A Brief History of Christmas

Originally from Dec 1, 2007. Happy Saturnalia…

From today’s Wall Street Journal, a very good, and succinct History of the holiday, by historian and author John Steele Gordon. A few excerpts:

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“In its earliest days, Christianity did not celebrate the Nativity at all. Only two of the four Gospels even mention it. Instead, the Church calendar was centered on Easter, still by far the most important day in the Christian year. The Last Supper was a Seder, celebrating Passover, which falls on the day of the full moon in the first month of spring in the Hebrew calendar. […]

By the time of the Council of Nicea [325 AD], the Christian Church was making converts by the thousands and, in hopes of still more converts, in 354 Pope Liberius decided to add the Nativity to the church calendar. He also decided to celebrate it on Dec. 25. It was, frankly, a marketing ploy with a little political savvy thrown in.

History does not tell us exactly when in the year Christ was born, but according to the Gospel of St. Luke, “shepherds were abiding in the field and keeping watch over their flocks by night.” This would imply a date in the spring or summer when the flocks were up in the hills and needed to be guarded. In winter they were kept safely in corrals. […]

It is hard to escape the idea that by making Christmas fall immediately after the Saturnalia, the Pope invited converts to still enjoy the fun and games of the ancient holiday and just call it Christmas. Also, Dec. 25 was the day of the sun god, Sol Invictus, associated with the emperor. By using that date, the church tied itself to the imperial system.

By the high Middle Ages, Christmas was a rowdy, bawdy time, often inside the church as well as outside it. In France, many parishes celebrated the Feast of the Ass, supposedly honoring the donkey that had brought Mary to Bethlehem. Donkeys were brought into the church and the mass ended with priests and parishioners alike making donkey noises.

In the so-called Feast of Fools, the lower clergy would elect a “bishop of fools” to temporarily run the diocese and make fun of church ceremonial and discipline. With this sort of thing going on inside the church to celebrate the Nativity, one can easily imagine the drunken and sexual revelries going on outside it to celebrate what was in all but name the Saturnalia.

[end excerpt.
Read the full article at the WallStreetJournal.com.]

And so, friends and neighbors, I am inclined to think that we’ve moved yet again, from honoring Saturn, (or rebelling from him), to Christ, to… well, I think we should say a prayer in honor of our true Patron Saint, Adam Smith, whose holiday this is, in so many, many, many ways…

But whoever you pray to, and whatever you worship, a happy Christmas – a good, safe and warm holiday – and best wishes to all. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Liam

8 Comments

  1. From: Patricia Nell Warren

    http://www.bilerico.com/2007/12/another_pagan_tweak_on_christmas.php

    Fast forward to a moment early in Christian history, when church organizers were trying to decide how their dogmas would interface with the old calendars that everybody still lived by. They wanted Christianity to replace the old ways, but they also wanted to build on the old ways and appropriate the old symbols.

    No wonder they decided to have the “divine” Jesus born on December 25.

    In my opinion, they chose this moment in the sidereal year because north is the key direction for navigators, and Christianity was intended to be a “new direction.” The New Testament even mentions that a “star that appeared in the sky, and the Wise Men traveled towards the star until they found the divine child.” But this story may be more of a symbol than a historical fact.

  2. ALL Christian feast and festivals are based on older and already existing feasts. It is pretty well documented in Gore Vidal’s Julian The Apostate, which is more or less about that.

    Also the first part of this documentary is entirely dedicated to showing how the entire Christian religion and its symbology are based on Astrology and the Egyptian religion of Isis and Osiris.

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=5547481422995115331&q=zeitgeist&total=2272&start=0&num=10&so=0&type=search&plindex=0

    Just forward the first few minutes of the film which give the wrong impression about the rest and enjoy that section. It is an eye-opener.

  3. Yes, it is true that much of modern Christianity is based on old Astrology and the Egyptian religion of Isis and Osiris. That is why serious Chrisitians do not celebrate Christmas and Easter. In the Bible (Leviticus 23), God tells about his own holy days. “These are the feasts of the Lord,” he states — and lists his holy days. These days are celebrated with great joy by Christians.

    Linda

  4. Liam blog message

    Happy Holidays or happy Christmas whichever you prefer. My one is technically over already. i have been eating roast fowl, vegetables seeped in ports, dates and chestnuts for two days now. I have done at least 4 bottles of wine, and kilos of fruit glazed in brandy butter and brandy enough to make me start turning a light shade of green, Tomorrow I plan to spend the day watching the my all time fave 8 hour adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby on DVD tucked on the sofa with my dog and a strict diet of broth, green tea and fresh oranges only to see if i can detox from all the rich crap I have
    stuffed myslef with to comply with tradition and the social demands of these days, which really leave one feeling like a gross bloated hog.

