Saturday, December 18, 2010

History of Christmas

Christmas is a special time of year where we all get together, give presents, eat food, and sing carols. Before the holiday, we decorate our houses, put up a tree, and put ornaments on it. Christmas night, as kids, we waited to hear Santa Claus on our roof, or perhaps sneak a peek of him from upstairs as he is putting our presents under the tree. Christmas is full of many different traditions and celebrations that have given people joy throughout the years.

Christmas is like many other holidays, such as Easter and Halloween, in that there is a religious theme around it (Remember that Halloween had All Saints Day), but that day is not specifically holy. What I mean by that is these holidays may be considered celebrations of Jesus’ birth and death, but neither holiday coincides with the actual days of those events. Pagans had festivals on these days and Christian Romans implanted Christianity into these festivals to slowly wane the people off their many gods. Does that take away from Christians celebrating the birth of Christ? Not at all, because though it may not be the exact day, we really don’t know when that day is, and at least we are celebrating it. In this case, it’s the thought that counts. I’m sure that the Lord will forgive us if we are a few months off.

Christmas started as a winter festival, just as Samhain was a fall festival, and Easter was a spring festival. In many cultures, it was the most important. This may be attributed to the fact that there was much less agricultural work to do and that made more time for merriment. From the pagan days, some of Christmas’ customs still live one. The Roman Saturnalia had gift-giving during this time in celebration of the god Saturn. The Romans also had greenery, lights and charity during their new year. Yule logs and various foods came from Germanic feasts. And pagan Scandinavians celebrated a winter festival called Yule.

Around the 300’s, a feast honoring the birth and baptism of Jesus started, as many speculated that Jesus was conceived during the Spring Solstice, thus giving him a December birthday. This was convenient as it put Christmas right around the pagan winter celebration. This celebration coincided with Epiphany, which was a festival celebrating the visit from the Magi. The celebration of that visit overshadowed Christmas for quite some time in the middle ages. Christmas made a comeback as the main festival once Charlemagne was crowned on that day in 800. Christmas, by the high middle ages, became extremely popular. Caroling became commonplace, as did drunkenness, promiscuity, and gambling. Never thought those would all go together. England at the time exchanged gifts, but it was on New Year’s Day. The holiday in this time period took on ivy, holly, and other evergreens. During the next couple centuries, the date of gift giving was changed several times before they decided on Christmas Eve in the 17th century, and that baby Jesus was the gift giver.

And then came the Puritans again. They just didn’t like anyone having any fun. After the Protestant Reformation, the Puritans condemned the celebration of Christmas, claiming it was born of the Catholics. The Catholic Church responded by making the day more religious, and less about drunkenness. As royalty changed hands in England, Christmas was banned and un-banned. Puritans who went to America carried over their hate of the holiday, and it wasn’t until much later that Christmas was widely celebrated by colonist. It got worse after the American Revolution though, as Christmas was considered a European holiday. The Americans had just gotten over fighting the English and German hessians, and didn’t feel like carrying on their traditions. Christmas trees and nativity scenes were first introduced in colonial America by German immigrants.

In the early 1800’s in Britain, people started to worry that Christmas was fading away and was not as popular as it used to be, so Charles Dickens decided to write A Christmas Carol. The book was immensely popular and turned Christmas into a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion. Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late 18th century and early 19th century. Dickens single-handedly created a Christmas we all know today; a more secular celebration with family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, games and a festive generosity of spirit. We can also thank Dickens for the term “Merry Christmas”, as it was first used in his story. The term Scrooge became synonymous with people who don’t like Christmas.

The Christmas tree became popular in Europe when Queen Victoria and her German cousin Prince Albert got married. The trees were hung with lights and ornaments, and with presents underneath. Does this sound a little familiar? The image of the royal couple next to their Christmas tree was distributed around Europe and eventually found its way to America. By the 1870’s, putting up a Christmas tree had become common in America. Interest in Christmas was revived in America in the 1820’s thanks to Washington Irving who wrote of old Christmas celebrations in England, and Clement Clarke Moore who wrote A Visit from St. Nicholas (otherwise known as Twas the Night before Christmas). The poem helped popularize the exchanging of gifts, which led to seasonal Christmas shopping becoming an economic importance. This also led to the conflict of the consumerism getting in the way of the spiritual part of Christmas. So yes people, this was a problem way back in the 1820’s. The holiday became an official federal holiday in 1870, signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant. Also at this time you had the introduction of Christmas cards by Louis Prang, who is considered the father of the American Christmas card.

Christmas has had its share of gift givers, the most notable being Santa Claus. Other gift givers included Pere Noel, Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Christkind, Joulupukki, Babbo Natale, Saint Basil, and Father Frost. All are essentially Santa Claus with different names due to area of origin. The name Santa Claus can be traced back to the Dutch, Sinterklaas, which means simply Saint Nicholas. Nicholas was Bishop of Myra, in modern day Turkey, during the 4th century. Among other saintly attributes, he was noted for the car of Children, generosity, and the giving of gifts. His feast on the 6th of December came to be celebrated in many countries with the giving of gifts. Saint Nicholas traditionally appeared in bishop's attire, accompanied by helpers, inquiring about the behavior of children during the past year before deciding whether they deserved a gift or not. By the 13th century, Saint Nicholas was well known in the Netherlands, and the practice of gift-giving in his name spread to other parts of central and southern Europe. At the Reformation in 16th–17th century Europe, many Protestants changed the gift bringer to the Christ Child or Christkindl, corrupted in English to Kris Kringle, and the date of giving gifts changed from December the 6th to Christmas Eve. The modern Santa Claus came to us from the colonist in New York who needed Christmas without the influence of the English. Luckily, they had Dutch backgrounds and used Santa Claus as a new basis for the holiday, as a gift giver. The image of Santa Clause has changed over time from the saint attire to the Father Christmas attire with a robe and fur as we generally see him today. Father Christmas predates Santa Claus, as a jolly, well nourished; bearded man who wants to spread the spirit of good cheer, but more in the way of getting totally hammered and less in the gift giving way. His image was later retooled to be more like Santa Claus due to people not wanting to associate a man who was delivering presents to the town drunk that people avoided on the street.

Santa has had lots of different helpers over the years. In German folklore he is accompanied by a shepherd, Knecht Ruprecht, who according to tradition asks children whether they can pray. If they can, they receive apples, nuts, and gingerbread. If they cannot, he beats the children with his bag of ashes. DANG! I mean, I know it’s harmless, but still…that’s pretty dang terrifying.

In Dutch folklore, Santa is accompanied by Black Peter. Black Peter gives all the good little children sweets. Other countries have other helpers of Santa, that don’t help as much as beat children. Krampus is my personal favorite, another punisher of children in Germany during the Christmas season. Instead of a shepherd like Knecht Ruprecht, this guy is a demon. And instead of a bag of ashes, he hits you with a switch. This is much more terrifying than an old dude with a bag of ashes. In our own culture, he is helped by elves, which make his toys for children. In Latin America, many of the countries believe that Santa makes the toys, and then gives them to baby Jesus, who then delivers them.

There is a lot more to Christmas then I can get to today so stay tuned for Part 2!

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