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The Holly Bears the Crown

A History of Christmas

Christmas (Cristes maesses or Christ’s Mass) conjures a collection of familiar images, such as Christmas trees, stockings, chestnuts roasting an open fire and, of course, Santa Claus. Indeed, whenever Christmas is discussed, the word “tradition” invariably is used, suggesting an immediately understood picture of Christmas Day. The Christmas “tradition,” however, is a vast amalgam of influences by pagan rituals, the Bible, and various saints, kings, writers, and politicians. While our modern Christmas is rooted in ancient pagan and medieval rituals, these rituals have been extensively reworked and reinterpreted by Victorians in both Britain and the United States which, in their essentials, would become the modern international Christmas.

Old Christmas Rooted in Pagan Cultures

Many pagan cultures observed the dependence of humanity’s survival to the waxing and waning of the sun and, consequently, many of our important celebrations are often still fixed at cardinal points of the year. Indeed, modern Christmas has its roots in ancient winter festivals that were held during the winter solstice (Horsely and Tracy 2001). When the sun was at its darkest, ancient cultures would burn fires and hang evergreens as symbols of the continuity of life and as encouragement for the sun to return (Gulevich 2000). Two mainstreams of pagan traditions are key in understanding the symbols and practices of modern Christmas: ancient Rome and the Teutonic North (Golby 1986).

In Rome, pagans celebrated three important mid-winter festivals: Saturnalia (December 17-23), the Kalends (January 1st -5th, and precursor to the Twelve Nights of Christmas), and the Deus Sol Invictus or the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (December 25). Saturnalia was named after the early Roman god, Saturnus, the god of harvest whose festival included revelry, feasting, and drunkenness. Carrying the Saturnalia celebration into the Kalends, which inaugurated the New Year, pagans would light bonfires, decorate buildings with evergreens, and exchange gifts. A mock ruler, or the Master of Revels, would preside over the great feast where social customs and roles were reversed. For example, men would dress as women and masters would wait on servants. There was also a place for children and Juvenilia, a patron saint for children, during the celebrations. The Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun was a great feast day of the Mithraic religion, one the great rivals to Christianity in the late Roman Empire, and perhaps one of the reasons Christians decided to celebrate the birth of Christ on this date.

The Saxons and other northern tribes honored Thor during the winter solstice in a celebration called Yule, Juul, or Jol. Like the Romans, they feasted, danced, and held sacrifices and religious rites. The term Yule is deeply debated among modern scholars, however. For example, some argue that it is a corruption of noel or nowel, a French contraction of nouvelless (tidings, or the Good News of the Gospel), or that it is from the Anglo-Saxon word geol meaning “feast.” Others argue that it is related to the word iol, iul, or guil, meaning a Revolution or Wheel that resonates with the celebration of the cyclical return of the sun. In either case, the Northern European festival of Yuletide had many similarities to their southern neighbors' celebration—the great feasting, wassailing, and carousing, and the emphasis on fires as a ritual encouragement to the waning sun of the Germanic were as boisterous as the Romans' festivities.

Yule, however, was different in that it was more frightening. The solstice was supposed to liberate ghosts and demons from their normal restrictions. Odin himself became a Yule demon— in Scandinavia, “Julebuk” appeared in a devilish mask and horns and also brought gifts to children. In other parts of Germany, a similar hideous monster lived on to modern times as Klausauf, a companion to St. Nicholas. It was also not uncommon to sacrifice a boar, which was associated with death (Golby 1986).

