Christmas is celebrated around the world as both a religious holiday and a secular holiday. Depending on your heritage and beliefs, you and your loved ones may focus on one or both aspects of this holiday. But how did these two sides develop? Is Christmas founded more on religious beliefs or on secular celebrations? And why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th? Does this date truly have significance for either religious or secular reasons? Read on to get the full story of Christmas and have your questions answered.
The Story of Christmas Begins in Ancient Europe
For as far back as history goes, the middle of winter has always been a time for celebration – winter solstice celebrations to be exact. The winter solstice signaled the beginning of the end for winter, with the onset of extended daylight and longer days. These winter solstice celebrations were happening well before Jesus was born, so they had nothing to do with religion.
In addition to the worst of winter being over, the end of December was typically a time when most of the cattle people owned had been slaughtered. This meant there was little to no cattle to feed and that there was plenty of fresh meat to be had. The wine and beer that had been fermenting all year long was also perfect for drinking by this time. So the end of December was an ideal time for celebrating.
Certain regions and countries had their own customs and traditions when it came to these winter solstice celebrations. For example, the Scandinavian countries would burn large logs. The people would feast until the logs burned out, typically for well over a week. In Germany, a pagan god by the name of Oden was honored during this time. Oden was feared by the Germans, as he was believed to fly through the sky at night to watch people. Good people would prosper and bad people would be punished.
Ancient Rome had its own set of traditions when it came to winter solstice celebrations. Winter was less extreme in Rome (given its location further South), and the Saturnalia holiday was celebrated to honor the god of agriculture, Saturn. This holiday began a week before the winter solstice and went on for a full month. During this time, disorder reigned as people drank and ate heavily. Businesses and schools were closed as gluttony prevailed.
In conjunction with this gluttonous Saturnalia holiday, two other holidays were celebrated in Rome around the winter solstice timeframe. The first was Juvenalia, which was a celebration of Roman children. The second was a celebration of Mithra’s birthday. Mithra was an infant god and named to be the god of the unconquerable sun. Mithra’s birthday was no other than December 25th, and for many Romans it was considered to be the most sacred day of the year.
So while some of these outlandish celebrations do not remind us of Christmas as we celebrate it today, some of the ancient celebrations do have ties to December 25th, the celebration of children, and even the closing of offices and schools in order to celebrate. One can begin to see a few similarities to Christmas as we know it today.
How Christianity Factors In to Christmas
In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the focal celebration. In fact, the birth of Jesus was not even celebrated. In the 4th century, the Church decided to make Jesus’ birthday a day of religious celebration. The only problem with this is that the Bible does not directly state the date for His birthday. While there is evidence to point to the fact that Jesus’ birthday was in the spring, Pope Julius I chose December 25th as the official day of celebration. Many believe the rationale behind this was to line this religious holiday up with the secular one of Saturnalia in an effort to absorb it into the newly named Christian holiday.
This religious day of celebration was originally called the Feast of the Nativity, but became more popularly known as Christmas. The word ‘Christmas’ literally means ‘The Mass of Christ.’ A Mass is a celebration and ‘Christ’ means ‘the anointed one,’ so it is a celebration of the Jesus, the anointed Son of God. The holiday gradually spread across Europe, making its way to Scandinavia during the 8th century. By aligning Christmas with the winter solstice celebrations, it was embraced by a larger amount of people as this was already a time of celebration. However, it also added an element of rowdiness to the celebration. As Christianity spread so did the celebration of Christmas. Church was attended to start off the holiday, but from there it turned into a day of drinking and eating reminiscent of the winter solstice celebrations.
The Puritans Outlaw Christmas
In the early 17th century, Puritanism took hold in England. Puritanism was marked by austerity, and the lavish nature of Christmas celebrations was not looked upon kindly. As a result, Christmas was actually canceled. It remained this way until Charles II returned to the throne.
The first pilgrims who arrived in New England were, in fact, Puritans, so as you could guess Christmas was not celebrated in the early years of America. The partying associated with the holiday was simply not seen as Christian behavior. Hard to believe, but it’s true. However, settlers further South (such as those in Virginia) were not Puritans, and they did celebrate the holiday, bringing it to the New World. After the American Revolution in 1776, however, it was seen as an English holiday so the celebration of Christmas stopped in an effort to oppose all things English. How did Christmas make its way back into American and gain the stronghold it has now? Let’s find out.
Christmas Takes Hold in America
In the early 1800s, there was quite a bit of strife in America. Particularly, there was a lot of conflict between the different economic classes and unemployment was high. Christmas was being celebrated in America again at this point, but it was marked by riots among the disgruntled lower classes. This is certainly not the way we think of Christmas. The upper classes of society made a concerted effort to change the way the season was celebrated in order to control the riotous behavior of the lower classes.
Two pieces of literature were published around this time that helped mold a new idea about Christmas and how it should be celebrated. Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon painted a picture of a Christmas where the various socio-economic classes blended together seamlessly in the spirit of the holiday. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol spoke of charity and goodwill toward men as being of utmost importance during Christmastime.
During the 1800’s in America, an increased emphasis was also placed on the importance of children, and Christmas was seen as an opportunity to devote additional attention to children. This developed into gift-giving and increased family time and togetherness. By the 1840’s, Christmas was becoming more and more popular across America. Over the years, Americans adopted customs from various heritages and cultures, including sending holiday cards and decorating trees. As a perfect example of the melting pot that America is, all of these customs merged into a new American celebration of Christmas. This culminated with Christmas being declared a federal holiday on June 26, 1870.
Modern Day Christmas
We all know how big Christmas has become in modern America. It seems the secular celebration begins earlier and earlier each year. Whether or not Christmas has a religious significance to you is a matter of faith, but there is no denying that both secular and religious beliefs both played a large role in shaping Christmas into what it is today. Customs and traditions from both worlds collided to make this holiday all that it is. Being aware of the story of Christmas deepens our appreciation for the day and the entire season and can hopefully open our eyes to all of the diversity that has gone into creating this magical day.