Here’s a repost of an article I wrote last year on the history of Christmas. Enjoy!
It’s all too common this time of year to hear people bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas and how “the reason for the season” is being forgotten. Wrapped up in our rampant consumerism. People getting upset at department stores selling “Holiday Trees” as opposed to “Christmas Trees” or the State Department’s insistence that the tree on the White House lawn be known as a Holiday Tree.
Such skirmishes like these have led to major initiates within the Christian community to curb what they see as a rising tide of secularization that threatens to destroy “the true meaning of Christmas”.
However in all the commotion an underlying question is rarely asked and almost never answered..
What are the real historical roots of Christmas?
In his wonderful book “Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas“, Ace Collins lays out the grim reality that Christmas for centuries was no where near the festive, family-friendly, children-focused event we’ve come to know it as.
For centuries Christmas was known as the most rowdy and lawless time of the year. From many accounts our modern celebration of Mardi Gras in all of its decadent, bead-wearing, chest-flashing splendor doesn’t compare with the debauchery displayed in the average Christmas celebration of ages past.
The banning of Christmas
Remember the classic Christmas song “We Wish you a Merry Christmas“? Ever wonder about the ominous line “we won’t go until we get some”?
This song is just one of the reminders of the past of the lawlessness inherent in the “old fashioned” celebrations of Christmas. As the song implies, bands of young men would roam from house to house, singing to the occupants. The demand in the song to bring “figgy pudding” and a “cup of good cheer” aren’t mere suggestions as these mobs would often break in and loot the homes of anyone foolish enough to refuse.
For this and many other examples of lawlessness, many regarded this time of year to be completely hopeless and irredeemable until a series of events in the early to mid 18th century helped pull Christmas celebrations from a focus on drunken excess to a focus on family and charity.
Charles Dickens’s classic tale, first published in 1843, is known by many for it’s sobering critique on materialism but many don’t understand the Cultural climate where Charles Dickens famous work was borne.
With the rise of industrialization it suddenly became possible to make money nearly around the clock. Consequently many became work-a-holics like Mr Scrooge. Not so much because they were obsessed with money (though that certainly played a part) but because they had become obsessed with working in itself.
It was out of this cultural climate that A Christmas Carol was written to expose and critique the fact that while industrialization had certainly brought unprecedented wealth and riches. It also managed to rob the average worker of anything worth working for.
Namely their families.
Dickens’ tale was a clear call for workers to at least take one holiday a year, particularly Christmas, off and celebrate and enjoy those around them.
We would like to think that we are unique in our modern age of computers and “work at all hours” pace of the information age. A Christmas Carol serves to remind us that work-a-holism is not a recent invention and Christmas serves as a reminder that the cure still remains the same.
Santa Clause: Twas a night before Christmas
Even though most of protestantism had given up on Christmas as a hopelessly pagan holiday, the Roman Catholic Church doggedly maintained their observance of the beleaguered holiday by holding a special mass (Christ-mas) on December 25th, caroling1, and by passing down Christmas stories of good cheer to eager pupils.
In 1823 a poem entitled “A visit from St. Nicholas” was published anonymously and helped to spread the classic tale of a jolly old elf whose mission in life was to spread cheer and good tidings (not to mention a few presents) once a year.
Eventually an Anglican bishop by the name of Clement Clark Moore was credited for the poem. A man whom we can thank for bringing us Santa Clause and the myriad of stories about him that have arisen ever since.
Though we may loathe the jolly old man these days for his work in malls across the country encouraging buyers to come, shop, and have their picture taken after an excruciatingly long delay in a line that seemingly goes on forever. We ought to keep in mind that it is the character of Santa Clause who gave children everywhere a reason to get excited about what otherwise was merely yet another excuse for adults to get drunk (now that occasion has been delayed by 7 days).
In 1846, the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree.((The History of Christmas))
In addition to the Roman Catholic Church’s steadfast support of the holiday, the German people had managed to turn the holiday into a family affair for many years. This when Prince Albert married Queen Victoria he brought with him the family customs he grew up with.
It was this royal couple, particularly the German prince Albert, who helped make Christmas more of a family holiday as their subjects naturally copied them and stopped their rabble rousing.
The past isn’t what it used to be
For years we’ve been told about “the good old days” of Christmases long long ago. Unfortunately we weren’t told that “long ago” stopped somewhere around the mid-18th century and that past that we wouldn’t recognize anything we now cherish as hallmarks of the Christmas celebration.
So this year, when you hear someone bemoaning Santa Clause or the other “unimportant” vestiges of the Christmas season such as the Christmas tree. Gently remind them that the past isn’t as rosy as it may seem through the tinsel of our nostalgia.
We may wish to pretend that Christ was always at the center of Christmas, but the truth is that for centuries he was only barely a part of what was otherwise a pagan orgy. That we enjoy Christmas they way we do is a testimony to the power of the influences mentioned above.
Does Christmas have room for improvement? Sure. Is it overly materialistic in our current culture? Absolutely! But it’s certainly come a long way and is still a time of good tidings and great cheer. We need to remember not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, though we might need another Charles Dickens to come along with another sobering reminder that possessions are far less important than goodwill and holiday cheer.
And with that I bid you,
- Consequently, caroling was originally frowned upon by the Church as it was seen as frivolous. But when it became apparent the power of songs, the Church quickly rushed to guide and direct the music and lyrics. Ace Collins also has an excellent book on the Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas [↩]