Early Christians

Christmas is another example of the Christian Church imposing a Christian festival on a pagan holiday. Early images on Roman catacombs include both Hellenic and Hebrew images of the solstice festival (suggesting these traditions had not yet parted from Christianity). When Christmas was officially established on December 25th as a feast of the church by Julius I, Bishop of Rome in the fourth century, Christians were uneasy that many aspects of Christmas were worldly and pagan (Gulevich 2000). As a rule, these Christians did not even celebrate the birth of Christ because first, they viewed birthdays in themselves as associated with pagan practices and, second, because the Bible says nothing about the actual date of Christ’s birth. In addition, since many early Christians believed the second coming and reincarnation of Christ was imminent, Christmas festivals may have seemed less important. St. Gregory Nazianzend, who died in A.D. 389, warned his congregation about the “gross” elements of Christmas such as gluttony, drunkenness, and challenge to public rule. Indeed, the central miracle of Christian Christmas—God becoming man—was constantly in danger of being lost in the parties of Saturnalia and Yuletide. In Roman-occupied England, the Catholic Church also banned mumming (masquerades) and wassailing (Anglo-Saxon for ”good health”) as pagan practices, though common people still held Christmas festivals with gusto. In fact, Viking invasions would reinvigorate pagan traditions, and priests were scarce and often just as illiterate as their flock. And in the rural areas far away from the monasteries, pagan traditions remained strong. After Emperor Honorious recalled the Roman troops from England in the fifth century, it was not unusual for Thor and Christ to be worshipped side by side at Yuletide (Golby 1986).

Medieval Church

Medieval Christmas Feast
A Medieval Christmas Feast by Absinthe Yronwode
Christmas would reach its high point during the Tudor and Stuart ages in England. Rulers such as King John in 1213 and Henry III in 1252 threw boisterous and grand Christmas feasts. Such boundless hospitality not only enhanced the reputation of the host but also forged alliances and were probably essential to the survival of the poor and peasants during the bleakest time of year. During the Middle Ages, people were supposed to be merry and hospitable—being prayerful was optional, much to the chagrin of the Church and Puritans, and soon there were whispers of dissent from Puritans who thought Christmas was a time of un-Christian practice (Connelly 1999). In addition, economic distress during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries resulted in movement of the upper class to the cities and weakened the Christmas paternalist sense of duty in the upper ranks of society. In fact, both Queen Elizabeth and James I ordered the nobility back to their estates to keep hospitality among their neighbors and the rural poor (Golby 1986).

The Reformation and Restoration

While previous attempts to reform Christmas tried to eradicate pagan elements, the Reformation wanted to eradicate Popish practices. In fact, the Puritans not only condemned the secular excess they associated with Christmas, some wanted to condemn Christmas itself, in a move some scholars compare to Prohibition in twentieth-century America. However, the attempt to abolish Christmas Day during the Commonwealth was, of course, a failure as a Puritan MP told the House of Commons: “The People of England do hate to be reformed” (Golby 1986). Still, in 1624, Puritans attempted to abolish plays and caroling and festive decorating, keep shops open, and prohibit preachers from preaching. In June 3, 1647, Puritans declared that the feast of the Nativity of Christ should no longer be observed. After the Restoration of the Monarch in 1660, efforts were made to revive Christmas, but Christmas was slow in recovering its former splendor.

Christmas in the New World

Americans brought with them the various European attitudes toward Christmas. Generally, the members of the Church of England, the Dutch Reformed Church, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics celebrated the festival. As early as 1607, Virginians observed Twelfth Night, burned yule logs, sang carols, decorated churches and houses with evergreens, rang bells, and held feasts (Gulevich 2000). In contrast, the Puritans, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers strongly opposed the observance of Christmas. Puritans, for example, viewed Christmas as Popish and the secular festivals as “wanton Bacchanalian Feasts” (Golby 1986). Following the example of the Commonwealth, they declared December 25th a day of fasting and penance, and any who abstained from labor, engaged in feasting, or made any other acknowledgment of the day would be fined five shillings. Even after the law was repealed in 1681, the festival was largely ignored in much of New England, particularly in the cities. After the American Revolution, Christmas festivities also slowed because there was a tendency to associate the holiday with Toryism and Loyalism. Christmas remained fragmented and inchoate, often overshadowed by other holidays. This would all change in nineteenth century when old traditions were reinterpreted and rewoven to fit the needs of an increasingly urban and modern society.

