Have a holly, jolly Christmas. Give lottery tickets to your small children, drink lots of alcohol, buy more presents than you can afford, and, above all, remember the Christ Child. You, too, can have it all this Christmas. You are in the mainstream of Christmas traditions.
The celebration of Christmas has a murky history. I recently saw a website where it was claimed that the celebration started almost immediately after the birth of Jesus on December 25. People brought gifts to each other to emulate the gifts of the Wise Men. That approach seems to be based on wishful thinking by the writers who wanted to claim biblical inerrancy for their own imagination.
As far as we can tell, Christmas started to be celebrated on Dec. 25 several hundred years after the birth of Jesus when a Pope decided to Christianize the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. That holiday was celebrated for several days each year to mark the time when the days become longer. It was distinguished by family visiting, gambling, gift-giving, drunkenness, and various forms of ribald behavior. Changing the holiday focus from Saturn to Jesus did little to change the participants. Bad behavior at Christmas continued in Europe through much of the Protestant Revolution.
The followers of one Protestant leader, John Calvin, planned to do away with all of the trappings of Catholicism. That included banning religious holidays from the church, especially Christmas and Easter. They did not maintain power long on the Continent, but their spirit lived on. Their religious offspring, the Puritans, had a more drastic influence when they took power in England. They not only banned religious holidays—they made them illegal. There are records of churches being raided on Christmas Day, the worshipers arrested and fined. When the monarchy was restored, the nobility in England went back to their old “Saturnalia” behavior, while many of the poorer people tended to keep the puritan outlook.
This split carried over into the New World. The Puritan settlements in New England banned Christmas and other religious holidays. Here is an early law enacted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony setting a fine for celebrating religious holidays:
For preventing disorders arising in several places within this jurisdiction, by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the great dishonor of God and offence of others, it is therefore ordered by this Court and the authority thereof, that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon such accountants as aforesaid, every person so offending shall pay of every such offence five shillings, as a fine to the county.
On the other hand, the wealthy early planters in Virginia continued the policies of the wealthy nobility in England and celebrated Christmas with visiting, partying, gambling, and drinking.
Our modern secular, family approach to Christmas started in the early days of the United States. Stories by Washington Irving emphasized the Dutch Christmas heritage with Sinter Klaus bringing presents to good children. The family emphasis continued with the publication of the poem “The Night Before Christmas.”
Charles Dickens is often given credit for changing society’s outlook on Christmas by his short novel, “A Christmas Carol.” Dickens, who had been desperately poor as a child, became a major social reformer. Apparently he first planned to examine the hard life of the destitute Cratchit family at Christmas. This evolved into the reformation of Bob Cratchit’s employer, the miser Ebenezer Scrooge. Dickens brought in a sequence of spirits to show Scrooge that he had celebrated Christmas with joy in his youth but was failing to celebrate it now because of his stinginess and his myopic outlook on life, and that he was doomed if he did not change. The experience transformed Scrooge. He became a benefactor to all mankind, starting with the Cratchit family.
Dickens was a writer of power. He emphasized three important parts of Christmas: Aid to The Poor (the actions of the reformed Scrooge); Love of Family (the Christmas dinner of the loving, but poor Cratchit family); Joy (the celebrations by Fezziwig and Scrooge’s nephew). These are what we should remember from the story.
Most people don’t realize that “A Christmas Carol” is not religious except for the universal need to love and serve mankind. There is no Christian symbolism and no mention of the birth of Jesus. Dickens wanted people to reform their behavior. He wanted everyone to know that you often gain more from giving than from getting. You will not have as many things, but you will have a richer and more rewarding life.
James Shockley writes a monthly history column. He lives in Blacksburg.