Christmas: An abbreviated history of a very long story

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

There is no Christmas in the Bible. The Good Book does not even give us Jesus’ birthday. Yet in the year 221, a text by historian Sextus Julius Africanus assigned Jesus’ birthdate to the Roman version of December 25, the date corresponding to the winter solstice. The Chronograph of 354, a collection of writings related to time, recorded a Christmas celebration held in Rome in the year 336.

As early as the late fourth century, Christians have been proposing theories about how the Romans arrived at Jesus’ birthdate. At that time, Saint Augustine declared, “Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up, chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.” The symbolism of the solstice fits the start of Jesus’ career of enlightening his followers.

The theory that is used to explain the dates of most Christian holidays also applies here. In order to make the new religion easier to digest, the church fathers appropriated the festivals of the pagans, which revolved around solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days. Indeed, the Romans called December 25 dies solis invicti nati, “day of the birth of the unconquered sun.” 

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It is unclear whether Roman celebrations of the solstice predated those of Christmas or vice versa. Also, the early church was trying to separate from the pagan traditions, an argument against this theory.

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Another idea traces back to the biblical account of Jesus’ death, occurring during Passover, which is celebrated near the spring equinox. Wikipedia quotes William J. Collinge’s Historical Dictionary of Catholicism, which says that according to a Jewish tradition, great people die on the same date as their birth and thus live a life that is whole, with no fraction of extra time. This concept was adapted to the situation of Jesus by placing his date of conception, like his date of death, at the spring equinox. The Annunciation is traditionally celebrated on March 25, and nine months later we reach December 25, the official birthdate.

Pro-Christmas riots

In 800, Charlemagne promoted the popularity of Christmas by choosing the day for his coronation as emperor. Other rulers followed the same custom, including the English kings Edmund the Martyr in 855 and William I in 1066. 

The Middle Ages saw an evolution of the seasonal festivities to include caroling, as well as carousing. In England, Christmas drunkenness, gambling, masques, and pageants became widespread traditions, following the concept of “misrule,” a stress outlet similar to the mischief and disguises of Halloween or the tippling and comedy of the Jewish holiday of Purim. 

The Puritans were not amused. In the early 1600s, they discouraged parishioners from celebrating Christmas. The Anglican church objected and went so far as to promote even more feast days and saints’ days. Tension between the two sects heightened. When King Charles I was deposed, the Puritans banned Christmas outright. Pro-Christmas rioting broke out. Protestors hung holly on their doors and shouted slogans in favor of the king.

With the restoration of King Charles II in 1660, Christmas was again legalized, but the Calvinists continued to take a dim view of the custom. The Scottish Parliament prohibited Christmas from 1640 through 1958, when it finally became an official holiday in Scotland.

The Puritans imported their dislike of Christmas to New England. It was outlawed in Boston. Colonists in Virginia and New York celebrated liberally, however, especially in areas settled by Germans, who had long embraced Christmas. Later, the American revolutionaries disdained the holiday as a British tradition.   

Literature sells Christmas 

If you suffer from the pressure to have a jolly Christmas, you might consider blaming writers. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol popularized the concepts of the family-centered celebration and the attendant spirit of generosity. His story included the expression “Merry Christmas,” giving it a boost as a holiday greeting.

In The Sketch Book, the well-traveled American writer Washington Irving imported the ideal of the heart-warming communal celebration by depicting a happy Christmas he had experienced in England. Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (a.k.a. “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) in 1822. 

The emphasis on Santa’s largesse is said to have stimulated the gift-giving economy that we now see as symbolic of the season. By 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The First Christmas in New England already contained a lament that the spiritual nature of Christmas had been swallowed up in shopping.

In 1870, Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the United States. 

Trappings

As for the trappings of Christmas, many of them have come to us from Germany, where such traditions were established as decorating evergreen trees, caroling door-to-door, and sending Christmas cards.

Nativity scenes were noted as early as the tenth century in Rome. In the 1200s, Saint Francis of Assisi made them popular, and they spread across Europe. In some countries, people still compete to create the most compelling tableaux, and families keep their best nativity figurines for generations.

I like how the nativity competition blends family, art, history, and gives at least a nod to the spiritual basis of Christmas. If only we could find parallel settings to recreate in other faith traditions, maybe it would catch on here. We just need someone to put a holiday-scene competition into a popular novel.

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