Another brief essay of mine about Christmas. A shorter version of this was published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan in 2007. Enjoy…
U.S. Americans of my generation know the winter holidays as “Christmas.” The recent controversy in Fort Collins over downtown decorations inspired me to look up a little on the history of Christmas.
“Midwinter” has, of course, been around ever since the Earth settled into its current orbit, and has been celebrated in some form by every people on earth outside the tropics since there have been people.
During the height of the Roman empire, an entire month, starting a week before winter solstice, was celebrated wildly with much food and drink as the Saturnalia – a festival honoring Saturn as a God of Agriculture. Like our modern Mardi Gras, the social order was temporarily inverted, leaders were publicly mocked, and social restraint was abandoned. Two special celebrations within the larger Saturnalia were the Juvenalia, a feast celebrated near solstice honoring the children of Rome, and the birthday of Mithras, a Persian sun deity, which was generally celebrated by the upper classes on the 25th of December.
The early Christian church celebrated only Easter, and the birth of Jesus was not considered a holy day until the 300’s, when Pope Julius I instituted the Feast of the Nativity – “coincidentally” placing it on top of the birthday of Mithras in order to assimilate the Pagan celebration under the Catholic umbrella. The idea of a Christ Mass celebrating the birth of Jesus, the child-god, reached Egypt in the early 400’s, England by the end of the 500’s, and as far as Scandinavia by the end of the 700’s. Throughout the European Middle Ages, Christmas was generally celebrated in the Roman style of the Saturnalia, with much drinking, feasting, and wild partying.
The Puritans rejected Christmas as decadent, and Oliver Cromwell cancelled Christmas entirely in England through his brief rule in the mid-1600’s. In Boston, Christmas was outlawed from 1659 to 1681, with a fine imposed on anyone exhibiting “Christmas spirit.” Then, after the American Revolution, English customs in general fell out of favor and Christmas was abandoned as an American holiday of any sort.
The modern U.S. American Christmas began in the class conflicts in the early 1800’s between the wealthy and the poor. The poor would often riot around midwinter in the larger cities, and the first police force in New York City was created in 1828 to deal with the recurring Christmas riots. In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving published a book extolling the peaceful coexistence of the upper and lower classes in England in their celebration of “ancient Christmas traditions,” many of which he was accused of simply inventing. This same theme was echoed by his English contemporary, Charles Dickens, in his famous story, A Christmas Carol. The images were powerful, if fictional, and for the first time Christmas began to enter the American imagination. Christmas became an official federal holiday in 1870, only 140 years ago. The many “ancient customs” we now consider an essential and eternal part of Christmas have been drawn from many sources: the Dutch Sinter Klaas, the German custom of decorating trees, the Norse Yule Log, the Swedish candlelight traditions of Saint Lucia’s Day, and dozens of other customs and traditions from around the world — to say nothing of the fanciful inventions of Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, Clement Moore (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), and Robert May (the Rudolph story, written for Montgomery Ward to boost their holiday sales).
To say that there has ever been anything particularly religious about Christmas in the United States is … well, absurd.
And yet, there is something truly and deeply magical about this time of year, the Longest Night, the season of cold and silence. Where I see this magic most clearly is, oddly enough, in the harmonious and peaceful blending of all these diverse customs of our “traditional Christmas.” Seeing a Christmas Tree next to a Bethlehem manger scene, a Menorah in a window while people sing traditional English carols outside, egg nog and midnight mass – none of these things belongs with any other, and yet somehow, they all work together, beautifully, gracefully, effortlessly. It moves us beyond tolerance, into true acceptance.
And so we come together this midwinter season to celebrate the Longest Night by whatever name moves us, in the spirit of acceptance and joy that graces us so effortlessly in this long darkness.