A (Brief) History of Christmas

December 23, 2020 – Adrianna Holt, Adult Services

As everybody knows, Christmas is celebrated on the 25th of December. However, most people are not aware that for two millennia (millennia = 1 thousand years), people around the world have been celebrating this day with traditions and practices in many ways. Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the day that Jesus Christ was born. Popular customs include swapping gifts, sprucing up Christmas trees, appearing at church, munching on some delicious food with family and friends, and for the kiddos that believe, waiting for Santa Claus to leave goodies under the tree. 

When the darkest days of winter descended upon early Europeans, they decided to celebrate light and birth during these times. Plenty of people would revel during the Winter Solstice, when the days became longer and the hours of sunlight were extended. Scandinavian Nords would celebrate Yule from the Winter Solstice (Dec. 21st) through until January. To honor the homecoming of the sun’s return, sons and their fathers would burn large logs, their village would feast until those logs kaputted (which could last almost 12 days!) These people thought that every spark that burst from the fire would be a new piglet or calf born in the upcoming year.

In most areas of Europe, the end of the year was the perfect time to celebrate. In order to save on food and money, most people slaughtered their cattle. For a lot of people, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. Additionally, most of the alcohol, such as wine and beer, that had been fermenting all year long was finally ready for drinking. The Germanic folk venerated the pagan god, Oden, in the middle of the winter holidays. These folks were absolutely frightened of that big old meanie, Oden, because they thought he made nighttime flights through the sky to watch his people and decide who would flourish or who would die. Due to this belief, a lot of people decided to stay inside.

Rome was not plagued with bleakly cold winters like in the north, so they celebrated the holiday Saturnalia, in the honor of the god of agriculture, Saturn. Saturnalia started at the beginning of the week before the Winter Solstice and continued for a whole month! People ate, drank, the norms of society were turned topsy turvy, and absolutely everyone joined in the festivities. Additionally, around the time of the winter solstice, Romans would respect the holiday of Juvenalia, which entailed commemorating the children of Rome. Upper-class members of society would also celebrate the birth of the god of the sun, Mithra, on December 25th.

Europe in the early 17th century had a wave of religious reform that changed the way Christmas was celebrated. Christmas was canceled when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they declared that they would rid England of decadence. However, the people were unhappy with Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan force, so Charles II was restored to the throne, and thankfully so was Christmas. Some of the English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more strict in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. Subsequently, Christmas was not really celebrated in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was prohibited in Boston. Anyone displaying the Christmas spirit was punished by paying a fee of five shillings. In the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith announced that Christmas was celebrated by everyone. In fact, Christmas wasn’t acknowledged as a federal holiday until June 26, 1870. 

While everyone knows the name of Santa Claus, some are not aware of his origins. A monk named St. Nicolas was born in 280 in Turkey, since he was a saint, he was a kind man that would travel to help many, including the poor, sick, and sailors. However, the legend of  St. Nicholas was only encountered by Americans in the late 18th century in New York, when Dutch families would congregate to commemorate the death of Sint Nikolaas or Sinter Klaas. (This is where we would get the name, “Santa Claus”. Most people are aware of this giant jolly man by the poem that starts with the line, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” written by Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore in 1822/23. This poem drove into the minds of Americans the idea of what we now think of as Santa Claus.

However, everyone celebrates the holidays in a different way. I asked my coworkers in Information Services if they did anything special for the holidays:

Alli: “Look at lights Christmas Eve and give our favorite house a prize. (Usually something small. A mug with packs of hot chocolate and some candy.) It’s fun! The only reason we’re not is because of COVID. All of my generation crams into one car and we just don’t want to be in that small space this year. I’ve gone every year since I was like 8.”

Cathy: “Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year and marks the (slow) return of the sun. We exchange gifts in the morning and in the evening make a special dinner and light candles to get us through the long night. Everyone gets a new book and bedtime is canceled so we can all stay up as late as we want reading.” 

Chris: “We open all of our Christmas presents on Christmas morning.  We then have homemade cinnamon rolls after we open our presents, and a tradition we’ve had for years is for my dad to say at some point later “But wait, there’s more!” and surprise us with one or two extra gifts.  My brother and I have continued that tradition and now like to surprise our parents the same way with a gift they’re not expecting.”

Janet: “In the past after Christmas Eve services, we have gone out to our favorite Chinese restaurant, then drive around to view Christmas lights and displays, including the ones at Cape County Park. This year the food will have to be “to go” or delivered. And the church service will probably be virtual. ‘Sigh’.”

Kayla: “Now Christmas we do a lot of different things: we open our gifts on Christmas Eve so we can all sleep in. Christmas Day we get up and after breakfast usually go see a movie in the theater whilst wearing our new Christmas pjs (last year it was Jumanji…I think). Then instead of eating turkey or ham (because by then everyone is tired of it) we make homemade egg rolls and invite our close friends over (if it isn’t during COVID). This year it will probably be the five of us plus Taylor. Yeah. It is kind of lovely. We are all too close at times and we squabble but these are the things we’re all the most chill. Holidays are about being together and setting differences aside and we take that pretty seriously.”

Sarah: “This year, Josh and I are going to spend an evening listening to Christmas music while decorating the house together. We are also making plans to go ice skating sometime this December.”


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