Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Merry Happy Jolly Ho Ho Holly Christmas Day That Wasn’t Always So

To Christmas or not to Christmas…that is the question in some (well, a few) circles these days. However, the “few” circles seem to be growing in number each year.

Lucia-13_12_06Christmas is a celebration that most modern Americans grew up looking forward to every year. It is often a time for gifts, family, food, gifts, decorations, shopping, celebrating, more gifts... I love listening to Glenn Beck, being the unashamed freedom-celebrating conservative that I am. In a very recent show, he pointed out that Christmas became a civic holiday in the late 1800s. Glenn’s motivations are to de-materialize this day that has lost virtually all of it’s religious meaning for much of the general public, so he’s attempting to put faith and family back into the day. While I respect his noble motivations, here I have to stop to disagree with Glenn. Usually he’s very well researched, but this is a topic I had to consider further when he said that the day wasn’t widely celebrated (or at least it wasn’t made a national holiday) before the late 1800s because it was too sacred a day. I believe there are virtually always two sides to every story so I’m sure that may have been the reasoning for some Americans not celebrating the day, but there is a dark side to this day that was the reason that it had been previously outlawed by some of the foremost of our founding fathers.

Christmas is a “holiday” essentially created by the Roman Catholic church, it’s name deriving from “Christ-Mass.” Early medieval Catholicism essentially made-over pagan religious celebrations into a new “Christianized” holiday. It is not a Biblical holiday. While it has been “Christianized,” it is a day found nowhere in the Bible. I saw a church bulletin board the other day that quoted something along the lines of, “Holiday Means Holy-Day, Remember to Whom It Belongs.” This is a beautiful sentiment, but the application to Christmas is fallible. I’m going to jump right in and get both feet wet here. In the Bible, the word holy essentially means “set apart.” So in a way, it is true that Christmas is set apart, but it is set apart by man. There is absolutely no Biblical mandate made by God for people to celebrate Christmas. In the Bible, God sets apart several days that are to be celebrated, but Christmas is not among those.

Some of the earliest Americans knew this. Here comes the history lesson:

puritan-womanFollowing the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century, new religious sects sprang up in England based on the strict teachings of John Calvin and John Knox. Following the rise of Oliver Cromwell and his “roundheads” in 1642, Christmas festivities, considered a “heathen practice” were outlawed, including singing Christmas carols, nativity scenes and any other obvious attempts at celebration. The Puritans made a point of abolishing the calendar of Christian feasts and saints’ days, which included Christmas, Easter, Whitsunday, and other saints’ days and holy days.

Puritans arriving in Massachusetts during the 17th Century brought this same disdain for Christmas with them. While Thanksgiving was an acceptable holiday in New England, Christmas certainly was not. In 1620, Governor William Bradford forbid any of the Pilgrims to observe the holiday. Instead, he noted that they felled trees and worked on building houses. Business as usual.1

The outlawing of Christmas persisted through the 17th century. Boston was among those banning it’s celebration.2 New England did eventually have many people who celebrated Christmas, especially as more and more settlers began arriving from Europe through the 17th and 18th Centuries. This trend is apparent in 1686 by a repeal of a 1659 law that fined people five shillings for feasting or any other perceived merriment on December 25th. Despite people’s growing acceptance of Christmas, it wasn’t made a civic holiday in New England until 1856.

The current practice of Christmas gift-giving and merriment did not start until the late 1800’s. People usually worked on Christmas. Newspapers of the era are filled with disturbing accounts of what Christmas was really like in those days: widespread rioting and drunkenness, and in the Puritan mind, Christmas was associated with the “Lords of Misrule.”3

The Puritans were on to something. The original roots of Christmas go back much farther than the 19th century to early days of medieval pagan worship practices, many of which are still practiced today in the pagan Wiccan religion.

The modern version of Christmas is a mixture of many pagan traditions from early civilizations, especially that of the ancient Romans. In modern times, the day is associated with decorated trees and gaily lighted houses, get-togethers with family and friends, feasts and parties, and of course weeks or months of shopping for the perfect gifts. Among some Christians, the day is celebrated as marking the birth of Jesus Christ, and entails masses, hymns, and other religious observation. The Christmas of the Middle Ages combined a mixture of secular, pagan Druid customs with the evolving religious Christian traditions. The Christmas celebrations of medieval times included roaring fires, Yule logs, and boar's head on a platter. Many of our modern traditions originated from that time with holly and mistletoe and carolers going door to door. But what most Westerners recognize as Christmas has a very long history, one that originated in pre-Christian rites and rituals.

December 25th

The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, has been commemorated by ritualSymbolPagan_All probably since neolithic times. By the modern calendar, the date of the solstice falls around December 21st; ancient peoples, noticing the sun appeared not to move for three days before its re-ascent into the northern sky and the lengthening of days, celebrated the solstice — from the Latin meaning “sun stands still” — as a sort of rebirth of the sun. Many cultures recognized the event as a sort of birthday for their particular gods — the Egyptian sun god Horus, for example, was purported to have been born on December 25th. In fact, the ancient Romans, from the year 274, celebrated the festival of Sol Invictus, the “birthday of the unconquered sun,” on December 25. The Christian Church did not fix the date of Christmas at December 25th until the fourth century, and the celebration was not actually called Christmas until the ninth century. Prior to that, it was simply known as the Midwinter Feast, and celebrated as a combination of Saturnalia and the Norse Yule Festival.

Gifts, Feasting and Santa Claus

The ancient Romans are also responsible for most of the merrymaking associated with the modern version of Christmas. Saturnalia, a week-long festival celebrating the dedication of the temple of Saturn, featured feasting, drinking, slaves switching places with kings, and gift giving. The festival was immensely popular, and as Christianity overtook the Roman Empire, it added its own customs to the already existing pagan traditions to ease conversion. This blending of myths may also be responsible for the figure of Santa Claus, whose origins are believed to lie in the Norman Lord of Misrule, a red-robed character who oversaw the festivities of Saturnalia, mixed with the Christian St. Nicholas, patron saint of children.

Christmas Trees and Mistletoe

56343300CF008_Christmas_MisThe earliest recorded instance of a lit tree being erected to celebrate Christmas dates from 16th century Germany, in particular to a church in Strasbourg in 1539. But the veneration of evergreen trees as a symbol of fertility and rebirth dates back to pagan times. Likewise, the custom of hanging mistletoe is pagan in origin; the Druids considered it a sacred plant, and Vikings hung it on the doors of their houses as a welcome. Kissing under the mistletoe is thought to be associated with Saturnalia and with ancient Roman marriage rites.4

So it seems the Puritans and many other early Americans, in their desires to reform and worship the God of the Bible in an unadulterated manner, refrained from participating in Christmas for good reason, not because it was too sacred at day. Rather, they despised the day that was taken from pagan worship practices and “Christianized” to become a religiously observed holiday. It’s roots, however, are not so holy according to what the Bible regards as holy. It’s a day full of tradition and meaning for many, but to many others, the pagan rituals and origins of this celebration are too numerous too overlook.

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