In 1843, English author and social critic Charles John Huffam Dickens, AKA: Charles Dickens… first published the novella: A Christmas Carol - Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. The now-famous tale recounts the trials and tribulations of Ebenezer Scrooge, an elderly miser who is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.
During his life, Dickens campaigned vigorously for children's rights, education, and other social reforms, and is regarded by many as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. With A Christmas Carol, Dickens explored and re-evaluated past Christmas traditions, and captured the zeitgeist of the mid-Victorian revival of the Christmas holiday, including family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games and a festive generosity of spirit.
However, Christmas has not always enjoyed such a reputable status. In fact, Christmas past was marked with considerable paganism and debauchery. Ancient traditions included the observance of the winter solstice when the worst of the winter was behind the ancients and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.
In Scandinavia, the Norsemen celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return of the sun and rebirth of the sun goddess, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year.
Germanic peoples honored the pagan god Woden (Oden) during the mid-winter holiday. Scholars have connected the yuletide celebration to the Woden and the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt is a folklore motif that historically occurred across Europe. Wild Hunts typically involve a ghostly or supernatural group of hunters passing in wild pursuit. The hunters may be either elves or fairies or the dead, and the leader of the hunt is often a named figure associated with Woden.
Germans were terrified of Woden, as they believed he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people, and then decide who would prosper or perish. Because of his presence, many people chose to stay inside.
The end of December was a perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking… a keen necessity in Christmas celebrations, both ancient and modern.
In pre-Biblical era Rome, Saturnalia… a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture… was celebrated. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia 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 revelry.
Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year.
In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. However, in the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Tellingly, the Bible does not mention date for his birth. Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring (why would shepherds be herding in the middle of winter?), Pope Julius I chose December 25.
It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced, but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion.
First called the Feast of the Nativity… Christmas spread to Egypt by 432 and 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. Today, in the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the 25th, 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.
In the days of the early church, believers attended mass, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the “lord of misrule” and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. 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.
And then, of course, there’s Krampus. We touched upon Krampus… or Black Peter as he is also known, many Christmases ago. In Central European folklore, Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure described as "half-goat, half-demon", who, during the Christmas season, punishes children who have misbehaved, in contrast with Saint Nicholas, who rewards the well-behaved with gifts. The origin of the figure is unclear; some folklorists and anthropologists have postulated it as having pre-Christian origins.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. Americans re-invented Christmas, and changed it from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia. But what about the 1800s peaked American interest in the holiday?
The early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season. In 1828, the New York city council instituted the city’s first police force in response to a Christmas riot. This catalyzed certain members of the upper classes to begin to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America.
Also around this time, 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.
As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday, old customs were unearthed. People looked toward recent immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches to see how the day should be celebrated. In the next 100 years, Americans built a Christmas tradition all their own that included pieces of many other customs, including decorating trees, sending holiday cards and gift-giving.
Although most families quickly bought into the idea that they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries, Americans had really re-invented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation.
- source: Wikipedia & History network