On the eve of Christmas, and there is likely a flurry of activity in your home, wrapping gifts, preparing food, hanging up decorations, maybe even airing out the guest bedroom for family coming in from out-of-town. Many who do not usually go to church of a Sunday will set aside time to attend a Christmas Eve service, replete with candlelight, Christmas choirs, perhaps a special pageant or musical presentation.
Familiar gospel passages will be read from Luke, and from Matthew, and familiar hymns will be sung, remembering the little town of Bethlehem, the babe asleep in his stall, the angels singing hallelujah, and three oriental kings traveling afar.
Most houses will be bedecked with twinkling lights, reminiscent of the star that shone over Bethlehem, and most homes will be filled with aromatic scents and golden decorations, reminiscent of the magi’s gifts.
Christmas is indeed a Very Big Deal, even for those who do not celebrate Christ’s birth.
But how did it get to be Christendom’s most celebrated holiday?
A Nineteenth Century Phenomenon
The popularity of Christmas was spurred on in 1820 by Washington Irving’s book “The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall”
Then, a week before the Christmas of 1834, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol—in which he wrote that Scrooge required Cratchit to work, and that the US Congress met on Christmas Day! A Christmas Carol was such a huge success that neither the churches nor the governments could ignore the importance, and popularity, of Christmas celebrations.
- In 1836, Alabama became the first state in the US to declare Christmas a legal holiday.
- In 1837, T.H. Hervey’s The Book of Christmas also became a best seller.
- In 1860, American illustrator Thomas Nast borrowed from the European stories about Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, to create Father Christmas, the character we now know as Santa Claus.
- In 1907, Oklahoma became the last US state to declare Christmas a legal holiday.
From that time forward, year by year, countries all over the world began to recognize Christmas as the day for celebrating the birth of Jesus.
The Second Sunday of Advent celebrates Peace, and the Third Sunday of Advent celebrates Joy, but proclaiming “Peace and Joy” over the Christmas season very probably finds some of its original inspiration in an ancient, preChristian practice. During Saturnalia, enemies meeting under a mistletoe had to call truce until the following day, due to what they perceived as mistletoe’s magical powers.
Twelve Days of Peace
In Finland and Sweden an old tradition prevails, where the twelve days of Christmas are declared to be time of civil peace by law. It used to be that a person committing crimes during this time would be liable to stiffer sentences than normal.
During the Middle Ages, many churches were built in honor of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children. Wearing his red and white bishop’s robes, he would ride on a donkey to deliver gifts to children.
However, the first Christmas card, which went on sale in 1843, did not feature an image of Santa Claus. It was not until 1860 that illustrator and political cartoonist Thomas Nast introduced Santa Claus in the manner we now know of him today—a jolly, round, white-bearded grandpa in a bright red suit cuffed with white fur.
Over the years, I have regularly heard the complaint that advertisers have gone too far in their shortening of Christmas, adding “Xmas” to “lite,” “nite,” “sno” and “glo.”
But commercialism did not invent Xmas!
The word “Christmas” means “Mass of Christ,” later shortened to “Christ-Mass.” The even shorter form “Xmas,” first used in Europe in the sixteenth century, is taken from the Greek alphabet, in which X is the first letter of Christ’s name: Χριστός | Xristos, therefore “X-Mass.” By the fifteen hundreds, “Xmas” was the most popular way throughout Europe of writing “Christmas.”
As Christianity spread among the peoples of pagan lands, many of the practices of the winter solstice were blended with those of Christianity.
- In the dead of winter, a celebration of rebirth of life was symbolized in the birth of Christ.
- The time of the winter solstice, when days grew longer again, the return of the light became the hope of the world in the birth of Christ, “the light of the world,” Who came to dispel the darkness of sin and to radiate the truth and love of God. The Yule log portrayed the hope of this light to come.
- Red and green, represented in evergreens and holly berries and symbolizing the power of life, were replaced with purple or royal blue to signify a time of prayer, repentance, and sacrifice as well as royalty for Jesus, king of Kings. Rose was added to convey joy in both the first Advent, and in anticipation of the Second Advent.
Burning a log each of the twelve days of Saturnalia, or the mystery religion of Mithras, signified the bright light of the divine sun overcoming the darkness of winter.
“The familiar custom of burning the Yule log dates back to earlier solstice celebrations and the tradition of bonfires. The Christmas practice calls for burning a portion of the log each evening until Twelfth Night (January 6).
“The log is subsequently placed beneath the bed for luck, and particularly for protection from the household threats of lightning and, with some irony, fire. Many have beliefs based on the yule log as it burns, and by counting the sparks and such, they seek to discern their fortunes for the new year and beyond.”Linda Watts, Encyclopedia of American Folklore, (New York: Facts on File, Inc, 2006), 71.
As the church continued to appropriate pagan customs and practices for God, Christmas celebrations grew rowdier and rowdier, until Christmas became less about Jesus and much more about feasting and singing, drinking and carousing, costume parties and wild dances, and generally carrying on.
By the sixteenth century, there was nothing really left of Christ in Christmas parties.
So Puritan reformers doubled down in their passionate commitment to bring Christ back into their cultures.
- In Scotland, John Knox essentially put an end to Christmas in 1562.
- In England, the observance of Christmas was forbidden by act of Parliament in 1644.
It was illegal to write Christmas carols (which is why so many of our most beloved Christmas hymns tell the entire story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, resurrection, and Second Advent).
It was illegal to hold festivities of any kind.
Instead, Christmas had to be treated like any other day.
Incredibly, Puritans were so devoted in their dedication to correct centuries of ribaldry and bawdy revelry, they even appointed mincemeat sniffers who walked up and down the streets of every town making sure no one was secretly baking mincemeat pies.
Not unsurprisingly, pro-Christmas and anti-Christmas factions soon formed, fomenting protests and riots in the battle to own the meaning and observance of either the holy day of Christ’s birth, or the bacchanalia of ancient pagan festivals.
Because much of the original United States was settled by Puritans, Christmas was for a long time outlawed in America. Even when it was no longer illegal, it was not until Queen Victoria’s time that Christmas started getting popular.
Christmas trees are relatively new. German people began to bring whole evergreen trees into their houses during the sixteenth century, decorating them with candles and later with blown and spun glass ornaments.
But it was not until 1840, when the German-born Prince Albert convinced Queen Victoria to bring in a Christmas tree—in honor of his homeland tradition—that Christmas came back to England.
Interestingly, in the twentieth century, some churches began the tradition of storing their Christmas trees during the winter months. Now dead, shed of its needles, the tree is cut and nailed into the form of a cross and draped with the colors of Lent, hearkening back to the connection Christians in antiquity made between Jesus’ conception, birth, and crucifixion.
Thirty years after the advent of the Christmas tree, on June 28, 1870, President Grover Cleveland formally declared Christmas a United States federal holiday.