Each of us experience Christmas in a different way and have been doing so for over two millennia. Being a sacred religious holiday, worldwide cultural phenomenon, and secular celebration all in one, I thought it would be interesting to explore how the celebration came about.
Mid-Winter has long been celebrated around the world centuries before the arrival of Jesus. Early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter, knowing that by the solstice, the worst of winter was behind them. The Norse celebrated “Yule” from December 21 through January. In recognition of the returning sun, the men of the house would bring home large logs and celebrate as long as the logs burned.
In ancient Rome they celebrated Saturnalia beginning the week leading up to the winter solstice and lasting for a month. They also celebrated Juvenalia around the same time celebrating the birth of Mithra on December 25, the infant god born of a rock.
In the early days of Christianity Easter was the main holiday. In the fourth century church officials decided to celebrate Jesus’s birth and Pope Julius I chose December 25th in an effort to absorb the traditions of the Saturnalia festival.
By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced, but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras. Just like the Saturnalia, a beggar or student would become the “lord of misrule” and celebrants would play his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined “debt” to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens.
In the early 17th century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas.
The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.
After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.
But really, isn’t Christmas a state of mind? A time when we incorporate the ideals of the Saturnalia, giving to and recognizing those less fortunate, combined with the celebration of belief and the coming Spring.