Copyright 2001, Michael McCann with The Business Cafe. All Rights Reserved.
All comments should be directed to Michael McCann at
Christmas is the most important holiday in the American year. Although it is a Christian festival day – the very term "Christmas" simply meaning "Christ's mass" – it has become over the years as secular a festival as any other. It is perhaps inevitable that this should have happened. Christmas falls on the darkest time of the year; on December 22nd the sun reaches its lowest point in the Northern hemisphere. From this time on, it slowly begins its ascent toward the Spring solstice of March. Ancient peoples, more closely attuned to the almost imperceptible changes of the seasons, celebrated the return of heavenly light in the month of December. The Hebrews, too, recognized the movement of the sun in relation to the earth in their Festival of Lights or Hanukkah. With the spread of Christianity throughout the Western world, this most natural of celebrations assumed a different form. The birth of Jesus was ascribed on December 25th. Whether this date is, indeed, the correct one will always remain an historical mystery, but it is surely an appropriate time for the coming of the Messiah. The star of Bethlehem shone upon the earth with a special brilliance, a symbol of the retreat of winter darkness and a beacon to light the way to a rebirth of the spirit.
For the first 300 years after the crucifixion of Christ, Christians endured imprisonment and death at the hands of the Roman Empire, while the Egyptian goddess Isis, the Greek goddess Demeter and the Persian god Mithra were worshipped freely.
When Constantine came to power in 306 AD, the prevailing religion was Mithraism, but Constantine gradually came to be converted to Christianity. As a result, Christianity became the state religion and public funds were used to build churches. It was Constantine who commissioned the building of the Church of the Nativity on a spot in Bethlehem assumed to be the exact birthplace of Christ. By the end of the fourth century, the old forms of worship had been banned, and Christianity began spreading across the land.
While there is one record of Christmas being celebrated in Antioch (Turkey) on December 25 in the middle of the second century, there is no record of its being observed on that date in Rome until the year 336 AD. In 350 AD Pope Julius I declared December 25 the official date and in 529 AD Emperor Justinian declared Christmas a civic holiday. Further legislation by the Council of Tours in 567 AD officially made Advent a period of fasting and preparation; the time from Christmas to Epiphany (the twelve days of Christmas) was also declared part of the festive season.
To some the December date may seem completely arbitrary, but in fact it was a calculated choice that reflected the importance of winter solstice festivals for the cultures of pre-Christian Europe and Asia. To abolish these festivals in favor of strictly Christian forms of celebration would have been extremely unpopular. Though many early Christian leaders such as Gregory of Nazainzus spoke out against combining pagan and Christian ways, it became clear early on that rather than trying to beat the pagans, Christians would be wiser to join them in their own game – to incorporate their most deep-rooted traditions into Christian worship and celebration.
Ancient peoples believed that the days grew shorter in December because the sun was leaving them, perhaps dying. Festivals held right before December 21, the winter solstice, featured rituals designed to appease the sun and get it to return. After the solstice, the shortest day of the year, the days got longer again, and grand celebrations were held in honor of the sun's return. Along with the idea of the physical presence of the sun were underlying themes of harvest, rebirth and light.
Although the basic conception of the solstice festival was common to all lands, each area had its unique variations. In the Zagmuk of Mesopotamia, a convict was sacrificed in atonement for the people's sins. In a custom that may have been an ancestor of the Yule log tradition, wooden representations of their god Marduk's enemies were burned in a great fire.
Persia and Babylonia had Sacaea, an event in which slaves and their owners engaged in a role reversal. Sacaea also featured a tradition of liberation and execution involving a pair of criminals. As in the story of Jesus and Barabbas, with which the ritual shares striking parallels, two convicts were chosen; one went free while the other was mocked as a king and put to death, again as penance for the sins of the masses.
