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When did Christians begin to celebrate Christmas?

This week we continue our look at holiday questions. “When did Christians begin to celebrate Christmas?”

The history of Christmas, as we know it, has it’s roots in celebrations that began thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. In the dead of winter, when the earth and darkness had almost become one, there came a ray of hope—the winter solstice. The celebration of the solstice, the “official” end of winter and the beginning of the lengthening of days, has been a northern-hemisphere celebration as far back as written and oral history can take us—some suggest as many as 4,000 years ago.

In Europe, solstice celebrations were popular among the Germanic peoples who honored the god Oden; the Norse celebrated the festival of the Yule (an agricultural fest); in Rome the feasts of Saturnalia, Juvenalia, and the birth of Mithra, the sun god were celebrated. The most popular festival in Rome was Saturnalia, since the celebrations embraced a reversal of the social order and servants and slaves “ruled” the towns and homes in a time of hilarity and fun.

The Church didn’t celebrate the birth of Jesus for 300 years after his death and resurrection. However, by the beginning of the fourth century church officials decided to institute a holy feast day marking the birth. Since the Bible makes no mention of the date, or even the time of year, when Jesus was born, Pope Julius I “arbitrarily” chose December 25th as the day for the “Feast of the Nativity.” However, it took another 400 years before the “feast” had become common throughout the European continent. 

There is no “official” accounting of why Pope Julius chose December 25th as the date for the Nativity Feast, but most likely he did so with the hopes that, since Christians were celebrating the solstice festivals anyway, they would adopt or incorporate Nativity into their revelry. And although the Church decreed the holiday, it gave no instructions on how to celebrate it. By the Middle Ages, “Christians” celebrated Christ-Maas (the mass of Christ) and then they would leave the churches and cathedrals to join in a revelry that included a drunken street party. During this “party” an unfortunate, perhaps a peasant or a beggar, would be crowned the “Lord of Misrule.” This “lord” would lead a mob of his “subjects” from home to home of the wealthy and the crowd would demand food and drink (and God help you Merry Gentlemen if you didn’t comply). Thus, Christmas became a time for the “righting” of the wrongs of opulent society by “repaying” the poor with alms.

Things began to change when Oliver Cromwell and his religious Puritans took control of England in 1645. In an effort to purify the nation of their debauchery, they cancelled Christmas because the Bible doesn’t mention any celebrations of births, and because the Christmas festivities were nothing like what the Puritans thought should be observed on a holy-day. And so, when the Pilgrims came to America, Christmas was forbidden and not observed. Indeed, in Massachusetts Christmas was outlawed and anyone celebrating Christmas was subject to a fine.

The celebration of Christmas did eventually wend its way into the fabric of American culture; however, it was seen as an English holiday. When the war of Independence began, the influences and traditions of England were shrugged off, and the Christmas celebrations fell out of fashion. Indeed, the first congressional session under the newly ratified Constitution was held during the Christmas season, with December 25th 1789 as a regular work day for our congress (Christmas didn’t become a federal holiday until 1870).

Christmas, as we know it, didn’t begin to take shape until the early 1800s with the publishing of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The story emphasized goodwill and peace towards all and these sentiments rang true with what people supposed the Christmas holidays ought to be. However, once again, the exact traditions of the holiday were unspecified and America turned to their fellow European immigrants for traditions they could adopt. It took nearly 100 years before the traditions we generally celebrate today were in place, but by the mid 1920s the Christmas trees, holiday cards, festival of lights, gift giving, feasting, and Santa Claus were all a part of our culture—to the extent that many believed this was the way Christmas had always been celebrated.

So, how long has the Church been celebrating Christmas? With the exception of a few years during the Puritan period when a portion of the Church decided the pagan festival was just that—pagan, the Church has been in step with culture and its celebrations from the Saturnalia blend of the first few centuries AD, to the drunken debauchery of the Middle Ages, to the celebration of consumerism and hedonism today.

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