Friday, 8 December 2017

The Philosophy and History of Christmas

When winter's shadowy fingers
First pursue you down the street
And your boots no longer lie
About the cold around your feet
Do you spare a thought for summer
Whose passage is complete
Whose memories lie in ruins
And whose ruins lie in heat
When winter comes howling in
When the wind is singing strangely
Blowing music through your head
And your rain splattered windows
When you gather around the Christmas tree or stuff goodies into a stocking, you're taking part in traditions that stretch back thousands of years — long before Christianity entered the mix.
Pagan, or non-Christian, traditions show up in this beloved winter holiday, a consequence of early church leaders melding Jesus' nativity celebration with pre-existing midwinter festivals. Since then, Christmas traditions have warped over time, arriving at their current state a little more than a century ago.Read on for some of the surprising origins of Christmas cheer, and find out why Christmas was once banned in New England.

1. Early Christians had a soft spot for pagans

It's a mistake to say that our modern Christmas traditions come directly from pre-Christian paganism, said Ronald Hutton, a historian at Bristol University in the United Kingdom. However, he said, you'd be equally wrong to believe that Christmas is a modern phenomenon. As Christians spread their religion into Europe in the first centuries A.D., they ran into people living by a variety of local and regional religious creeds.
Christian missionaries lumped all of these people together under the umbrella term "pagan," said Philip Shaw, who researches early Germanic languages and Old English at Leicester University in the U.K. The term is related to the Latin word meaning "field," Shaw told LiveScience. The lingual link makes sense, he said, because early European Christianity was an urban phenomenon, while paganism persisted longer in rustic areas.
Early Christians wanted to convert pagans, Shaw said, but they were also fascinated by their traditions.
"Christians of that period are quite interested in paganism," he said. "It's obviously something they think is a bad thing, but it's also something they think is worth remembering. It's what their ancestors did." [In Photos: Early Christian Rome]
Perhaps that's why pagan traditions remained even as Christianity took hold. The Christmas tree is a 17th-century German invention, University of Bristol's Hutton told LiveScience, but it clearly derives from the pagan practice of bringing greenery indoors to decorate in midwinter. The modern Santa Claus is a direct descendent of England's Father Christmas, who was not originally a gift-giver. However, Father Christmas and his other European variations are modern incarnations of old pagan ideas about spirits who traveled the sky in midwinter, Hutton said.

2. We all want that warm Christmas glow

But why this fixation on partying in midwinter, anyway? According to historians, it's a natural time for a feast. In an agricultural society, the harvest work is done for the year, and there's nothing left to be done in the fields.
"It's a time when you have some time to devote to your religious life," said Shaw. "But also it's a period when, frankly, everyone needs cheering up."
The dark days that culminate with the shortest day of the year ­— the winter solstice — could be lightened with feasts and decorations, Hutton said.
"If you happen to live in a region in which midwinter brings striking darkness and cold and hunger, then the urge to have a celebration at the very heart of it to avoid going mad or falling into deep depression is very, very strong," he said.
Stephen Nissenbaum, author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist "The Battle for Christmas" (Vintage, 1997), agreed.
"Even now when solstice means not all that much because you can get rid of the darkness with the flick of an electric light switch, even now, it's a very powerful season," he told LIveScience.

3. The Church was slow to embrace Christmas
Despite the spread of Christianity, midwinter festivals did not become Christmas for hundreds of years. The Bible gives no reference to when Jesus was born, which wasn't a problem for early Christians, Nissenbaum said.
"It never occurred to them that they needed to celebrate his birthday," he said.
With no Biblical directive to do so and no mention in the Gospels of the correct date, it wasn't until the fourth century that church leaders in Rome embraced the holiday. At this time, Nissenbaum said, many people had turned to a belief the Church found heretical: That Jesus had never existed as a man, but as a sort of spiritual entity.
"If you want to show that Jesus was a real human being just like every other human being, not just somebody who appeared like a hologram, then what better way to think of him being born in a normal, humble human way than to celebrate his birth?" Nissenbaum said. [Religious Mysteries: 8 Alleged Relics of Jesus]
Midwinter festivals, with their pagan roots, were already widely celebrated, Nissenbaum said. And the date had a pleasing philosophical fit with festivals celebrating the lengthening days after the winter solstice (which fell on Dec. 21 this year). "O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born … Christ should be born," one Cyprian text read.

4. The Puritans hated the holiday
But if the Catholic Church gradually came to embrace Christmas, the Protestant Reformation gave the holiday a good knock on the chin. In the 16th century, Christmas became a casualty of this church schism, with reformist-minded Protestants considering it little better than paganism, Nissenbaum said. This likely had something to do with the "raucous, rowdy and sometimes bawdy fashion" in which Christmas was celebrated, he added.
In England under Oliver Cromwell, Christmas and other saints' days were banned, and in New England it was illegal to celebrate Christmas for about 25 years in the 1600s, Nissenbaum said. Forget people saying, "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," he said.
"If you want to look at a real 'War on Christmas,' you've got to look at the Puritans," he said. "They banned it!"

