The Origins of Christmas

Published: 2021-07-09 22:55:05
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“The word Christmas comes from the shortening of the term Christ’s Mass, a time for piety and religious devotion. However, early Europeans were celebrating light and birth in the darkest days of winter centuries before the birth of Christ. Long before the inception of Christianity, pagans in different parts of Europe welcomed the winter solstice with feasts and festivities. Despite the Church’s efforts to consecrate these pagan holidays, Christmas was still a time of rowdy celebrations that emphasized the social imbalance in European and American societies. This went on until the nineteenth century when Charles Dickens wrote a novella that changed Christmas forever. A Christmas Carol was written as a condemnation to the social division in English society. Dickens wanted to showcase the unfair circumstances that the poor were subjected to. The novella’s immense success redefined the Christian holiday and resulted in its subsequent secularization. The aim of this paper is to highlight the monumental role that literature played in the reshaping of religious practices and reinventing Christmas.In Germanic countries, the celebration of Yule took place during midwinter to mark the winter solstice. The celebration took place on the twenty first of December as fathers and sons dragged logs and evergreens indoors as reminders of light and birth. The Yule log was the most essential facet of the holiday. This celebration lasted twelve days as the log burned and the flames kept everyone warm. Yuletide generally consisted of dancing, drinking, and feasting. People killed their livestock because they knew they would not survive the winter. These killings were offered as sacrifices to the Norse gods, specifically Odin. The most meaningful sacrifice was a boar that was known as sonarg?ltr. Nordic folk made solemn vows while laying their hands on the bristles of the boar. Moreover, evergreens were an integral part of Yule. They were the only plants that survived the winter; therefore, they symbolized immortality and prosperity and a promise of a warm spring to come. The use of evergreens as decorations served as reminder that cruel winter cold and darkness and will pass. Like many ancient winter solstice pagan traditions, evergreens will later become appropriated by Church and attributed to Christmas.On another side of the continent, ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, the most important holiday in the ancient Roman calendar. Saturnalia was a winter solstice celebration that included an abundance of foods and drinks in honor of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. The people of the ancient Roman Empire celebrated the holiday every December to mark the end of the harvest. It originally began on December seventeenth but grew longer as time progressed and ultimately became a week long holiday ending on the twenty third of December. The festivities included “feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees” (Salusbury p.1). People dressed in colorful clothing and decorated their homes with wreaths which symbolize the wheel of the year. However, the most essential part of Saturnalia was the inversion of social roles in the Empire. Every institution, whether academic or administrative, shut down during Saturnalia. People even appointed a mock king to rule them during the holiday to celebrate the temporary termination of the strict formality of the class system. Slaves became masters and masters became servants. The central theme of Saturnalia was to upturn the social order, and to celebrate liberty.While these celebrations were taking place, followers of a small but powerful Roman sect known as Mithraism were spending the winter solstice in temples. Mithraism derives from Mithra who is Sol Invictus or The Unconquered Sun. It is believed that Mithraism devotees celebrated Mirtha’s birthday every December on the twenty fifth and considered it to be the holiest day of the year. However, the Church appropriated this date claiming that it is Jesus’ birthday despite not having any biblical evidence to support this claim. In fact, the only gospels that mention the nativity of Jesus are Luke and Matthew, and they both do not mention a specific date. The winter solstice falls on the shortest day of the year. This marks the moment when the days become longer and sunlight gradually makes its way back to people’s lives. Therefore, many Christians believe that Jesus was born on the winter solstice because it represents the Light of Christ. However, the coincidental synchronicity of the two holidays seems unlikely. The more logical explanation seems to be the Church’s adoption of pagan traditions to keep people interested in Christianity.After the Christianization of Europe, the majority of people did not want to part with their beloved pagan practices. Midwinter celebrations carried on despite the integration of Christianity into these societies. The Church then gradually adopted pagan winter solstice traditions and incorporated Jesus and religion into them. For example, evergreens were decorated with apples to symbolize the Garden of Eden which later became Christmas tree ornaments. As I mentioned earlier, evergreens were used in Yuletide and held a symbolized hope for the Nordic people. Furthermore, the traditional pagan winter decoration of holly became a symbol of Christ’s crown of thorns. During pagan times, people used to sing and dance in circle during celebrations, especially during the winter solstice celebrations. Many believe this to be the origin of Christmas carols. The Church replaced the pagan songs with Christian ones. Christmas feasts often included a boar’s head as the centerpiece of the table which originates from the Nordic sonargoltr. But the Church’s effort to Christianize these pagan holidays was in vain, if anything it backfired. Christmas became a time of utter and complete chaos.Despite its biblical and sacred affiliation, Christmas was a rowdy and unruly festival for over a thousand years. Drunken mobs took over the streets of England to unleash chaos. Similar to the ancient