Christmas motivates a number of varied reactions from people ranging from disgust with what is seen as the commercialization of a sacred holiday to an almost rapturous delight in all elements of the holiday season. If the history of Christmas was examined from its pagan roots to “contemporary” traditions, however, less angst and divisiveness would exist as it would be clear that Christmas has ALWAYS been a combination of the sacred and secular. Christmas has never been a competition between the two as Jesus Christ was historically NEVER the sole focus of Christmas. Truthfully, celebrating the sacred (represented by Jesus Christ) and the secular (represented by Santa Claus) actively began about the same time in history.
The History Channel produced an excellent documentary entitled “Christmas Unwrapped” (Part I accompanies this article) which traces the development of traditions associated with the Christmas holiday. What are some of these historical elements highlighted in this documentary?
In terms of sacred traditions, the Church initially did not celebrate the birth of Jesus and focused primarily on the resurrection. The celebration of the Winter Solstice on December 21st in the Norse Country serves as the earliest tradition associated with Christmas history. Later Roman pagan traditions involved celebrating Saturnalia (a month-long orgy of food and drink) 1 week prior to the Winter Solstice and Juvenalia, which honored the children of Rome. In the 4th Century, however, the Church decided to absorb pagan traditions as their own as they realized that those traditions could not be successfully eliminated and declared December 25th as the feast day of the birth of the Son (whose birth is believed to have actually occurred during the Spring months). This day was also the birthday of Mithra, the Sun god of the Roman upper classes, who was born from a rock and worshipped by shepherds. By doing this, the Church essentially surrendered control of how the December 25th holiday would be celebrated.
By the Middle Ages, Christian traditions had “replaced” pagan traditions, but the holidays were more rowdy than religious, especially in England where celebrations manifested in drunken brawls. Waves of religious reform, led by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans, occurred during the early 17th Century in England and, in 1652, the Puritans outlawed Christmas and its unbridled celebrations. Holiday celebrations did not cease, but went underground. In 1656, the people of England demanded change and both the monarchy and Christmas were restored.
The Puritans in America, however, were more orthodox than those in England and, in 1659, outlawed Christmas in Boston even though Christmas was being celebrated in England and in the other American colonies. After independence was achieved in the colonies, all things “English” were frowned upon, including Christmas, and in 1789 (and for the next 67 years) Congress was in session each and every December 25th.
During the 19th Century, the Christmas holiday was reinvented for the new industrialized nation and eventually pulled the nation together. By 1820, a new class of unemployed had emerged and class conflict erupted. The Christmas season became a time of rioting. The upper class became worried and set out to change the way the holiday was celebrated. Two literary influences were key in this effort. Washington Irving, a bestselling American author, wrote Bracebridge Hall, a series of Christmas stories set at an English manor house where no class conflict existed. In England, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol which dealt with the fears of inequality and an overabundance of materialism. This classic work (which is a conversion story) taught that family and charity cannot be ignored at Christmas. At this time, people became dissatisfied that they could not find a sense of Christmas in church and Victorian Protestants demanded that the Church incorporate Christmas celebration in its sacred traditions. These demands led to the current full participation of the Church in contemporary Christmas holiday celebration.
In terms of secular traditions, the 19th Century witnessed a shift occurring inside the family from a focus on teaching a disciplined life to supporting emotional development in children. Christmas became an opportunity to lavish love on children without the worry of spoiling them. Many pagan traditions were revived during this time as well as the development of new secular traditions. For example, the German traditions of the Yule log (which was burned for 12 days during feasting around the Winter Solstice) and the Christmas tree (originally decorated with apples as ornaments) were brought to England by Prince Albert (consort of Victoria) in 1848 and, by 1850, were popular in both England and America. In 1828, the poinsettia was brought to America from Mexico. The first Christmas cards were printed in England in 1843 and caught on quickly in England and America. Mistletoe and kissing were united in a tradition uniquely Victorian.
The 19th Century also witnessed the birth of a fully American tradition, Santa Claus. Clement Moore, a Protestant minister, wrote “The Night Before Christmas” and based his character on one of the popular saints in the Middle Ages. The feast of Saint Nicholas was celebrated on December 6th when good children would receive gifts and bad children did not. In 1863, Thomas Nast developed our current conceptualization of Santa Claus based on an ironic caricature of rich robber barons of the time period.
It is important to understand the history of Christmas to promote a sense of understanding and tolerance for the traditions of our neighbors that may differ from our own. This history will be presented at an event entitled “Christmas Evolution: 2000 Years of Tradition” at Atlanta Unity Church on Sunday, November 27, 2011, from 12:45 to 3:00 p.m. The afternoon event will be facilitated by Licensed Unity Teacher Larry Bergman. The History Channel documentary “Christmas Unwrapped” will be viewed and discussed and a light lunch will be served. A love offering will be gathered during the event.
Atlanta Unity Church is located at 3597 Parkway Lane in Norcross, Georgia 30092 (phone at 770-441-0585). The church campus is located outside I-185 (the Perimeter Highway) off Peachtree Ind. Blvd. From I-285 go North on Peachtree Ind. Blvd. (Exit 318/GA 141). Bear left on GA 141/Peachtree Parkway at the split. At the third light, go left on Jay Bird Alley (see Walgreen’s at that light on the left). Turn at the second right onto Parkway Lane at the Royal Peachtree Corners sign.
Available texts on Amazon include the following: (1) Bracebridge Hall by Washington Irving and Randolph Caldecott ($24.13 in paperback); (2) A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens ($6.66 in paperback); and (3) The Night Before Christmas by Tom Browning and Clement C. Moore ($10.17 in hardcover).
For residents of Columbus, Georgia, who seek a spiritual community that honors and incorporates a varied range of Christmas traditions in its holiday celebrations, the following five Unity churches are also within driving distance:
- Unity of Albany (GA) – approximately 75 miles from Columbus, GA. Address for services at 11 a.m. on Sundays is 178 Hugh Road, Leesburg, GA. Phone: (229) 435-1001.
- Unity of Montgomery (AL) Spiritual Center – approximately 77 miles from Columbus, GA. Address for services at 11 a.m. on Sundays is 1922 Walnut Street, Montgomery, AL 36106. Phone: (334) 263-1225.
- Unity in the Heart of Georgia (Byron, GA) – approximately 78 miles from Columbus, GA. Address for services at 11 a.m. on Sundays is 127 Peachtree Parkway #701, Byron, GA. Phone: (478) 737-7537.
- Unity South Atlanta Church (Jonesboro, GA) – approximately 84 miles from Columbus, GA. Address for services at 10 a.m. on Sundays is 7541 Mt. Zion Boulevard, Jonesboro, GA. Phone: (404) 578-3033.
- Unity of Dothan (AL) – approximately 90 miles from Columbus, GA. Address for services at 11 a.m. on Sundays is 942 South Oates, Dothan, AL 36301. Phone: (334) 794-2840.