Monday, December 21, 2009

A Short History of Christmas

Originally presented before the Wachovia Diversity Council, Charlotte, NC, December 2005.

Decorating trees, giving gifts to friends and family, carolers who go from house to house to sing, feasts, parades, candles, fires, evergreen wreaths hung on doors, 12 days of celebration coinciding with the new year, even a virgin birth -- the first record of all of these celebrations came about 8,000 years ago from Sumeria (in what is now Iraq) in the form of the Zagmut or New Year’s Celebration.

The basis for this was the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, which occurs around December 21st-22nd. Ancient civilizations attached great significance to this time, in fact most of the pyramids and great monuments of the ancient world were calibrated with this and the three other celestial turning points. The lengthening of days after the solstice, specifically, was seen as a rebirth of the sun, a new beginning, and historically marked in most cultures the beginning of the new year.

In Sumeria, the belief was that their chief God, Marduk (not to be confused with Marmaduke, the giant red dog) literally had to bring light and good again to the world by his own symbolic death and resurrection in three days ending on December 25th. To assist Marduk in his struggle the Mesopotamians engaged in 12 days of revelry that set the stage for the modern Christmas holidays.

About 6,000 years ago, the same celebration was documented in Egypt with the God Osiris. After Osiris died, his mother Isis brought him back to life on December 25th, reborn as the son Horus. Isis claimed that a full-grown evergreen tree sprang overnight from a dead stump symbolizing the springing forth unto new life of Osiris, and on each anniversary of his birth, Osiris would visit the evergreen tree and leave gifts upon it. Ancient Egyptians reenacted this legend and decorated their homes with green palm branches to symbolize life’s triumph over death.

About 4,000 years ago, in Persia (what is now Iran), the festival was called Yalda and celebrated Mithra’s yearly struggle of light over darkness. The story of Mithra has many similarities to later Christian beliefs, including the immaculate birth, baptism, Eucharist, 12 disciples, birth in a cave/stable, the presence of shepherds at the time of the birth and the resurrection. Mithraism was brought to Europe by Greek soldiers after the defeat of the Persians by Alexander and by the forth century AD it was the predominant religion of Europe.

Most Middle Eastern and European cultures had adapted a form of this God who dies and is resurrected again in spirit: in Hebrew cultures it was Tammuz, in Babylon Nimrod, in Greece it was Dionysos and Adonis, in England and Norse countries it was Baldur, the god of peace, who was killed by an arrow made from mistletoe. When his life was restored, his mother Frigga hung up the mistletoe and promised to kiss all who passed under it. In Germany, the yule log was burned in the night and evergreen tree put in its place the next morning in celebration of the death and resurrection of Tiu (from which Tuesday derives). The tree was hung with paper roses, foil, gold, wafers, and dolls hanging from their boughs. (As years passed and more and more of these objects were hung from the tree, a concern was given to the possibility of the tree falling from the weight. So German glassblowers around 1850 began to produce lightweight balls to replace the heavier nuts, fruits, and other items previously used.)

Romans adopted this festivity to celebrate the rebirth of their god Saturn after the winter solstice. The holiday became known as Saturnalia and began the week prior to December 25th. The festival was characterized by exchanging gifts (including to one’s enemies, wrapped with mysterious gift tags), feasting, caroling, exchanging branches of holly, cutting down and decorating trees with candles and trinkets, and high levels of public intoxication (it was, after all, the Romans).

In the fourth century, Christians in Rome began to assign the existing December 25th “birth day of the unconquered sun” as a Christian holiday. Interestingly, it was not originally seen as Jesus Christ’s actual birthday, but had a symbolic significance much more in keeping with the way the holiday was celebrated at the time. The name “Christmas” - from the Old English 'Cristes M├Žsse' - is a combination of the words "Christ" and "Mass.” The word "Mass" means death and consequent resurrection, and is now used to describe the Christian service because its central sacrament is the Eucharist, the reenactment of Christ’s death and resurrection. Until the middle ages, churches celebrated Jesus' birth at different times: some on January 6, others April 20, May 20, March 29, and September 29, and it wasn’t until 354 AD that December 25th was set as Jesus’ birthday by Roman bishop Liberius.

We don’t exactly know why Christians persecuted by the pagans would appropriate one of their biggest holidays. Some theorize the early Christian missionaries, following the tradition of the Romans, found it easier to simply provide a Christian reinterpretation and allow the celebrations themselves to go on largely unchanged. Others think they were trying to replace the pagan celebrations with their own. Whatever the reasons, it soon became apparent that the holiday was so popular for its merry-making that it was a challenge getting people to acknowledge its religious significance. In fact, there was much dispute in the early church about whether Christmas should be celebrated or condemned. While it became a major holiday in the Middle Ages (when bells were introduced to call the faithful from great distances), it declined in importance during the Reformation, in part because it had no basis in the Bible. In fact, as many have pointed out, the account of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2:8-14 clearly explains that shepherds were in the field tending their flocks during the birth of Jesus, which is a clear impossibility in December in Bethlehem.

Among the anti-Christmas crowd were the puritans (i.e. the pilgrims who came in on the Mayflower). They outlawed Christmas as witchcraft because of its pagan roots, and kept it illegal in most US states until the mid-nineteenth century. In Boston classes were held in the public schools on Christmas Day until 1870, with pupils who missed school that day being punished or dismissed. Christmas was far more popular in the South. The first three American States to declare Christmas a legal holiday were located in the South: Alabama in 1836; and Louisiana and Arkansas, both in 1838.

While we are on the subject of America, one of the biggest Christmas traditions came from America: Santa Claus! The original derivation of Santa Claus was probably the Norse God Woden (for whom Wednesday is named), who, legend has it, rode on his horse through the sky one evening a year with his long, white beard, cap and staff. This legend morphed into a more suitably Christian one of St. Nicholas, who secretly left gifts for children on their doorsteps. Neither of these legends has a basis in historical fact, but Saint Nick became a popular folklore figure in Europe, so much so that American writer Washington Irving wrote a satire about the Dutch settlers in New York by talking about how they appeared to worship a strange white-bearded man on flying horses called Santa Claus (his version of the Dutch word Sinterklass, meaning Saint Nicholas). This story had legs in the American imagination. The poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” by American professor Clement Moore in 1822 brought in chimneys and eight reindeer, and the famous image of a fat jovial Santa in a red costume came about by American cartoonist Thomas Nast in mid-nineteenth century. The refinement of Santa Claus continued in the 20th century, when the Montgomery Ward department store in 1938 commissioned “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” as a way to lure Christmas buyers (the store's owner had to be convinced about the red-nose, given that it was a symbol of drunkenness).

So, to summarize:

1. The celebration of Christmas originally came from what is now Iraq
2. Christmas trees symbolize death and resurrection
3. Christmas was banned in the United States for many years
4. Santa Claus is American
5. The magic of Christmas cannot be accounted for solely by its history