Roman concept of a mock king, people in England elected a beggar to be crowned the Lord of Misrule. The latter “who, with 20 or more chosen “lusty guts,” decked themselves in yellow and green scarves, ribbons, laces, rings and jewels, and processed through the town on Christmas Day” (Egloff p. 7). Gambling was widespread during Christmastide, even amongst children. The nativity of Jesus was stripped of its holy and sacred status. The holiday became characterized by gluttony and lust rather than piety and devotion. At this point in history, Christmas had nothing to do with Christ and everything to do with excessive carouse. The holiday even came to a temporary end with the rise of Puritan England that deemed it as inappropriate.The Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, overthrew the king’s force in 1645 and sought to rid England of what they believed to be heathen traditions. The holiday was outlawed in 1652. But it was shortly afterwards restored with the restoration of the monarchy. However, this gave way to the ban on Christmas in Puritan colonies in New England. In 1659, Puritans in Boston found no scriptural justification for celebrating Christmas and opposed to carnival-like disorderliness, the inversion of social roles, heavy drinking, and sexual liberties associated with the holiday. They also rejected its pagan and idolatrous origins. The Puritans decided to outlaw Christian and fine anyone exhibiting signs of celebrating five shillings. However, this quickly changed in the nineteenth century with the influx of European immigrants who brought their Christmas traditions with them to the United States. Although the Puritan ban was over, the rowdiness of Christmastime was still alive. However, this all changed with the publication of a novel that transformed the holiday forever.The Role of Literature in the Reinvention of Christmas: Literature was a massive part of nineteenth century societies. The number of novels that were available for people in Victorian England saw a massive increase from the previous century. Prior to the nineteenth century, books used to be a luxury exclusive for the rich due to their expensive nature. England’s upper class often spent their evenings reading at home by the fireplace. The activity was regarded as a privilege only the rich could afford. However, the nineteenth century witnessed an increase in literacy and schooling rates. Moreover, the industrial revolution reduced the costs of books which resulted in their affordability. Subsequently, the English novel saw an enormous rise in popularity. Literature was tremendously significant in people’s lives. It was people’s only source of knowledge and entertainment, and it dealt with a plethora of topics, including Christmas. The holiday was becoming more present in literary work with various writers adapting Christmastide into their writings. However, none were as influential as Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. The two authors used their writing to revive and reinvent Christmas for people of all social classes.In nineteenth century America, class division was resulting in riots from the lower class, especially during Christmas time. This worried the upper class who feared the disturbance of the status quo and the social order. This prompted American author Washington Irving to write an episodic novel in 1822 titled The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall. The novel revolves around an imaginary relationship between the different social classes and their shared celebration of Christmas. Before Bracebridge Hall, Irving also wrote a collection of essays and short stories titled “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” that included four essays on old English Christmas traditions that the author encountered during his stay at Aston Hall. These essays and stories left a lasting impact on English author Charles Dickens. Both Irving and Dickens believed in the ability of literature to reinstate social harmony and resolve conflicts. They played on the nostalgic aspects of the holiday to restore the spirit of Christmas.In 1843, several years after Washington Irving’s literary contribution to the restoration Christmas, Charles Dickens’ wrote A Christmas Carol. The novella is undoubtedly the most well-known literary work that centers on Christmas and the spirit of the holiday. A Christmas Carol revolves around Ebenezer Scrooge, a bitter and cold-hearted miser who undergoes a spiritual awakening on Christmas Eve. The story begins with Ebenezer turning down charity workers and grudgingly giving his employee Bob Cratchit the day off to spend it with his family. Ebenezer is then invited to a Christmas dinner by his jolly nephew Fred. But instead of accepting the invitation, the old man declines and goes home to spend the remainder of the day alone. However, his evening does not go as planned as he gets a visitor in the middle of the night: the ghost of his deceased business partner Jacob Marley. Jacob, chained and tormented, warns Ebenezer against his wicked ways and informs him that he will be visited by three spirits in the course of the next three nights.The first spirit is The Ghost of Christmas Past. Ebenezer is taken on a trip down memory lane. He revisits his lonesome childhood and past relationship that ended due to his own greed for money. The second spirit is The Ghost of Christmas Present who shows Ebenezer sights of joyous and charitable people enjoying Christmas festivities. The spirit then takes Ebenezer to the home of his worker Bob Cratchit and introduces Bob’s youngest and terminally ill child Tiny Tim. The spirit warns Ebenezer that the consequences of his actions could lead to the death of the child. Before leaving, the spirit shows Ebenezer two unsightly children called Ignorance and Want, and warns the old miser of the former. Finally, Ebenezer is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The spirit shows him scenes of people rejoicing the death of an unknown man. The crowd is celebrating his demise and show no signs of mourning. He is then transferred to the Cratchit household that remains unified and loving despite Tiny Tim’s death. It is finally