Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Brief History of Christmas

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

The religious underpinnings of Christmas go back to Pagan origins with all sorts of festivities
and emblems, many eventually incorporated into the modern celebration. (Click here for a link that discusses some of the Christmas 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 Christ that are in the Christmas tree .... uh, no. Not true. Someone just made that up and passed it along. (Here's a reference that attempts to relate the seasonal emblems to Christianity, most of which are just bunk, since the representation story is just made up, e.g., where in the Bible is round wreath of green said to symolize the circle of God's Family protecting others?)

Simple science, some history and some logic may explain some of the holiday decorations and lore. Did psychedelic mushrooms and the Santa story gradually weave itself into popular culture over the last 200 years? (Link.)

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

Through the middle ages, the Catholic Church expanded the
Christmas celebration and other Pagan celebrations were assimilated.

Then came the Presbyterians. And the Puritans.

Finally, there came Cromwell.

The Presbyterians in Scotland
and the Puritans (the same ones that came to America) completely rejected the celebration of Christmas. They called it a sinful and heretical idea that was nothing more than idolatry. In fact, Scottish Presbyterians banned Christmas celebrations and those who observed the day were met with swift and 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
and with his Puritan forces banned the festival of Christmas in 1645.

Those same Puritans came the New World to escape the persecution of the Anglican
and Catholic church, both of which celebrated Christmas. So when they came to America, Christmas was made illegal, with penalties imposed by the judge and 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, Christmas was spent in work, not worship. (Link.)

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

Like the rest of the colonies,
Christmas in GA wasn't a big deal. The Congregationalist missionaries among the Cherokees at New Echota didn't regard Christmas 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 Christmas 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 and gradually people began to have parties and give gifts to the kids. Even then, there was no relating the birth of Christ with the secular event. It as just a few parties and a few kids' gifts "like they do in England."(Link.)

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

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

Even Baptists didn't celebrate Christmas until after secularization came after the Civil War. Before 1880, there are a few rare mentions of Christmas but mostly as a lecturing exercise. (Link.) However, Baptists were as caught up in the commercialization and the businessmen's prodddings to "Buy! Buy! Buy!" around 1890 just like the rest of the nation ... and ultimately the whole world.

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

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

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

The religious aspects of
Christmas have certainly changed over the years. Christmas used to be viewed as sinful and something unholy by most Americans. Nativity scenes even 150 years ago -- would get you thrown in jail and 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 and state and ... whew.

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


Bruce Gourley said...

Thanks for the survey of the history of Christmas. Your piece goes into more detail, but ironically, I published a similiar piece the same day!


foxofbama said...

You simply must get a copy of Jill Lepore's Whites of their Eyes on the constitutional fundamentalism of the Tea Party.
Go to Barnes and Noble tonight, before Christmas and get your personal copy.
While there take a look at Godbold's new political bio of Jimmy Carter's days in Georgia before the run for the Presidency

Merry Christmas