    I could be roasted myslef for Christmas lunch tomorrow…

    I wish you all the best Liam.
    Warm regards,
    Manu.

  5. I enjoyed the article. However, Mr. Gordon says, “In the 1840s, Dickens wrote ‘A Christmas Carol,’ which does not even mention the religious holiday (the word church appears in the story just twice, in passing, the word Nativity never).” While technically true, Dickens does make a clear allusion to the religious aspect of the Holiday when he has nephew Fred say, “There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, . . . Christmas among the rest.

    But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

    And later in the story, Marley says to Scrooge, “”At this time of the rolling year . . . I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!” So, here is a clear reference to the Nativity if not an outright denomination of it. Having said that, the article was an informative history of how we arrived at where we are.

  6. A wonderful note, thank you David. I’ll have to pick up Dicken’s shortest book again. Thanks for the very nicely written and thought words above.

    Thanks Manu, too, for your good wishes, and Linda for your clarifications of Biblical i’s and t’s.

  7. JOHN STEELE GORDON

    Christmas famously “comes but once a year.” In fact, however, it comes twice. The Christmas of the Nativity, the manger and Christ child, the wise men and the star of Bethlehem, “Silent Night” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is one holiday. The Christmas of parties, Santa Claus, evergreens, presents, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Jingle Bells” is quite another.

    But because both celebrations fall on Dec. 25, the two are constantly confused. Religious Christians condemn taking “the Christ out of Christmas,” while First Amendment absolutists see a threat to the separation of church and state in every poinsettia on public property and school dramatization of “A Christmas Carol.”

    A little history can clear things up.

    The Christmas of parties and presents is far older than the Nativity. Most ancient cultures celebrated the winter solstice, when the sun reaches its lowest point and begins to climb once more in the sky. In ancient Rome, this festival was called the Saturnalia and ran from Dec. 17 to Dec. 24. During that week, no work was done, and the time was spent in parties, games, gift giving and decorating the houses with evergreens. (Sound familiar?) It was, needless to say, a very popular holiday.
    [Illo]

    In its earliest days, Christianity did not celebrate the Nativity at all. Only two of the four Gospels even mention it. Instead, the Church calendar was centered on Easter, still by far the most important day in the Christian year. The Last Supper was a Seder, celebrating Passover, which falls on the day of the full moon in the first month of spring in the Hebrew calendar. So in A.D. 325, the Council of Nicea decided that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first full moon of spring. That’s why Easter and its associated days, such as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, are “moveable feasts,” moving about the calendar at the whim of the moon.

    It is a mark of how late Christmas came to the Christian calendar that it is not a moveable feast, but a fixed one, determined by the solar calendar established by Julius Caesar and still in use today (although slightly tweaked in the 16th century).

    By the time of the Council of Nicea, the Christian Church was making converts by the thousands and, in hopes of still more converts, in 354 Pope Liberius decided to add the Nativity to the church calendar. He also decided to celebrate it on Dec. 25. It was, frankly, a marketing ploy with a little political savvy thrown in.

    History does not tell us exactly when in the year Christ was born,(snip)

    So Dec. 25 must have been chosen for other reasons. It is hard to escape the idea that by making Christmas fall immediately after the Saturnalia, the Pope invited converts to still enjoy the fun and games of the ancient holiday and just call it Christmas. Also, Dec. 25 was the day of the sun god, Sol Invictus, associated with the emperor. By using that date, the church tied itself to the imperial system.

    By the high Middle Ages, Christmas was a rowdy, bawdy time, often inside the church as well as outside it. In France, many parishes celebrated the Feast of the Ass, supposedly honoring the donkey that had brought Mary to Bethlehem. Donkeys were brought into the church and the mass ended with priests and parishioners alike making donkey noises. In the so-called Feast of Fools, the lower clergy would elect a “bishop of fools” to temporarily run the diocese and make fun of church ceremonial and discipline. With this sort of thing going on inside the church to celebrate the Nativity, one can easily imagine the drunken and sexual revelries going on outside it to celebrate what was in all but name the Saturnalia.

    With the Reformation, Protestants tried to rid the church of practices unknown in its earliest days and get back to Christian roots. Most Protestant sects abolished priestly celibacy (and often the priesthood itself), the cult of the Virgin Mary, relics, confession and . . . Christmas.