revealed to Ebenezer that the funeral he witnessed earlier was his own, and that he is the loathed dead man. Ebenezer then wakes up on Christmas morning and realizes that the ghostly encounters only lasted one night. He vows to change his ways and gains a new appreciation for life. He shows immediate signs of change by becoming charitable and selfless by helping those in need, including the Cratchits. Ebenezer Scrooge at last understands the true meaning of Christmas.The moral lesson in the book struck a chord for nineteenth century English society. A Christmas Carol rejuvenated the concept of the spirit of Christmas. The novella gave a new meaning to the Christian holiday that resided in the importance of family and selflessness. Furthermore, Dickens was well-aware of the class struggle between the rich and poor. In a way, the novella is a condemnation of this division. Dickens himself was poor as child which is why he sympathized greatly with those in need. He even paid for the production costs for A Christmas Carol himself to assure the novella’s affordability. It proved how crucial literature can be in shaping societies. After the popularity of A Christmas Carol, it underwent many film and tv adaptations. This introduced the novella and its value to a new audience. As A Christmas Carol grew more popular, Christmas became secularized and many started celebrating the holiday despite not belonging to the Christian faith.Charles Dickens subtly distanced the Christmas of worship from the Christmas of community in A Christmas Carol. One can argue that Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemption arc was meant as a hopeful message to all sinners. Christians believe that Jesus died for their sins; therefore, sinners are usually condemned and ostracized for taking the prophet’s sacrifice for granted. But Dickens allows Ebenezer to be forgiven and mend his mistakes rather than prosecute him for them. Despite referring to him as an “old sinner” (Dickens 8), the English author maintains that even the worst of people are worthy of forgiveness. This emphasized the fact that Christmas is not necessarily about religion, but about unity and togetherness. The English author says: But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come around — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time; a kind, forgiving , charitable, pleasant time; 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, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave , and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. (Dickens 10-11)Dickens masterfully redefined Christmas and stripped it of the religious connotation that is attached to it. He intended for the holiday to be a time of joy, charity, and good company for everyone. This concept paved the way for the subsequent secularization of Christmas. Christmas was no longer exclusive to Christians. Moreover, neither before nor after his transformation was Ebenezer Scrooge seen going to a church. When the Ghost of Christmas Past showed him the homes of families celebrating Christmas, none of them were praying or partaking in any religious practices. They were instead dancing and singing. This is a callback to pagan midwinter festivities that favored parties over worship. The Christian holiday was becoming less about Christianity and more about a sense of community.With the help of literature, many Christmas customs began to change. Carols, which were once disdained for their pagan origins, saw a resurgence in popularity in Victorian England. English solicitor William Sandys gathered a collection of carols titled Christmas Carols, Ancient & Modern. The collection helped in the revival of caroling that was banned during the Puritan rule of England. Most carols were written to commemorate the birth of Christ. One of the earliest and most popular examples is “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” which was included in Sandys’ collection. The carol was famously referenced in A Christmas Carol and tells the story of the nativity of Jesus.While most carols were written specifically to celebrate the birth of the Christian prophet, some were translations from European folk songs. The most well-known example is perhaps “Carol of the Bells.” The song is originally a Ukrainian folk chant titled Shchedryk that was sung during the New Year celebrations. However, it was later adopted as an English Christmas carol and given new lyrics which reference silver bells, caroling and the line “merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas.”The tradition of caroling originated from the waits, an ancient English custom of going door-to-door and singing in exchange for food. This was revived in nineteenth century England and America by people singing carols outdoors on the front porches of houses. The act of caroling still lives on today in these countries. Carolers go from home-to-home to serenade people with festive songs to keep the spirit of Christmas alive. The act of offering food to carolers was substituted with hot chocolate to keep them warm during the cold winter night.As time went on, more newly established customs and traditions were incorporated into the holiday. The Christmas tree was inspired by Prince Albert of Germany who brought the Germanic tradition of evergreens with him to Windsor Castle after his marriage to Queen Victoria. An 1848 drawing of the royal couple revealed a large decorated Christmas tree that quickly spread across England. People began including evergreen trees and decorating them with candles to represent stars. Another Christmas staple that rapidly gained popularity is Santa Claus. The white bearded jolly figure was inspired by Saint Nicholas, a Greek orthodox bishop who was said to have a habit of secret gift-giving. The name Santa Claus comes from the bishop’s Dutch name of Sinterklaas. However, with the secularization of Christmas came the commercialization of the holiday. Nowadays, Christmas is a stressful time for many people due to gift shopping and the expensive nature of the holiday. The magic of Christmas is quickly fading as consumerism sinks its claws into it.”

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