5. Gifts are a new (and surprisingly controversial) tradition
While gift-giving may seem inextricably tied to Christmas, it used to be that people looked forward to opening presents on New Year's Day.
"They were a blessing for people to make them feel good as the year ends," Hutton said. It wasn't until the Victorian era of the 1800s that gift-giving shifted to Christmas. According to the Royal Collection, Queen Victoria's children got Christmas Eve gifts in 1850, including a sword and armor. In 1841, Victoria gave her husband, Prince Albert, a miniature portrait of her as a 7-year-old; in 1859, she gave him a book of poetry by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
All of this gift-giving, along with the secular embrace of Christmas, now has some religious groups steamed, Nissenbaum said. The consumerism of Christmas shopping seems, to some, to contradict the religious goal of celebrating Jesus Christ's birth. In some ways, Nissenbaum said, excessive spending is the modern equivalent of the revelry and drunkenness that made the Puritans frown.
"There's always been a push and pull, and it's taken different forms," he said. "It might have been alcohol then, and now it's these glittering toys."


Christmas is both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. For two millennia, people around the world have been observing it with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular in nature. Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a spiritual leader whose teachings form the basis of their religion. Popular customs include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends and, of course, waiting for Santa Claus to arrive. December 25–Christmas Day–has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1870.

The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year.
The end of December was a perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking.
In Germany, people honored the pagan god Oden during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Oden, as they believed he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people, and then decide who would prosper or perish. Because of his presence, many people chose to stay inside.
In Rome, where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north, Saturnalia—a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture—was celebrated. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun.
Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year.
In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Unfortunately, the Bible does not mention date for his birth (a fact Puritans later pointed out in order to deny the legitimacy of the celebration). Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring (why would shepherds be herding in the middle of winter?), Pope Julius I chose December 25. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. First called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the sixth century. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia. Today, in the Greek and Russian orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the 25th, which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. This is the day it is believed that the three wise men finally found Jesus in the manger.
By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced, but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the “lord of misrule” and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined “debt” to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens.
In the early 17th century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday.
The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.
After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. Americans re-invented Christmas, and changed it from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia. But what about the 1800s peaked American interest in the holiday?
The early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season. In 1828, the New York city council instituted the city’s first police force in response to a Christmas riot. This catalyzed certain members of the upper classes to begin to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America.
In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Irving’s fictitious celebrants enjoyed “ancient customs,” including the crowning of a Lord of Misrule. Irving’s book, however, was not based on any holiday celebration he had attended – in fact, many historians say that Irving’s account actually “invented” tradition by implying that it described the true customs of the season.
Also around this time, English author Charles Dickens created the classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. The story’s message-the importance of charity and good will towards all humankind-struck a powerful chord in the United States and England and showed members of Victorian society the benefits of celebrating the holiday.
The family was also becoming less disciplined and more sensitive to the emotional needs of children during the early 1800s. Christmas provided families with a day when they could lavish attention-and gifts-on their children without appearing to “spoil” them.
As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday, old customs were unearthed. People looked toward recent immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches to see how the day should be celebrated. In the next 100 years, Americans built a Christmas tradition all their own that included pieces of many other customs, including decorating trees, sending holiday cards, and gift-giving.
Although most families quickly bought into the idea that they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries, Americans had really re-invented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation.
  • Each year, 30-35 million real Christmas trees are sold in the United States alone. There are 21,000 Christmas tree growers in the United States, and trees usually grow for about 15 years before they are sold.
  • Today, in the Greek and Russian orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the 25th, which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. This is the day it is believed that the three wise men finally found Jesus in the manger.
  • In the Middle Ages, Christmas celebrations were rowdy and raucous—a lot like today’s Mardi Gras parties.
  • From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston, and law-breakers were fined five shillings.
  • Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the United States on June 26, 1870.
  • The first eggnog made in the United States was consumed in Captain John Smith’s 1607 Jamestown settlement.
  • Poinsettia plants are named after Joel R. Poinsett, an American minister to Mexico, who brought the red-and-green plant from Mexico to America in 1828.
  • The Salvation Army has been sending Santa Claus-clad donation collectors into the streets since the 1890s.
  • Rudolph, “the most famous reindeer of all,” was the product of Robert L. May’s imagination in 1939. The copywriter wrote a poem about the reindeer to help lure customers into the Montgomery Ward department store.
  • Construction workers started the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition in 1931.

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