    In the English-speaking world, Christmas was abolished in Scotland in 1563 and in England after the Puritans took power in the 1640s. It returned with the Restoration in 1660, but the celebrations never regained their medieval and Elizabethan abandon.

    There was still no Christmas in Puritan New England, where Dec. 25 was just another working day. In the South, where the Church of England predominated, Christmas was celebrated as in England. In the middle colonies, matters were mixed. In polyglot New York, the Dutch Reformed Church did not celebrate Christmas. The Anglicans and Catholics did.

    It was New York and its early 19th century literary establishment that created the modern American form of the old Saturnalia. It was a much more family — and especially child — centered holiday than the community-wide celebrations of earlier times.

    St. Nicolas is the patron saint of New York (the first church built in the city was named for him), and Washington Irving wrote in his “Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York” how Sinterklaes, soon anglicized to Santa Claus, rode through the sky in a horse and wagon and went down chimneys to deliver presents to children.

    The writer George Pintard added the idea that only good children got presents, and a book dating to 1821 changed the horse and wagon to reindeer and sleigh. Clement Clarke Moore in 1823 made the number of reindeer eight and gave them their names. Moore’s famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” is entirely secular. It is about “visions of sugar plums” with nary a wise man or a Christ child in sight. In 1828, the American Ambassador Joel Roberts Poinsett, brought the poinsettia back from Mexico. It became associated with Christmas because that’s the time of year when it blooms.

    In the 1840s, Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol,” which does not even mention the religious holiday (the word church appears in the story just twice, in passing, the word Nativity never). Prince Albert introduced the German custom of the Christmas tree to the English-speaking world.

    In the 1860s, the great American cartoonist Thomas Nast set the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly, bearded fat man in a fur-trimmed cap. (The color red became standard only in the 20th century, thanks to Coca-Cola ads showing Santa Claus that way.)

    Merchants began to emphasize Christmas, decorating stores and pushing the idea of Christmas presents for reasons having nothing whatever to do with religion, except, perhaps, the worship of mammon.

    With the increased mobility provided by railroads and increasing immigration from Europe, people who celebrated Christmas began settling near those who did not. It was not long before the children of the latter began putting pressure on their parents to celebrate Christmas as well. “The O’Reilly kids down the street are getting presents, why aren’t we?!” is not an argument parents have much defense against.

    By the middle of the 19th century, most Protestant churches were, once again, celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday. The reason, again, had more to do with marketing than theology: They were afraid of losing congregants to other Christmas-celebrating denominations.

    In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law a bill making the secular Christmas a civil holiday because its celebration had become universal in this country. It is now celebrated in countries all over the world, including many where Christians are few, such as Japan.

    So for those worried about the First Amendment, there’s a very easy way to distinguish between the two Christmases. If it isn’t mentioned in the Gospels of Luke and Mark, then it is not part of the Christian holiday. Or we could just change the name of the secular holiday back to what it was 2000 years ago.

    Merry Saturnalia, everyone!

    Mr. Gordon is the author of “An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power” (HarperCollins, 2004).

    • After living in Japan for 20 years, I can attest to Japan’s selective adoption of Christmas. But thankfully it is devoid of Christ (except at the rare Xtian churches).

      The Japanese love Santa Claus (just the image, not the toy-bringing part) and illumination. They have even added their own custom to the day — the Christmas cake, which is basically just a roll cake with red and green trimming on the box and a coconut thing that says “Happy Christmas.”

      It is incorrect to call Dec. 25 a real “holiday” here. About the only people taking the day off are foreigners who take advantage of the Japanese fascination with foreign customs.

      From its beginnings as an extra commercial holiday just before the New Year’s shutdown (the real holiday here), it is now evolving into a “cosplay” holiday, complete with costumes like you’ve never seen before — try a masked Santa fighter suit.

      Now, thanks to all the cheap crap being made in China, tree sets complete with a string of lights and a few ornaments can be found in many stores. But even this is still treated as just a foreign novelty to cheer people up. The average Japanese is in “clean-up mode” at the end of December, so putting up decorations just to take them down is only extra work.

      Depending on who you ask, it’s also a lovers’ holiday season. Girls here are especially fond of these late-December romances. The guys are generally only interested in drinking and easy sex.

      It’s still an awfully amusing time of year here for foreigners, especially if you are willing to put on a Santa suit. Tee hee!

      Cheers! Jeff…

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