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Celebration of Christmas

A brief history

Mike Powers

on 7 October 2015

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Transcript of Celebration of Christmas

Celebration of Christmas
A brief history
In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated.
Christianity was not legalized in the Roman Empire until 313 when tolerance for all religions was declared under an edict issued by Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome. In 350, Pope Julius I set December 25 as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Julius I--served as the 35th pope from 337-352
Christian leaders succeeded in converting to Christianity large numbers of pagans by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians.
The problem was that there was nothing intrinsically Christian about Saturnalia and Christians had little success refining the practices of Saturnalia. In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.
However, the Eastern Church preferred to celebrate Jesus birth 13 days later which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. This is the day it is believed that the three wise men finally found Jesus in the manger. This practice continues today in the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches.
First called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom of celebrating Jesus' birth made its way to England by the end of the sixth century. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia.
By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today's Mardi Gras.
The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined "debt" to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens.
The Puritans believed that the celebration of Christmas was blasphemy. When they took over Scotland's parliament in the 1580s, they ruled that Christmas no longer existed.
In 1649, led by Oliver Cromwell, the Puritans overthrew the English monarchy and executed King Charles I. Cromwell and the Puritans instituted harsh laws and outlawed the celebration of Christmas in England. For example, soldiers were ordered to confiscate food being cooked for a Christmas celebration and traditional Christmas decorations like holly were banned.
In 1660, two years following the death of Cromwell, the Puritans were overthrown and the monarchy was restored with the coronation of King Charles II. He immediately reinstituted the celebration of Christmas and ordered Cromwell's body to be removed from Westminster Abbey to be placed on trial. Upon being found guilty, Cromwell's body was then hanged and his head was put on display for many years.
Oliver Cromwell 1599-1658
The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings.
After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas.
Pilgrims at Plymouth
It wasn't until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. In so doing, Americans changed it from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia.
In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In Irving's mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status.
Irving's stories were not based on any holiday celebration he had attended – many believe Irving "invented" tradition by implying that he described the true customs of the season.
Washington Irving
In 1843, English author Charles Dickens created the classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. The story's message-the importance of charity and good will towards all humankind-struck a powerful chord in the United States and England and showed members of Victorian society the benefits of celebrating the holiday.
The family was also becoming less disciplined and more sensitive to the emotional needs of children during the early 1800s. Christmas provided families with a day when they could lavish attention-and gifts-on their children without appearing to "spoil" them.
A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens, 1843
Over the course of the 19th century, Americans began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday. Although many families believed that they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries, Americans in fact re-invented the holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation.
Christmas Trees
The Legend of Santa Claus
'Twas the Night Before Christmas
Christmas Cards
Nativity Scenes
Christmas Carols
Nast Completes the Picture
Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree.
In 1846, the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. What was done at court immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived.
The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments. Electricity brought about Christmas lights making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition.
The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas. It is believed that Nicholas was born sometime around 270 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. Much admired for his piety and kindness, St. Nicholas became the subject of many legends. It is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick.
Nicholas's popularity spread and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, when the veneration of saints began to be discouraged, St. Nicholas maintained a positive reputation, especially in Holland.
The name Santa Claus evolved from Nick's Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas). The Feast Day of St. Nicholas, December 6, was a popular celebration by Dutch settlers in New York. In 1809, Washington Irving helped to popularize the Sinter Klaas stories when he referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in one of his books.
Saint Nicholas 270-343
In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a long Christmas poem for his three daughters entitled "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" which the first line began "'Twas the Night Before Christmas..."
