A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS
If you are anything like us here at Voice and Vision, you are eagerly anticipating the extra-long holiday weekend. As our gift to you, we want to send you off with some fun Christmas facts. Please feel free to use them for interesting conversation starters at your gatherings. (You’re welcome).
ORIGINS OF CHRISTMAS
The origins of Christmas stem from both the pagan and Roman cultures. The Romans actually celebrated two holidays in the month of December. The first was Saturnalia, which was a two-week festival honoring their god of agriculture Saturn. On December 25th, they celebrated the birth of Mithra, their sun god. Both celebrations were raucous, drunken parties.
Also in December, in which the darkest day of the year falls, the pagan cultures lit bonfires and candles to keep the darkness at bay. The Romans also incorporated this tradition into their own celebrations.
As Christianity spread across Europe, the Christian clergy were not able to curb the pagan customs and celebrations. Since no one knew Jesus’s date of birth, they adapted the pagan ritual into a celebration of His birthday.
As part of the solstice celebrations, the pagan cultures decorated their homes with greens in anticipation of the spring to come. Evergreen trees remained green during the coldest and darkest days, so they were thought to hold special powers. The Romans also decorated their temples with fir trees during Saturnalia and decorated them with bits of metal. There are even records of the Greeks decorating trees in honor of their gods. Interestingly, the first trees brought into the pagan homes were hung from the ceiling, upside down.
The tree tradition we are accustomed to today hails from Northern Europe, where Germanic pagan tribes decorated evergreen trees in worship of the god Woden with candles and dried fruit. The tradition was incorporated into the Christian faith in Germany during the 1500’s. They decorated trees in their homes with sweets, lights, and toys.
Inspired by St. Nicholas, this Christmas tradition has Christian roots, rather than pagan ones. Born in southern Turkey around 280, he was a bishop in the early Christian church and suffered persecution and imprisonment for his faith. Coming from a wealthy family, he was renowned for his generosity towards the poor and disenfranchised. The legends surrounding him abound, but the most famous is how he saved three daughters from being sold into slavery. There was no dowry to entice a man to marry them, so it was their father’s last resort. St. Nicholas is said to have tossed gold through an open window into the home, thus saving them from their fate. Legend has it that the gold landed in a sock drying by the fire, so children started hanging stockings by their fires in hopes St. Nicholas would toss gifts into them.
In honor of his passing, December 6th was declared St. Nicholas day. As time went on, each European culture adapted versions of St. Nicholas. In Swiss and German cultures, Christkind or Kris Kringle (Christ child) accompanied St. Nicholas to deliver presents to well-behaved children. Jultomten was a happy elf delivering gifts via a sleigh drawn by goats in Sweden. Then there was Father Christmas in England and Pere Noel in France. In the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Lorraine, France, and parts of Germany, he was known as Sinter Klaas. (Klaas, for the record, is a shortened version of the name Nicholas). This is where the Americanized Santa Claus comes from.
CHRISTMAS IN AMERICA
Christmas in early America was a mixed bag. Many with Puritan beliefs banned Christmas because of its pagan origins and the raucous nature of the celebrations. Other immigrants arriving from Europe continued with the customs of their homelands. The Dutch brought Sinter Klaas with them to New York in the 1600’s. The Germans brought their tree traditions in the 1700’s. Each celebrated their own way within their own communities.
It wasn’t until the early 1800’s that the American Christmas began to take shape. Washington Irving wrote a series of stories of a wealthy English landowner who invites his workers to have dinner with him. Irving liked the idea of people of all backgrounds and social status coming together for a festive holiday. So, he told a tale that reminisced about old Christmas traditions that had been lost but were restored by this wealthy landowner. Through Irving’s story, the idea began to take hold in the hearts of the American public.
In 1822, Clement Clark Moore wrote An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas for his daughters. It’s now famously known as The Night Before Christmas. In it, the modern idea of Santa Claus as a jolly man flying through the sky on a sleigh took hold. Later, in 1881, the artist Thomas Nast was hired to draw a depiction of Santa for a Coke-a-Cola advertisement. He created a rotund Santa with a wife named Mrs. Claus, surrounded by worker elves. After this, the image of Santa as a cheerful, fat, white-bearded man in a red suit became embedded in American culture.
A NATIONAL HOLIDAY
After the civil war, the country was looking for ways to look past difference and become united as a country. In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant declared it a federal holiday. And while Christmas traditions have adapted with time, I think Washington Irving’s desire for unity in celebration lives on. It’s become a time of year where we wish others well, donate to our favorite charities, and give presents with a joyful spirit.
MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY HOLIDAYS
So, where ever you may be, and whatever traditions you follow, we wish you the merriest of Christmases and the happiest of holidays!
Photo courtesy of Cris Dinoto via Unsplash