A Victorian Refashioning of Christmas

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens' tale was key in reinterpreting Christmas for a changing industrial society
From the mid 1830s on, there was a resurgence of interest in Christmas from newspapers and periodicals which had previously given little attention to Christmas. In the face of an increasingly urban and industrial society which seemed to corrode old-world values, Victorians began to long for a half-imagined recent Christmas imbued with a medieval ethic. In short, Victorians attempted to ameliorate their urban anxieties during what they perceived to be an insecure and ugly present with the glow Old Christmas where all the classes met together to celebrate Christmas. In this sense, the Victorian Christmas was not so much a revival as it was a newly invented tradition that reinterpreted various Christmas pasts to cater to Victorian needs, such as the paradoxical need for conspicuous and extravagant consumption during expanding retail and leisure activities as well as their desire to recapture Old Christmas’ emphasis on class equality and hospitality to the poor, at least for a day.Perhaps the most famous text that demonstrates the refashioning of Victorian Christmas is Charles Dickens' (A Christmas Carol) and Washington Irving’s (“Old Christmas”) works which act as a metaphor of human sympathy associated with childhood and family tenderness in the backdrop of social unease (Golby 1986).

Their reinterpretation of Christmas’ meaning and spirit made significant contributions to Christmas as we know it today. While yule logs were too big for the Victorian fireplaces, wassail bowls too strong for Victorian sensibilities, and boar heads not readily available, Victorians still made Christmas dinner a central part of Christmas. In addition, the English introduced the modern Christmas card, many of which hold high aesthetic merit and are part of the history of art and design (Watts 1993). But only a small number of early cards depicted nativity scenes and instead offered symbols of Old Christmas such as mistletoe, plum pudding, robins, and holly. Some cards had bizarre and vulgar humor featuring the likes of devils, insects, rats...and a sub-genre depicted scantily clad young females (Golby 1986). In addition to cards, Victorians highlighted the Saturnalia mistletoe; perhaps the Victorian consciousness could not resist the stolen kiss and embrace out of wedlock and deeply needed a glimpse of the Lord of Misrule. Victorians in England and America also imported the Christmas tree and lights from Germany, which became an instant tradition (Gulevich 2000).

Santa Claus
Thomas Nast is credited with creating the iconic image of Santa Claus widely recognized today
It was also the Victorians who made Santa Claus popular. Modern Santa Claus is based on Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna (Izmir in modern-day Turkey) who was famous because of his generosity. Perhaps his most famous story is when he saved three sisters by filling their stockings with gold coins, providing them a dowry which allowed them to marry rather than be sold into slavery or prostitution. Children observed the day of his death (December 6th) by putting out shoes for him to fill with candy. Modern Santa Claus evolved from the Dutch nickname for Saint Nicholas, Sinter Klauss, and draws from an amalgam of various countries’ rendering of the story. Santa Claus would be unified and made iconic through the work of Professor Clement Clark Moore (“Twas the Night Before Christmas”), Washington Irving (Knickerbocker’s History of New York), and Thomas Nast who illustrated Santa Claus a as the large, jovial, white-bearded figure dressed in a red suit with white fur trimmings (Siefker 1997).

Christmas in the Twenty-First Century

By 1900, Christmas was a major holiday in Britain and the United States, and currently, Christmas is celebrated in over 160 countries. However, as societies changed from an agricultural based economy to an industrial economy, many people lost both the leisure time and the necessary raw materials to make homemade gifts, and by the 1920s, store bought gifts overshadowed homemade gifts. It would be easy to trace statistics to show how commercialized Christmas has become since then (Connelly 1999), but what is more interesting than commercialization is the resilience of the Victorian invention of Christmas, specifically is the role of the Dickinsonian emphasis on human sympathy in the face of increasing industrialization and alienation. The Victorian Christmas mixed new customs such as the Christmas tree with old ones such as the mistletoe. In this way, the Victorians recreated Christmas a festival of goodwill, charity, and domestic harmony. So, as we unwrap our iPods and Wii’s, the backdrop of Christmas still remains a recognition of both the resilience and frailty of humanity, the mysteries of trees and seasonal change, the warmth of fires and, whether we believe or not, the hope contained in Christmas.

-- Posted November 21, 2008

References

Connelly, Mark. 1999. Christmas: A Social History. New York, NY: I.B. Tauris Publishers.

Golby, J.M and A.W. Purdue. 1986. The Making of the Modern Christmas. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Gulevich, Tanay. 2000. Encyclopedia of Christmas. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics.

Horseley, Richard and James Tracy, eds. 2001. Christmas Unwrapped: Consumerism, Christ, and Culture. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.

Siefker, Phyllis. 1997. Santa Clause: Last of the Wild Men. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Waits, William B. 1993. The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of Giving. New York, NY: New York University Press.