Political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew the first likeness that matches our modern image of Santa Claus. Nast first drew Santa Claus for the 1862 Christmas season Harper’s Weekly cover and center-fold illustration to memorialize the family sacrifices of the Union during the early days of the Civil War. It was Nast who gave Santa his bright red suit trimmed with white fur, North Pole workshop, elves, and his wife, Mrs. Claus.
Christmas was declared a federal holiday in 1870. The modern American celebration of Christmas, with its commercialized gift exchanges, developed in cities, led by New York, after 1880.
Christmas Not Celebrated by Early Church
Christmas Becomes a Holiday
Early Celebrations Included Many Pagan Characteristics
The Bible does not mention the date for Jesus' birth and there was much disagreement as to what time of year it occurred. It is commonly believed that December 25 was picked in an effort to take advantage of the popularity of Saturnalia--a pagan Roman festival held at that time of year.
Saturnalia—a holiday in honor of the Roman god of agriculture—was celebrated for a full month beginning shortly before the winter solstice. It was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun.
Christmas Celebrations Spread Throughout Europe
Christmas in the Middle Ages
Puritans Ban Christmas Celebrations
Christmas Not Celebrated by the Pilgrims
19th Century America Embraces Christmas
Dickens Provides a Boost
America Develops Its Christmas Traditions
The first Christmas cards were illustrated by John Callcott Horsley in London on the 1st of May 1843. The picture, of a family with a small child drinking wine together, proved controversial, but the idea was shrewd. Two batches totaling 2,050 cards were printed and sold that year for a shilling each.
In 1875 Louis Prang became the first printer to offer cards in America, though the popularity of his cards led to cheap imitations that eventually drove him from the market. The advent of the postcard spelled the end for elaborate Victorian-style cards, but by the 1920s, cards with envelopes had returned and continue through today.
1st Commercial Christmas Card
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 at Greccio, Italy, in an attempt to place the emphasis of Christmas upon the worship of Christ rather than upon secular materialism and gift giving. Staged in a cave near Greccio, St. Francis' nativity scene was a living one with humans and animals cast in the Biblical roles.
The first known specifically Christmas hymns appear in fourth century Rome and were austere statements of the theological doctrine. In the twelfth century the Parisian monk Adam of St. Victor began to derive music from popular songs, introducing something closer to the traditional Christmas carol.
In the thirteenth century, under the influence of Francis of Assisi, a strong tradition of native language popular Christmas songs developed in France, Germany and Italy. Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 and were probably sung by groups of 'wassailers', who went from house to house.
Carols gained in popularity in the 16th century after the Reformation in the countries where Protestant churches gained prominence as well-known Reformers like Martin Luther authored carols and encouraged their use in worship. In the 18th century, Charles Wesley wrote texts for at least three Christmas carols, of which the best known is Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.
Christmas Shopping
Gift-giving, mainly centered around children, has been an important part of the Christmas celebration since the holiday's rejuvenation in the early 19th century. Stores began to advertise Christmas shopping in 1820, and by the 1840s, newspapers were creating separate sections for holiday advertisements.
Today, for many people the day after Thanksgiving is the time to start shopping for Christmas gifts. The term “Black Friday” was coined in the 1960s to mark the kickoff to the Christmas shopping season. “Black” refers to stores moving from the “red” to the “black,” back when accounting records were kept by hand, and red ink indicated a loss, and black a profit. Ever since the start of the modern Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924, the Friday after Thanksgiving has been known as the unofficial start to a bustling holiday shopping season.
Original Handwritten text by Clement Clarke Moore
By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.
The Royal Family in 1846
Although some of the imagery was probably borrowed from other sources, his poem helped popularize the now-familiar image of a Santa Claus who flew from house to house on Christmas Eve–in "a miniature sleigh" led by eight flying reindeer–leaving presents for deserving children and created a new and immediately popular American icon.
Such pantomimes became hugely popular and spread throughout Christendom. Eventually, statues replaced human and animal participants, and static scenes grew to elaborate affairs with richly robed figurines placed in intricate landscape settings. Nativity scenes remain very popular today.
By the 1890s, the Christmas season was very similar to the Christmas of today. Newspapers were stuffed with ads for holiday bargains, kids breathlessly awaited the arrival of Santa.
The most popular secular Christmas songs date from the 1930s and 1940s including The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire) (1944), Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1944), Winter Wonderland (1934), Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1934) and White Christmas (1940).
Over the following 100 years, Americans built a Christmas tradition all their own that included pieces of many other customs, including decorating trees, Santa Claus, sending holiday cards, Nativity scenes and gift-giving.
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