The tradition that left its mark most indelibly on Christmas is the Roman Saturnalia. The Saturnalia was observed from December 17-24, and was a nominal celebration of a number of different events, among them Saturn's triumph over Jupiter. According to belief, Saturn's reign had heralded the Golden Age in Rome. Although the god later lost to Jupiter, during the Saturnalia he was believed to return, allowing Rome to relive the Golden Age for a brief time. It is not surprising that the Romans, who associated Saturn closely with the sun, would celebrate this festival near the solstice.
During the festivities, no one worked except those whose business it was to provide food, drink or entertainment. Masters and slaves became equals, and there was much feasting, dancing, gambling and general revelry. Candles were used as decoration to scare away the darkness and celebrate the sun and light. Another recognizable ritual was the giving of gifts, which was done in honor of the goddess of vegetation, Strenia. The people felt that in time of darkness and winter it was important to honor someone who had a hand in the harvest. At first, produce and baked goods were exchanged, but as time went on, inedible gifts became fashionable.
The Saturnalia was followed by the calends of January (the calends marked the first day of the month). Observed on January 1-3, this period meant still more parties.
It's not hard to understand the Christian officials' disapproval of these festivals and their reluctance to allow them either to continue by themselves, or to be incorporated as part of Christianity. After years of mostly futile attempts to abolish these pagan festivals and rituals, however, the church realized it would be better served by allowing them – revised so that their focus was now to honor Christ. Both church and popular interests were thus satisfied: The people got to keep their time of fun, while the church ensured that the birth of Christ would be celebrated with all due honor and festivity. In this way, many parts of the old festivals remained, while others were reformed to honor Christ's birth. Some of the retained elements that have remained popular to this day are greenery, candles, singing, tree decorating, Yule logs, and feasting.
But why December 25? Why not December 21 or 22, the actual time of the solstice? The use of this date was a remnant of the Mithraic religion, a major religion of the Roman era with close similarities to Christianity. Mithra, the god of light and wisdom, was said to have been born from a rock on December 25. Mithra, symbolizing the sun, was naturally a big part of solstice festivals, and believers celebrated his birth as a major holiday. In the third century (that is, in the century before Constantine's ascension), Emperor Aurelian declared December 25 Dies Invicti Solis (the Day of the Invisible Sun).
Although Constantine converted to Christianity, remnants of his old religion stayed around. For many, incorporating Mithraic or solstice rites into the celebration of Christmas was easy to justify: Christ represents life, triumph over death and darkness, and restored hope and light; rather than celebrating the sun as before, people would be celebrating the Son of God. Simply put, the birth of Christ replaced the birth of the sun as a cause for celebration.
The so-called "barbarian invasions" of the Roman Empire that began in the fifth century brought the Nordic and Germanic peoples in direct contact with Christianity, and thus with Christmas. In northern and western Europe, the Germanic and Celtic peoples had their own solstice rituals, which were later incorporated into Christmas. The December Julmond festival (Jul later became Yule) was a celebration of harvest and rebirth, with wheat representing life triumphing over death. Anything made of wheat, such as bread or liquor, was consumed heartily, and also given as gifts. Evergreens were used as a symbol of life, and what we would call the Yule log was lit in this time of darkness to symbolize the eventual triumph of light over darkness. The festive meal was boar's head. These traditions have been presented in centuries-old carols, including wassail songs, holly carols, and boar's head carols still widely sung today.
Christianity gradually made its way across Europe, bringing Christmas with it. It came to England via St. Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, who supposedly baptized more than ten thousand English on December 25, 598 AD.
Acting under the direction of Pope Gregory I, Augustine was also instrumental in bringing the celebration of Christmas to that area. At the end of the sixth century the pope instructed Augustine to make the midwinter Yule festival over into Christmas observances, emphasizing the importance of condoning any customs from the festival that could be found to contain Christian significance. It was a well-tested strategy, and it worked. (There are some who believe, however, that King Arthur had the first English Christmas in 521 AD, with his Knights of the Round Table, without the input of either Augustine or Gregory.)
Christmas came to Germany in 813 AD, via the Synod of Mainz, and was brought to Norway in the mid-900s by King Hakon the Good. By the end of the ninth century, Christmas was observed all over Europe with trees, lights, gifts and feasts. The items that had held significance for the old religions were either tossed aside or altered to fit within a Christian context.
