Saturday, December 19, 2009

Some Xmas History

For some reason, people have some really strange ideas about Xmas. Some folks think it is a Pagan holiday. Others believe it to be a uniquely Xian event. Neither are true & both are correct. Fact is, Xmas is a relatively new event in the US, with the secular celebrations not beginning until just after the close of the Civil War & the religious celebrations not until the late 19th century. In other words, when someone says we've "always celebrated Xmas in America," they really don't know what they are talking about.

The religious underpinnings of Xmas go back to Pagan origins with all sorts of festivities & emblems, many eventually incorporated into the modern celebration. (Click here for a link that discusses some of the Xmas emblems we have today. Click here for a brief history on the religious aspects that have blended together to comprise our modern celebration.) When someone passes along the God spam that talks about all the representations of X that are in the Xmas tree .... uh, no. Not true. Someone just made that up & passed it along. (Here's a reference  that attempts to relate the seasonal emblems to Xianity, most of which are just bunk, since those emblems originated not with Xianity at all.)

We've all heard that the Roman festivals were eventually adapted into Xian celebrations under Constantine. True, Constantine needed the rising Xian population to fight his battles & the struggling Xians readily accepted the power that came from official endorsement. So the Pagan aspects became Xianized.

Through the middle ages, the Catholic Church expanded the Xmas celebration & other Pagan celebrations were assimilated.

Then came the Presbyterians. And the Puritans.

Finally, there came Cromwell.

The Presbyterians in Scotland & the Puritans (the same ones that came to America) completely rejected the celebration of Xmas. They called it a sinful & heretical idea that was nothing more than idolatry. In fact, Presbyterians in Scotland banned Xmas celebrations & those who observed the day were met with swift & severe punishment for their sins against God.
(Link.) It wasn't until the 1950s that Scottish Presbyterians removed the ban.

Cromwell became Lord Protector of England & with his Puritan forces banned the festival of Xmas in 1645.

Those same Puritans came the New World to escape the persecution of the Anglican & Catholic church, both of which celebrated Xmas. So when they came to America, Xmas was made illegal, with penalties imposed by the judge & the church, usually one in the same. The nativity, in particular, was believed to be the gross sin of idolatry. (Link)

So for most of the Colonies, Xmas was spent in work, not worship. (Link.)

Xmas was celebrated in a few areas of Colonial America, mainly where the Catholics & Anglicans had strongholds. Still, those were small & only religious in nature & were kept to the church, never spilling over into the community at large. In fact, George Washington even attacked a group of Hessians on Xmas day since he knew they would still be hung over from their celebration & the Patriot troops didn't regard Xmas as anything special, rejecting both Papist & English tradition. Even Congress was in session on Xmas Day doing the day-to-day work as normal. To the Colonists, Xmas was just another day.(Link.)

Like the rest of the colonies, Xmas in GA wasn't a big deal. The Congregationalist missionaries among the Cherokees at New Echota didn't regard Xmas with any significance, though the Moravians did make quite the party. (Link.)

In 1819, Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon,
gent., a collection of stories about the celebration of Xmas in an English manor house, that were based on "ancient customs." It was all made up, of course. But the idea began to take hold & gradually people began to have parties & give gifts to the kids. Even then, there was no relating the birth of X with the secular event. It as just a few parties & a few kids' gifts "like they do in England."(Link.)

Mostly Xmas was just a sparse religious event among the few Episcopalians & Catholics. There would be a few nativity scenes in the Catholic churches & a special mass, but that was it. Until the Civil War, the overwhelming majority of Americans didn't do anything special with Xmas, not even exchanging gifts or going to church.

The Civil War changed a lot of things & Xmas was no exception. More people in contact with each other meant learning new ideas. The idea of a winter party gained some acceptance & soon the thought of taking a winter break from the long hours in industrial plants swept the nation. In 1870, President US Grant made Xmas, Thanksgiving, 4th of July & New Year's Day official Federal holidays to accommodate family time, all completely secular & all without pay. (Link.)
By 1893, all states & territories had followed suit & made Xmas a secular holiday. (Link.)

As Xmas became more practiced, the religious connotations emerged & by the 1890s, Xmas took on a uniquely Xian overtone in America. Still, there were two distinct celebrations: one religious & one secular, with all faiths & no faiths getting in on the parties.

It is interesting to note that prior to 1945, there are no Supreme Court cases regarding Xmas. None. It is not until after WW II ended & the erosion of Xian hegemony that people began to have disputes. After all, until the 1890s, Xmas wasn't even celebrated. During the next 50 years, the majority Xian faith adopted & adapted the Xmas season. Before long, those majority religious ideas were clashing with the secular ideas, other religious ideas & legal principles And that meant lawsuits. (Link to some legal info on Xmas.)

Today, Santa is the premier secular Xmas symbol, first appearing in 1821 & widely accepted by 1897 with the classic, Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. That did it. When kids expect presents, they get them & the modern secular Xmas was born. Today, Xmas begins a few days before Thanksgiving & lasts until the final college bowl game sometime after New Years. Of course, Xmas is celebrated all over the world in its secular form, in all nations & of all faiths. Yes, even in Muslim nations, the secular Xmas is celebrated.

The religious aspects of Xmas have certainly changed over the years. Xmas used to be viewed as sinful & something unholy by most Americans. Nativity scenes even 150 years ago -- would get you thrown in jail & kicked out of the church. Today, things are much different ... well, maybe not in some parts of the nation. Say anything about separation of church & state & ... whew.

No matter how one worships or chooses not to worship, it is entirely a matter of conscience & conviction, a right protected by the Constitution. Yet, we would be greatly amiss to say that our nation has always celebrated Xmas. That is false. Xmas celebration is a relatively new phenomenon, only having been around for roughly 110 years or so, & even then with many different meanings than what we ascribe today.
For some more info on Xmas traditions & their history, here's another link.


Georgia Mountain Man said...

I guess you could say that a liberal agenda created the Christmas that we now know and that the "War on Christmas" people take to heart.

Gene S said...

Fer a dum ol suthern boy, ya done gud!!!

Man, that was interesting. As a matter of fact, the History Channel did some of the same stuff, but certainly didn't have the GA Colony / Civil War info that only us Sons of the South would appreciate.

Isn't it amazing how we all assume what is today has always been!

Check my blog at for an interesting story I am posting tomorrow about the "Sears Man."

Darn you're smart!!!!