What is the deal with Christmas? When did it become the powerhouse of holidays? How did Santa Claus come into the picture? Who was responsible for deciding December 25th was the day when no one really knew the date of the Savior’s birth? Where did Christmas originate? I asked myself these very questions this winter and decided to seek out some answers. In short, why do we celebrate Christmas the way we do?
My research led me to a book by Stephen Nissenbaum titled “The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday.” It reads like an anthropological study but there are some nuggets that I found helpful. Hopefully, I can do it justice to pass along the gist of it here. Of course, to get the total picture you can always read the book yourself to facts-check this post.
WHO: You probably have heard that Christmas was started as an alternative to a pagan holiday. That’s the story I heard. The date is completely arbitrary so why was December 25th – or the official start of winter for the northern hemisphere – decided upon. While the book focuses on Christmas in America, it did mention remnants of early celebrations following along with ‘misrule.’ So I looked up misrule in Wikipedia and this is what it linked to. Saturnalia , an ancient Roman festival, was celebrated in honor of Saturn from December 17 through December 23. The secular festivities included a carnival atmosphere with continual partying and a reversal of social norms. Gag gifts were shared and gambling was permitted. In the 4th century, perhaps to create a Christian alternative to the revelry, Pope Julius I declared December 25th as Jesus Christ’s birthday. But that is just speculation because the exact reason this date was chosen for Christ’s mass is unknown. The book mentions the early winter date occurred after the harvest but before the hard freeze. In other words, December was downtime.
WHAT: The day was declared but there was no tradition associated with the particular holiday. So, the day was celebrated by the only tradition the people knew. The festivities from Saturnalia and other winter celebrations morphed into the festivities for Christmas. The Lord of Misrule replaced the Roman King of Saturnalia but the function was parallel. Basically, Christmas became a loud, secular celebration filled with role reversal and hard partying. Alcohol consumption was a must. The festivities for the holiday were so rambunctious that the Puritans in early America actually banned the holiday. Since the actual date of the Savior’s birth was unknown and the partying so disorderly they attempted to snuff out the holiday altogether. But people like a good party so it was never really stopped completely.
WHEN: It wasn’t until the early 19th century that a shift began to occur. A couple of things happened to help the celebration become more familiar to our own celebration.
WHERE: There are a few myths and legends pulled from a different couple locations. For instance, the Christmas tree is attributed to Germany. But when talking about Santa Claus in the way we know Santa today his myth was born in… New York.
HOW: Closely related to when and where is how Santa came to be part of the picture. Partly in an attempt to end the rowdiness of the holiday, Santa was loosely borrowed from an Amsterdam tradition based on Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas. A well-to-do New Yorker wrote a little poem in 1823. The poem titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore introduced the modern image of Santa Claus. Nowadays, we refer to the poem simply as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” or “The Night Before Christmas.” His poem included subtle word imagery about Santa Claus and introduced a new way to celebrate. The misrule festivities of Christmas up until then included the rich waiting on the poor or servants. The tradition usually occurred late in the night when a group of young men would arrive at a house and demand entry where they would sing song. The lyrics involved some kind of light threat if they didn’t receive some libation. Among other things, the poem describes the plebeian appearance of Santa leaving gifts. In other words, the rich were tired of the role reversal of Christmas because the tradition had become exaggerated until it became more obnoxious than enjoyable. Another thing that happened in the 19th century was the view of children changed. Instead of being property on the same level as servants they were viewed as potential heirs that could be spoiled. One way to indulge a child was to buy a gift. Marketers picked up on that immediately with Santa Claus. Not only did the Santa myth help navigate the celebration to the home with family and close friends but it also brought in the wave of commercialism. There has never been a time when commercialism wasn’t a part of Christmas in the way we know the holiday now. But I won’t begrudge Santa too much since he also helped the focus of the holiday shift and become a more subdued holiday (compared to the drunken revelry of misrule).
WHY: Christmas is one of those traditions that feel like it has always been a tradition but it really hasn’t been. Snippets of past myths and legends were combined to make one celebration that we recognize today. The modern view of the holiday has only been around for about 200 years. Sorry to disappoint but Santa is not a tale as old as time.
Let’s give Santa some props though. Sure, he is responsible for commercializing Christmas. Money flies at Christmas that normally would be put to other use. But, I would argue, he helped the focus illuminate the name bearer of the day. By shifting the celebration from revelry to family it allowed room for Christ’s mass. While I worship the Savior every day I now have a new appreciation for this day and will look at the associated traditions with fresh eyes.