Have we lost the meaning of the holidays? As many of us have already run through our budget for gifts, others are wondering how we lost the true meaning of the Christmas season. Christians bemoaned the lost of the story of Jesus in the manger to the idea of Santa Claus, shopping, and parties.
In reality, Christmas has only been celebrated by Christians in the past two hundred plus years. Until the 1800s, Christmas was very much a pagan celebration. For centuries, Christmas was greeted with bawdy songs, high spirits and rabble-rousing. Laws were ignored and citizens were terrorized. Mummers roamed the streets of England, stopping periodically to perform short plays or sing songs (not carols with religious overtones). People would attend church in costume to gamble and to hear “sermons” of a secular nature. After services, the poor would roam the streets, demanding food and drink from the more affluent families. If the wealthy refused, the “mob” would break into the homes and steal what they wanted. All this mayhem was reminiscent of the drunken, self-indulgent celebrations of the Greeks and Romans, who celebrated the winter solstice. These irreverent displays turned Christians from the day, naming Christmas as “sinful.”
Six Christmas Traditions from Pagan Rituals
It took over 300 years for the Church to decide upon a day to recognize the birth of Christ. Church leaders wished to create a holy day to oppose the ancient wild festivals. Early cultures celebrated the “rebirth” of the sun within days of the shortest day of the year. Egyptians and Babylonians celebrated midwinter festivals, as did early Germans. On December 25, those in Phrygia marked the birth of the sun god Attis and those in Persia did the same for the sun god Mithras. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a festival dedicated to Saturn, the god of peace and plenty. This festival lasted from 17 December to 24 December, a party of wild abandon. To protect themselves from prosecution, newly-minted Christians also decorated their homes for Saturnalia.
Telesphorus, the second bishop of Rome, was the first to declare a day to memorialize the Nativity. This was in 125 A.D. Those first Christmas services was held in September, during the Jewish Feast of Trumpets (not known as Rosh Hashanah). In truth, for many years more than a dozen different days were designated for the celebration. Finally, the Epiphany (now January 6 on the calendar, but January 17 on the old British calendar) was chosen as the proposed date of the birth of Jesus. This lack of consistency demonstrates the lack of emphasis on Christmas.
When the Roman Empire “converted” to Christianity (approximately during the 4th Century), more importance was placed on Christian celebrations, but even then, Christmas was not a major holiday because Saturnalia still thrived. In 274, the Roman emperor Aurelian declared December 25 Natalis Solis Invicti, the festival of the birth of the invincible sun.
In 320, Pope Julius I specified 25 December as the official date of Jesus’s birth. In 325, Constantine the Great declared the celebration of an immovable feast for Christmas on 25 December. Constantine also named Sunday as a holy day in each seven-day week. However, Saturnalia had not seen its last days. Christians with an attitude of “if you can’t beat them, join them” marked the day with wild carousing. “Party today. Repent later.” became the status quo. The lack of religion in the celebrations became part of the overthrow of the English monarchy in 1649.
Oliver Cromwell led a rebellion to overthrow King Charles I. Cromwell was a political conservative of the Puritan sect. He was the figurehead for the Protestant movement of the era and served as Britain’s “Lord Protector.” He set his sights on restoring order in society and establishing a democracy. Many changes came to England under Cromwell’s fifteen year reign, but to common people, the banning of Christmas activities was a hard blow. Those who participated in the lewd and bawdy celebrations (drinking and merrymaking) were arrested, fined, and jailed.
Cromwell and other religious leaders believed Christmas should be a reverent marking of Christ’s birth – a day of reflection rather than celebration. Unless Christmas fell on a Sunday, people were to go about their daily work and deeds. No gifts. No drinking. No carols. It was a somber, uneventful day.
With Cromwell’s passing, his son Richard came into the office once held by his father. Richard attempted to keep his father’s tenets in place, but with the promise of a return to the most “joyful” Christmas celebrations, Charles II was welcomed to the throne, and the Puritans were out of power. A period song says…
Now thanks to God for Charles’ return,
Whose absence made old Christmas mourn,
For then we scarcely did it know,
Whether it Christmas were or no.
The return of the drunken melees meant many churches closed their doors and ignored Christmas’s significance. In London, people feared going into the streets for fear of being attacked or robbed. For nearly two centuries, Christmas was anything but holy in English-speaking countries. During this time, the Puritans attempted to outlaw Christmas completely in America. The holiday was banned throughout New England from the time of the landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Churches did not meet and business stayed open. Celebrating Christmas in any manner was punishable by an arrest and a fine. As a point of reference, Congress met on December 25 every year from 1789 to 1856.
Unfortunately for the Puritans, other immigrants to America did not easily fall into line with the banishment of Christmas. “The Lords of Disorder” took to the streets on 25 December to “party” throughout the night. In New York City, a special police force was formed in 1828 to meet and subdue unlawful activities.
Ironically, while those in England and America celebrated wildly, those in Germany had chosen to acknowledge the day with food and fellowship. Christmas became the second most holy day of the year. When Queen Victoria chose her cousin, Germany’s Prince Albert, as her husband, German traditions “invaded” Windsor Castle. English citizens mimicked the traditions practiced by the royal family. Even so, it took several elements to make Christmas the day we know today.
Children became prominent to the picture of Christmas after Clement Moore’s (a minister and educator) A Visit from St. Nicholaswas printed in the New York Sentinel. In 1843, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol stressed the true meaning of Christmas. “At the heart of Dickens’s story were charity, hope, love, and family. This book was written at a time when the Industrial Age had created a culture in which money and hard labor seemed to rule every facet of society. Holidays had been all but eliminated. Men worked twelve hours a day, six days a week. Children were often put to work in factories at the age of eight or nine. No one had time to stop for even a moment to examine the wonder of life, much less to reflect on the birth of a Savior. With Scrooge representing the common thinking of almost all industrialists of the time in both England and the United States. A Christmas Carol made people take a second look at their values.” (Ace Collins, page 18, Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas)
By the early 1870s, Christmas had taken on the elements we now associate with the holiday. There are religious aspects, and there are more worldly images. No more do the Lords of Disorder rule the night.
Once again, you bring us such a sweet, meaningful article to educate, entertain, and inspire us. As always, I love to read your special writings and wonder how in the heck you find the time!!
Thank you for this fascinating article. It’s a shame just how commercialised Christmas is nowadays but at least it isn’t as unruly as it used to be!
I was already aware of the relationship to pagan rituals. Thanks for your historical review. Happy Holidays!