Today Roman Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas on December 25, but not by most European churches, which continue to combine Epiphany and nativity celebrations on January 6.
Over the centuries the holiday was reformed more and more to contain fewer of the old "pagan" elements. In ninth-century England, Alfred the Great declared that the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany be reserved for seasonal festivities, thus formalizing observation of the twelve days of Christmas in England. Alfred was serious about celebrating: As part of his declaration, he made working during this period illegal.
Alfred followed his own rules, even at great cost: In 878 AD he refused to go to war during these twelve days. His failure to do so is said to have caused England to lose the Battle of Chippenham to the Danes.
In 1533 AD Henry VIII made himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England, taking on himself the power of regulating religious holidays, including Christmas. He then proceeded to rival Henry III in Yuletide extravagance.
Under his rule Christmas indeed became a very big deal, both socially and ecclesiastically, and Christmas celebrations were filled with dancing, plays, general carousing and food. The Stuarts carried on this tradition by his daughter, Elizabeth I, and, upon the accession of James I in 1603.
It is not surprising that some members of the clergy objected to the way in which Christ's birth was being commemorated. Aside from the gluttony and games, the worried about observing Jesus' birth as if he were a person rather than the Incarnate God. Celebrations of the Nativity should be more spiritual, they argued, or perhaps abolished outright.
The more Christmas became established in the customs and hearts of the people, the more worried the clergy became. Old worries about the pagan elements of the celebration began to surface again, and some church officials questioned the prudence of having allowed them to continue in the first place. Should they put a halt to all this before things went too far?
With the Protestant Reformation, these objections gained the backing of an organized power. Beginning in 1517 AD with the posting of Luther's 95 theses, the Reformation attacked religious feasts and Saint's Days, among other things, as corrupt practices. Christmas was outlawed in Scotland in 1583.
The Protestants and Puritans of England also condemned the gluttony; drinking and partying associated with Christmas celebrations and argued for all pagan customs to be done away with. Most Protestants observed Christmas as a day of quiet reflection; the Puritans, however, did not observe it at all. Strict interpreters of the Scriptures, the Puritans pointed to the commandment to devote six days for work and one to rest. Unless Christmas happened to fall on the Sabbath, it was considered a workday.
By the middle of the 17th century, the holiday was under fire. The feelings of previously small pockets of objectors began to have mass impact, as the political situation in England became increasingly unstable. From 1642 to 1649 AD the country was engaged in a civil war as a result of the power struggle between the Stuart Kings and Parliament; over this time England entered its Commonwealth period and was ruled by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans. Christmas's enemies began taking the first steps toward defeating the holiday: The government issued official policies outlawing all religious festivals.
Christmas was legitimized again when the monarchy, led by Charles II, returned to power in 1660 AD. The holiday could be observed freely again.
With the good will of the new leaders, and with the lifting of the formal bans instituted under the Puritans, Christmas seemed to be positioned for a comeback of titanic proportions in England. But it was not to be.
The holiday was, at the outset of the Restoration, a shadow of what it had been. The pagan excesses and riotous elements were not the only things lost from the Puritan purge; the Christmas spirit seemed to have simply left many hearts and minds.
Indeed, although the Puritans had been deposed, much of their philosophy still carried a lot of weight, and many carried on as if they were still in power. Christmas may have been legal, but it was still opposed by some powerful members of the clergy. This left a good many parishioners in a bind, and kept the holiday from making much of a public recovery from the latter part of the seventeenth century onward. The middle of the 18th century brought still more obstacles.
Surprising as it may seem, as the years passed and the era of the Puritan rule became a more and more distant memory, the outlook for Christmas actually got worse, thanks to continuing resistance from some members of the clergy and a changing social climate. By the time the Industrial Revolution had begun, all thoughts had seemingly turned toward work; everything took a back seat to the quest for money and progress. In this fast-paced atmosphere, it appeared, there was simply no room for holidays.
