Jesus Christ wasn’t born on December 25th. Sorry if I bursted anyone’s bubble with that news. Shepard’s would not have been out in their fields in the middle of winter. Why do we celebrate this day as the birth of Christ? It’s complicated, but I will walk you through the evolution of Christmas.
The middle of winter has been a time of celebration around the world before Jesus Christ was born. People celebrated the winter solstice, it signified the worst of winter was over and they could look forward to extended hours of sunlight.
During the era of the Roman empire, the Romans celebrated a holiday known as Saturnalia. The holiday was in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. Saturnalia begins in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continues for a month. The holiday was pure mayhem, food and drinks flowed freely and the normal Roman social order was flipped. Slaves became masters, commoners were in charge of the city, and businesses and schools were closed during the holiday period.
In the early days of Christianity, Easter was the major holiday, the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials made the birth of Christ a holiday. The bible doesn’t mention a date for Christ’s birth, so the church had to make up a date. Pope Julius I choose December 25th. It is believed the church picked this date to adopt and absorb the traditions of the Saturnalia festival. Christmas was first called the Feast of Nativity. The holiday spread to Egypt and then to England by the end of the sixth century.
By planning Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, the church hoped that the holiday would be popularly adopted. The downside of this thinking was they also lost control of how the holiday was celebrated.
In the middle ages, Christmas morphed into Mardi gras. Christians attended church, then partied like it was 1499! A drunken spring break like atmosphere happened on Christmas. Every Christmas a beggar or student would be crowned the “lord of misrule” and celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drinks for carols and Christmas wishes. If the rich failed to comply, the poor would terrorize them with mischief and vandalism (think the middle age’s version of toilet papering someone’s home). Christmas was the time of year when the upper classes were forced to give back to society for all their good fortune by entertaining less fortunate citizens.
Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645. One of the first rule of action was to rid England of decadence, and they therefore cancelled Christmas. The English clamored for the good old times and they restored Charles II to the throne and he restored Christmas as a holiday.
The Pilgrims came from the Cromwell branch of Christianity, but they were even more hardcore in their beliefs of pure Christianity. Think of them like the far left or right in modern day U.S. politics. The pilgrims took their beliefs to America and did not celebrate Christmas. The pilgrim influence was so big in Massachusetts, that Christmas was actually outlawed in the state. Anyone who celebrated the holiday or exhibited the Christmas spirit (aka drunken or rowdy behavior) was subjected to a 5 shilling fine. In Jamestown, Virginia, Christmas was held and celebrated. After the American Revolution, all English customs fell out of favor (after all, we just won a war to break free from them) that included Christmas.
The early 1800s was a period of class conflict and turmoil. Gang rioting was going on during Christmas and the upper class had to change how Christmas was celebrated. Two literary books were released, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., by Washington Irving and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Both books gave the message of the importance of charity and goodwill towards all humankind. The books became hugely popular in the U.S. and England and showed both societies the benefits of celebrating the holiday the “proper” way. Think of the effect the Hallmark channel and Christmas movies have on us today, yes people were curled up near their fire places binge reading A Christmas Carol with their families. Christmas officially became a federal holiday in 1870.
Parents become more sensitive to the emotional needs of Children during the 1800s. Christmas provided a day that families could lavish attention and gifts on their children without “spoiling” them (Ha! The irony). More and more immigrants migrated to the U.S. and their customs got integrated into the Christmas holiday. The Dutch brought the tradition of Saint Nicholas (aka Santa Claus) to New York City. In the next 100 year’s Christmas culture grew into decorating trees, sending holiday cards and gift giving.
Most people think they are celebrating Christmas traditions that extend back to the wise man giving gifts to Joseph and Mary, but what they are really celebrating are a series of customs and traditions that have evolved from its Roman MTV spring break origins to the overly corporate, billion dollar consumer spending day it is today. Christmas grew to fill the cultural needs of an ever developing world. Christmas is whatever you wish it to be, just know Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th.
Originally published at https://mwmblog.com on December 22, 2020.