In doing my research, I have learned that Christmas has its roots in celebrations that began thousands of years before the birth of Jesus.
Historian Eric Weisstein states that, “In the dead of winter, when the Earth and darkness had almost become one, the winter solstice began. 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 fact, in doing further research, I discovered that in Europe, solstice celebrations were popular among the Germanic people who honored the god Oden; the Norse celebrated the festival of the Yule (an agricultural fest), and in Rome the sun god “Sol Invictus” was celebrated.
Most of the rest of what I’m sharing in this column was learned when I was a theology student for a year and a half back in the early ‘60s. 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 his 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 Dec. 25 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” reason why Pope Julius chose Dec. 25 as the date for the Nativity Feast, but he probably did so hoping that, since Christians were celebrating the solstice festivals anyway, they would incorporate Nativity into their celebrating.
Although the Church adopted the holiday, it gave no instructions on how to celebrate it. By the Middle Ages, “Christians” celebrated Christ-Maas (the mass of Christ). Then they would leave the churches and cathedrals and join in a street party that included drinking. During this “party” a peasant or 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 the merry wealthy if they didn’t comply).
Thus, Christmas became a time for the “righting” of the wrongs of the wealthy in society by “repaying” the poor with alms.
Things changed 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. In fact, in Massachusetts, Christmas was outlawed and anyone celebrating Christmas was subject to a fine.
The celebration of Christmas did eventually make its way into American culture; however, it was seen as an English holiday. When the war of Independence began, the influences and traditions of England were ignored, and the Christmas celebrations fell out of fashion.
And the first congressional session, under the new Constitution, was held during the Christmas season, with Dec. 25, 1789, as a regular workday for Congress (Christmas didn’t become a federal holiday until 1870).
Christmas, as we now 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 this was what people believed the Christmas holidays should be about.
However, again, the traditions of the holiday were not totally understood and Americans turned to their fellow European immigrants for traditions they began adopting. It took nearly 100 years before the traditions we celebrate today were in place.
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 believe this is the way Christmas has 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, beginning with the first few centuries AD, to the drunken celebrations of the Middle Ages, to the celebration of consumerism today.
But there are those who want to combine their giving and getting of gifts with the belief that Jesus was born in Bethlehem on Dec. 25.
However, if you truly understand what the Bible says about the shepherds watching their flocks in the fields at night, you will understand that the birth of Jesus was not in December, but most likely in the springtime. Even most theologians suggest that Jesus was born in the spring, based on the biblical narrative.
So my end thought here (not a faith-based idea) is that we should move “Black Friday” to sometime in the spring so it won’t be so cold standing in a shopping line during the early morning hours. That could then be the end of the evolution of Christmas.
— Contact Allen Stark at email@example.com.