The middle of winter, after the Solstice when the longest night and shortest day occur in nature, was a time to celebrate long before a child named Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem.
The Norse, for instance, celebrated Yule from the 21st of December (The Winter Solstice) to January 6. The story goes that with the returning of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home huge logs that they would light, feasting until the log burned out. Sometimes, this took 12 days, hence the 12 days of Christmas.
In other parts of Europe, the celebration began as soon as most of the family’s cattle were slaughtered, providing fresh meat for the first time all year for many. Winter was also when beer and wine finally fermented, allowing for the joy that those beverages provide.
In Rome, the Saturnalia was celebrated. Starting the week before the solstice and going for an entire month, Saturnalia was a time when society was flipped, much like the English Boxing Day. Owners became slaves; peasants ruled the city while businesses and schools were closed so that everyone could enjoy the fun.
Another celebration in the Roman Empire was Juvenalia, a feast in honor of Rome’s children. The Upper classes in the city also celebrated the birth of Mithra, god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25.
In early Christianity, Easter was the main holiday, as the birth of Jesus was not celebrated, as the Bible does not mention the day that Jesus was born. In the fourth century AD/CE, after Christianity was legitimized by Constantine I, the leaders of the church decided to find a date to celebrate the birth of their church’s founder.
Although evidence existed that Jesus was born in spring (why would shepherds herd their sheep in winter for one), Pope Julius chose December 25 as the day of celebration. It is believed that Julius chose this date to make the celebration more popular as it was already the time when other established celebrations took place.
While the likelihood of Christmas being accepted was high, the Church gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated. During the Middle Ages, early Christmas celebrations resembled the pagan holidays. The faithful would go to church in the morning, and then hold a celebration similar to the drunken festivals of Mardi Gras of today.
By the 17th Century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christians looked at Christmas. Oliver Cromwell, the man who overthrew the reign of Charles I, decreed that Christmas was too decadent and banished the holiday until Charles II restored the holiday when he regained the throne.
The pilgrims, an offshoot of English separatists that came to the Americas in 1620, were stricter about celebrations than Cromwell. In fact, Christmas was banned in Boston from 1659 to 1681, with a 5 shilling fine for “showing the Christmas spirit.” In contrast, Christmas was celebrated in Jamestown without incident.
After the American Revolution came a discarding of many things English, including Christmas. Congress was in session on December 25, as were most businesses. Christmas wasn’t declared a holiday in the United States until 1870!
It wasn’t until the late 1800s that Christmas, one re-invented by Americans, was embraced in the country. Turmoil in some of the immigrant-heavy eastern cities followed by the publication of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, which showed a Victorian influenced America and England the importance of celebrating the day, led to a creation of a conglomeration holiday influenced by immigrant Christians and Episcopalians.
Other Facts Surrounding Christmas:
• Santa Claus, as we now know him, was invented by Washington Irving in his book “History of New York” and based loosely on the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas.
• Santa’s appearance as a bearded, overweight man bearing gifts and living at the North Pole, was created by cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1890s. Coca-Cola further influenced the image in the 1930’s by giving the “Jolly Old Elf” a red coat the same color found on the company’s advertisements of the time.
• Most of the more modern ideas of Santa Claus came from the 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nick,” which is better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” In the poem, Santa is described as a small elf, with eight tiny reindeer.
• Christmas Trees began as a German pagan tradition as part of the winter solstice celebrations. The song “O Christmas Tree” is based on the German “O Tannenbaum”
• Kissing under mistletoe has roots in Scandanavian/Norse traditions. The Norse god Baldur, who was killed by a spear made of mistletoe, was resurrected after his death caused a prolonged winter. Kissing under the mistletoe was said to celebrate Baldur’s resurrection.
• In 2009, if you gave your true love the gifts from the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” you would spend $87,403, according to the Pittsburgh based PNC Wealth Management group. The cost to purchase each part of the song just once would be $21,466.