season, we are in the midst of the Great Christmas Flap. Christmas has developed as a non-Christian holiday, perhaps more so, than a Christian Holy Day. So perhaps we have come full circle, back to the early days of Christianity when Christmas wasn’t celebrated as the birth of the Christ and the winter festival was celebrated by non-Christians.


  1. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon?

    Do you make this stuff up?

  2. Wow, impressive post Nick. Thank you for a very comprehensive history of Christmas.

  3. MIST1: Of course I didn’t make that up! Follow the hyperlink! “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon” is the Washington Irving collection of short stories, first published in 1819-20, that contains, among others the tales “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and Rip van Winkle.

    dmmgmfm: Thank you. It did take quite a bit of research!

  4. I did not know that our UCC predecessors in Boston banned Christmas, even for a little while. Do you remember that fundamentalist Baptist church in Cannelton whose pastor refused to allow his parishioners to celebrate Christmas? I’ll be a lot of them did anyway.

  5. People should just leave Christmas alone

  6. Nick, thanks for the research. You found some stuff I didn't. When I see the phrase, "Jesus is the reason for the season," I think, well, I guess it's one. And a recent one at that. The Christian church got really good at obsorbing Pagan holidays.

    I will be celebrating Christmas, but I will also be celebrating the Winter Soltice. I hope both days are great for you.

  7. I think I prefer the concept of celebrating birth rather than death... I understand it, but celebrating birth has a much nicer ring to it, don't you think?


  8. Really good job--and you were a LOT nicer than me about it!

  9. I would certainly like to see the Western nations’ way of "celebrating" "Christmas" divorced from the birth of Christ. I would suggest it be replaced by the Church with a celebration of the Incarnation. However, if one were to accept the 25 March date proposed by Sextus Julius Africanus, that would conflict with the liturgical calendar, being somewhere in the movable paschal cycle.

  10. Viva la Christmas. I am of the Interfaith catch all so that I can celebrate all the holidays - I've got a new bit on my calendar now - the week of 17-24 of December!

    I love this time of year, whether its a Holy day or a reason to be with family and eat alot.

    thanks for the post!

  11. That is great information, I find it very interesting.
    As an American Indian, we are taught to celebrate the anniversary of the day when a person was born and celebrate the anniversary of one’s death as if they were the same. We are also taught to celebrate the seasons as birth and death. The Great Circle is what it is called.

  12. EX-LOUISVILLE GUY: Actually, until I did the research, I didn’t know that the Congregationalists in Boston banned Christmas.

    Yes, I remember the Church: Fourth Street Baptist wasn’t it? It was one of those independent congregations that had one pastor all of its days—a pastor who refused to association with us other pastors. I didn’t know him well at all; however, I was on a bowling team with his two sons, who were normal, down-to-earth dudes.

    ANONYMOUS: Saw more: it what ways should Christmas be “left alone?”

    SQUIRL: You are most welcome. I agree: Church historians and theologians have made it very pain that Christianity has absorbed much from other cultures and religions. The celebration of Christmas is certainly one of those.

    JD’s ROSE: Celebrating birth, I believe, is always there, especially within the family of the child born. For the earliest Christians, they were looking toward a second birth that in their theology begins with death. So, one way or another, the celebration of birth and rebirth is paramount.

    EL CABRERO: Thank you. We are saying the same things in different ways and I sincerely appreciate the manner in which you are saying them.

    ANGUS XVII: That’s a very interesting suggestion. However, based on our culture, I doubt that it will be implemented.

    REVEREND SUMANGALI TANIA PINK: I agree. No matter what we call this time of year, the festivities can make it very joy-filled. Being “of the Interfaith catch all,” I imagine that with just a bit of research you can find some holy day to celebrate every day of the year.

    NINA: Thank you for the input. The idea of The Great Circle is a wonderful one.

  13. Another extremely interesting post :o) You always keep us entertained!