A History of Christmas


“Snow” at the Dickens Fesitval, Rochester

Many ancient mid-winter celebrations have strong parallels with what we now know as Christmas. Echoes remain of new year celebrations in Babylon and Egypt, mid-winter and new year holidays of the Roman Empire, and Yule celebrations of northern Germanic tribes. These celebrations represented an effort to promote fertility and bring back the sun. Food and drink were common features, and usually derived from sacrificial rites. There were rituals involving fire, lights and evergreen trees. The period from late November until the beginning of January was marked with various holidays. Some people think that modern Christmases start too early, but there is a long history of mid-winter festivals beginning in November.

Temple of Saturn

The Temple of Saturn in Rome

There are three festivals which are particularly linked with Christmas – Saturnalia, which in the later Roman Empire began on 17th December and continued to the 24th; the Kalends on 1st January; and the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, on December 25th. The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun was important to Mithraism, Christianity’s main rival for the hearts and minds of Europeans in the third and fourth centuries. Both Saturnalia and Kalends required the decoration of buildings with lights and sprigs taken from evergreen trees. People exchanged presents and greetings. When the Roman poet Lucian expressed the spirit of Saturnalia, he could be talking about aspects of Christmas today:

“All business, be it public or private, is forbidden during the feast days, save such as tends to sport and solace and delight… All men shall be equal, slave and free, rich and poor, one with another… No discourage shall either be composed or delivered, except it be witty and lusty, according to mirth and jollity” (quoted in The Englishman’s Christmas by J.A.R Pimlott, P3).

There is little doubt that the mid-winter holiday was deliberately chosen by early Christians as the time for a nativity feast. The idea was to assimilate pagan traditions into Christianity rather than attempting the hopeless task of suppressing them.  The 25th was probably chosen because this was Mithraism’s day of celebration, the idea being to steal the thunder of a rival.

Written evidence of the Christian attempt to assimilate winter festivals actually exists in the history of the English Christmas. Augustine, the Pope’s emissary had arrived in Britain in 597. Soon afterwards he received instructions from Gregory the Great which described how Anglo Saxon mid-winter festivals should be Christianised:

“Because they are accustomed to slay many oxen in sacrifices to demons, some solemnity should be put in place of this… they may make bowers of branches of trees around those churches which have been changed from heathen temples, and may celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting. Nor let them now sacrifice animals to the Devil, but for the praise of God kill animals for their own eating…” (Quoted Pimlott, P6)


St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury

Christian influence, however, remained superficial until the time of the Norman Conquest. Rites included yule logs, use of evergreens, eating, drinking, and games such as leap frog and blind man’s buff, two recreations which actually originated in ancient fertility customs.  The Chuch made a concerted attempt to move in on Christmas at a conference of the Catholic Church at Tours in 567.  This council designated the Twelve Days of Christmas as the period between the Nativity and Epiphany.  By the 870s, Alfred The Great was insisting that during the Twelve Days, people refrain from carrying out any business.  By 1066 the Christianisation of England was complete and the Twelve Days were the main annual holiday. Scribes of the Anglo Saxon Chronicles had referred to Christmas by name for the first time in 1043, using this term rather than the more usual Mid-winter Mass, or Nativity.

The shape of Christmas was now set until the seventeenth century. It was a time of eating, drinking, good cheer, all taking place against a Christian backdrop. The Christmas story had grown out of nativity plays staged at many churches, most notably the Abbey of St Martial at Limoges in France. There were generally two plays in the Christmas repertoire, one about shepherds, the other involving wise men. These plays merged and some details about Herod and the slaughter of innocents were later added for dramatic effect. Carols derived from singing rites of the mid-winter celebrations. These festive songs were originally condemned by the Church but, as with other pagan Christmas rituals, assimilation was more effective than suppression. Present giving and eating of turkey at Christmas dinner became popular in Tudor times. The turkey had been imported from America by the Spaniards. An exotic and expensive meat, turkey became popular with the upper classes. The rest of society then followed on. Much of the Christmas food tradition we continue today originated in Tudor England.



Public notice in Boston, Lincolnshire, declaring Christmas illegal

Then in the seventeenth century came a festive social earthquake.   Christmas was banned by government decree for about fifteen years. As the puritans won power, Christmas came under increasing pressure. During the Civil War, Parliament needed Scottish support against royalist forces. Part of the price for this support was bowing to demands from Scottish presbyterians that Christmas be stopped. The presbyterians didn’t like all the fun and games, and they also thought that Christmas had Catholic overtones. For some reason their anti-Catholic ire was focused on mince pies! Once royal control had been defeated, legislation was passed banning Christmas in 1644, although it was widely disregarded. Another big effort was made to stop Christmas in 1647. There were riots and general unrest in many parts of the country. The worst disturbances took place in Canterbury on Christmas Day 1647, when protestors took control of the entire city. This was an early manifestation of the major insurrection in Kent in 1648, which actually became part of a second phase of the English Civil War. Cromwell put this last gasp resistance down, and from then on Christmas went into hiding for over ten years. Ironically it was the religious observance of Christmas which was the easiest to suppress. Mark Stoyle has written: “Christmas effectively ceased to be celebrated in the great majority of churches. It is ironic, to say the least, that while the godly had failed to suppress the secular Yuletide festivities which had vexed them for so long, they had succeeded in ending the religious observance of Christmas! (No Christmas Under Cromwell in BBC History Magazine December 2011). Christmas only returned when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.


Re-enactment of the Battle of Maidstone, during the Second Civil War, precipitated partly by the banning of Christmas

Christmas reformed as a family celebration and remained popular until the early nineteenth century. At this time Christmas began to decline again, designated holidays becoming fewer and fewer until only Christmas Day itself was left. The revival of Christmas coincided with the publication of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in 1843, and the enthusiasm that Prince Consort, Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, had for Christmas. He followed the German tradition of erecting a Christmas tree at Windsor in 1840. In subsequent years the rest of Britain began to follow suit. Holidays started to expand again, and the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 stipulated that Christmas Day and Boxing Day were to be taken as a holiday. Christmas was resurrected as a time of giving and remembering your fellow man.


Ghost of Christmas Future at the Dickens Festival

Today Christmas is a popular but ambiguous festival. It used to be the case that many would bemoan the lack of religious feeling in Christmas, attacking commercialisation, eating and drinking, and the general lack of substance, even though some of these aspects of Christmas represent its most ancient features. In recent years worries have emerged that Christmas might actually be too religious, in a specifically Christian sense, serving to alienate other faiths. Christmas was originally a tool for the triumph of Christianity over pagan religions, and in this sense Christmas has long been part of a religious struggle. Indeed any and all major celebrations of whatever kind could be seen as a threat to general social cohesion if some parts of the population do not join in.

The ultimately reassuring thing is that midwinter festivals show remarkable similarities in different parts of the world and in different cultures. The midwinter celebration is a way of banishing the cold and hoping for the light, in whatever form you feel it might come.  Happy Christmas.

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