At the end of the day, common people didn't have much to celebrate with, and they didn't have much time, either. England had entered into the era of child labor, miserable working conditions and endless workweeks. Not that things were all bad: some benevolent employers actually gave their workers half the day off for Christmas.
Throughout this period, however, there were small, quiet groups of people who kept the holiday alive in their hearts and homes. Mass enjoyment of the holiday would not take place again until the Victorian Era.
While public celebration of Christmas faced both religious objections and adverse social conditions in England, the German people were enjoying a wonderful and expansive Christmas tradition that had been building up over the centuries. It is very likely that the American love affair with Christmas that began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so influential in the way the whole world now views the holiday, would have never occurred if it had not been for the enthusiastic influence of Christmas-loving German immigrants.
The Germans have long espoused the idea of keeping the spirit of Christmas alive inside – in one's heart, mind and spirit – and turning that feeling outward in mass celebration. The German Christmas is a Christmas of trees, gingerbread houses, cookies, feasts and carols; most of all, it is the Christmas of childhood wonder and joy.
The Christmas season in Germany is about the longest anywhere: a month and a half. Starting with St. Andrew's Night on November 30, the country throws itself into a festive abandon that doesn't wind down until January 13, the Octave of Epiphany. Between those days, 16 holidays are observed, and life is filled with both strict devotion to the Christ Child and joyous merriment. The cities are brimming with Christkindlmarkts (Christ Child Markets), fairs, parades and carolers. The smell of gingerbread and other delicious treats is in the air, and Christmas trees are everywhere. Other German contributions to the world's celebration of Christmas include the timeless carols "O Tannenbaum" ("Oh, Christmas Tree") and "Silent Night."
The German people had an enormous part to play in shaping Christmas into the form we know and love today. One of the beneficiaries of the German love of Christmas was Victorian England. Victoria assumed the throne in 1837 at the age of eighteen; three years later she married Prince Albert who became Prince Consort. Prince Albert, being of German descent, brought with him to England many of the wonderful Christmas traditions of his homeland. Christmas soon became a special occasion for the Royal Family; their celebration of it emphasized the importance of family closeness and an appreciation of children, and revived the idea of the holiday meal and holiday decorations. In 1841 Prince Albert introduced the first Christmas tree to Windsor Castle; he was largely responsible for the later popularity of Christmas trees in England. Since Victoria and her family held an astonishing popularity with the British, much of what they did was widely emulated. Newspapers and magazines such as The Illustrated London News provided a ready audience with chronicles of the royals' activities. Anything seen in the castle was soon copied in homes throughout the country, providing the English Christmas with a much-needed boost.
Gradually, over the course of Victoria's reign, the tide turned. Christmas once more had an important place in English life.
The Victorian Christmas was quaint and warm, highlighted by family togetherness. Christmas became more than a party. It commanded a special spirit, full of kindness and charity. More prevalent than the excesses of the past was the idea of giving, and of concern for others, particularly those less fortunate. As Charles Dickens said, Christmas was "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."
Dickens himself had a large role in reviving the Christmas spirit in his countrymen. With the publication of A Christmas Carol in 1843, people were reminded of what the holiday truly meant, and all that it could be and bring to their lives.
After all that caroling and good cheer, people are bound to be hungry. The Victorian Christmas menu included the classic turkey, goose, or roast beef, mince pie, Yorkshire and plum pudding, wassail and eggnog. I better stop here – this is making me hungry.
The custom of giving gifts on Christmas Day did not come about until the last few decades of the century; before that, England adhered to the old Roman tradition of waiting until New Year's Day. When Christmas eventually became the day for gifts, it was England's turn to borrow from America, whose Santa Claus became the model for the English Father Christmas.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Christmas was fully reestablished
as a holiday, steeped again in tradition and spirit. The Victorians
had helped to mold a Christmas tradition that would forever alter
the way Christmas was celebrated in England and America.
All comments should be directed to Michael McCann at