The holiday has gone through cycles of being encouraged, banned, popularized and secularized
by Jack Kirven . Q-Notes staff
Because of aggressive marketing, items such as the 18-piece Nativity Bake Set by Kitchen Krafts are common enough to no longer elicit widespread dismay.
Christmas is easily the single most celebrated festival in the world. With 1 billion Christian adherents around the globe marking it as the birth of Jesus and millions of others celebrating it with gift-giving, it is both an important religious holiday and a significant economic season. This has not always been the case. Christmas has gone through several cycles, including suppression. As strange as it might sound today, there were times when Christmas was banned by law.
What functions today as the observed date for Christ’s birthday was originally the “actual” birthday of an important god named Mithra, an eastern deity imported into Rome by enthusiastic soldiers. Mithraism was the single most important rival to Christianity at the time, nearly outstripping Christianity of the title “official religion of the empire.” So ,the early Church was forced to syncretise an astounding number of its adversary’s images and practices in an attempt to win the support of the populace and the Emperor. Eventually, the Vatican itself (the supposed location of St. Peter’s tomb), was built upon the subterranean Mithraic high temple. Ultimately Mithraism died as a religion because only men could be adherents and Christianity was welcoming to women. For this reason Mithra was in constant need of converts and recruits, while Jesus had a homemade supply.
Mithra’s birthday was Dec. 25 and was celebrated almost simultaneously with the festival of the Saturnalia, which was a seven-day festival commemorating the consecration of the temple of Saturn (the god of the harvest and regarded as the embodiment of time itself). The Saturnalia was a time of opulence and served as a reminder of republican ideals. Battles were illegal, executions were postponed, slaves and masters ate at the same table and gifts were exchanged. From here it is easy to connect the familiar modern traditions to their historic sources.
In the first half of the first millennium of the Common Era, Christmas was not regarded as a major feast. In 245 C.E., Origen, a father of the early Church, argued against the celebration of Jesus’ birthday, “as if He were any ordinary Egyptian pharaoh.” Origen taught that only nonbelievers celebrated birthdays, connecting the practice to polytheists. From 350-450 C.E. the feast was introduced and discarded any number of times in major religious centers such as Antioch, Constantinople and Alexandria. After the fall of Rome the festival was completely overshadowed in Medieval Europe by Epiphany until 800 C.E. when Charlemagne chose Christmas as the day for his coronation, thus setting up a widespread practice across his territory of honoring the day. In 1066 William the Conqueror was crowned on Christmas as well. By 1377 Richard II (Richard the Lionhearted from the Robin Hood stories) had set up the feast day as an enormous celebration, offering 28 oxen and 300 sheep for the meal.
During the Reformation, Protestants condemned Christmas as “popery,” and in England the celebration of Christmas was banned by law from 1647-1660. Its pagan origins have been troubling to Christians throughout the history of the feast, as evidenced by the fact that some groups do not celebrate Christmas even today. As customary, the Puritans of New England banned anything that might accidentally elicit a sensory response and banned the celebration of Christmas in Boston from 1659-1681. Christmas again fell out of favor after the Revolution, this time throughout nearly all the fledgling United States, because it was regarded as an English custom.
It wasn’t until the 1820’s that an interest in Christmas was reborn in both England and the U.S. Washington Irving published “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon” and Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit from Saint Nicolas” (popularly known as “T’was the Night Before Christmas”), setting up an attitude of lightheartedness during the season. With Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” appearing in 1843, the focus of the celebration was placed on family, goodwill and compassion, rather than overindulgence.
Transcultural celebration and secularism
During the 19th and 20th centuries the influence of England was at its peak. With English customs being expressed or upheld throughout the Victorian Empire, a homogenized image of Christmas was spread throughout the world. American culture (itself inseparable from its English origins) only contributed to the spread of Christmas celebrations. Without doubt there is a wide variety of custom when celebrating Christmas in different places (some of which keep Jan. 6, the Julian calendar’s date that matches up to the Gregorian calendar’s Dec. 25), but its popularity worldwide is a phenomenon borne of the influence of English taste.
As would be expected in a free market culture, Christmas inspired merchandise. As the popularity of the holiday increased, so too did its impact on industries. Throughout the 20th century, the Holiday Season (which, like the hurricane season, seems to be getting expanded to the point of never ending) has become a more and more important part of the world economy. Many are offended by the transparent marketing that surrounds the onset of Christmas, feeling that this distracts from the purpose of the holiday, yet this objection has done nothing to curtail the growing expectations projected by Wall Street analysts each year (nor their growing disappoint each year, despite new spending records being set routinely). What began as a minor feast day, practiced irregularly in a few pockets of early Christendom, has gradually grown to become the most widely recognized religio-secular season in the world.