These movie classics, along with so many others teach us different lessons about life. They cause us to reflect and evaluate our own lives, turning many of us into tearful sentimentalists who know that a good cry and a happy ending is just wonderful!
The best thing about Christmas is that it restores our faith in human kindness. It causes us to look outside of ourselves and reach out to those around us who may need a shoulder or a helping hand. The story of the Birth of Christ for Christians fills us with a sense of hope and wonder. But there is much more to our Christmas celebrations than sacred things.
So where did the myriad of customs and traditions that we hold dear come from anyway? Is the “Americanized” version of Christmas based on fact, or is it fiction? The answer is both. Our traditional Christmas is based on both historical fact and is equally a product of fiction. How did the traditions we observe in America and around the world become part of our recorded Christmas observation?
In order to find the answer to this question we must travel back in time some 4,000 years.
Our Christmas celebrations are a culmination of many centuries worth of religious and pagan customs, rituals and traditions that have been melded together, with a little help from each generation that has lived upon this earth. Tradition is often a “very good thing” that adds value and meaning to our lives…this is no more evident than at Christmas.
Many of our Christmas festivities and practices can be tied to ancient civilizations that thrived 4,000 years ago. Centuries before Jesus was even born. The 12 days of Christmas, bright bon fires, the Yule log, the giving of gifts, carnivals (parades) with floats, carolers who sing while going from house to house, the holiday feasts, and our church processions can all be traced back to the early Mesopotamians.
The ancient Europeans were extremely superstitious. They believed in witches, ghosts and goblins. Many early Europeans feared winter and believed that the sun would not return. Special rituals and celebrations were held to welcome back the sun.
The Norse people, of Scandinavia, lived in darkness during part of the winter because the sun would disappear for long periods of time. Scouts were sent out, after 35 days of darkness to the mountain tops to look for the return of the sun. When the scouts first saw the light they returned to their homes and villages with the good news that the sun was returning. A great festival known as “yuletide” would then ensue. During this time a special feast would be served around a Yule fire. Hence the burning of the Yule log came to be. Great bonfires would also be lit to celebrate the return of the sun. In some areas of Scandinavia people would tie apples to branches of trees to remind themselves that spring and summer would eventually return. Could this be where we derive the tradition of decorating our Christmas tree? The feasting and joyous celebrations would continue for as long as the Yule log would burn. In our modern day Christmas culture we burn special logs in our fireplaces that we call Yule logs. A log shaped holiday sweet known as a
Yule log is enjoyed by many people of Norse descent all over the world.
Unto you a Savior is born… No one knows the exact date for the birth of Jesus. The Bible tells us that shepherds were watching over their flocks by night when Jesus was born. In the Holy Land it would have been much too cold at night to be out in the fields tending sheep in December. What is more likely is that Jesus was born in the spring perhaps between March and May. The important thing is that he was born, and the date of December 25th is as good a day as any to celebrate his birth.
Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire by the late 300s. By the year 1,100 A.D. Christmas had become the most important religious festival in all of Europe. Saint Nicholas also had become the symbol of gift giving in many European countries. Holly and evergreens were brought in doors to “Deck the Halls.” Throughout the ages holly and other evergreens have been significant wintertime components of feasts and celebrations of many people, groups, and religions.
The pilgrims came to America as a result of religious persecution in 1620. They were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell had been. As a result, Christmas was not permitted as a holiday in portions of early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston and anywhere the puritans had a foot hold. Sadly, anyone caught exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings.
However, further south, in the Jamestown settlement, years before the puritans ever set foot on the soil of the “New World,” Captain John Smith reported, “that Christmas was enjoyed
by all and passed without incident.”
Following the revolutionary war many English customs temporarily fell out of favor in America, including the celebration of Christmas. The United States Congress did not even observe it and was in session on Christmas Day, December 25, 1789. Some 81 years later, Christmas was finally declared an official U.S. holiday.
A paradigm shift takes place in America
Americans began to heartily embrace Christmas in the 19th century. The celebration of Christmas had been changed from an outlandish carnival-like holiday into a good will promoting, family-centered holiday.
Exactly what could have occurred to bring about such a change in the mindset of the American public?
The early 19th century was a period of social un-rest, intense class conflict and turmoil. In 1819, Washington Irving, a best selling author, wrote a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. The sketches featured an English squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, “Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status.” Many historians say that Irving’s account actually “invented” the beginning of our present holiday tradition by implying that it described the true customs of the season. A shift, created simply by the “power of suggestion” began to take place in the mind of the American and English public as they began to entertain the possibilities of “good will toward men” who were different from each other.
On the heels of Washington Irving’s social essay on Christmas, an Episcopal minister named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a long Christmas poem for his three daughters. The year was 1822. Although he was at first reluctant to publish the poem due to his status as a clergy man, he eventually relented. His iconic poem forever changed the way we see Christmas and for the first time propelled Saint Nicholas aka Santa Claus into being a central figure of our Christmas celebrations. For children in America and around the world Christmas would never be the same. The church, more secure in its beliefs, was no longer threatened by Christmas festivities, the exchanging of gifts or the introduction of Santa Claus. Women’s magazines began to feature suggestions and ways to decorate for the holidays. For the first time features on how to make these decorations were published on a large scale.
Although at one time these changes may have seemed improbable at best, the American public began decorating Christmas trees, singing Christmas carols and they embraced the hope of Christmas with great enthusiasm.
So many of our Christmas Carols are centered around themes from ancient pagan and secular traditions that utilized holly, ivy, mistletoe and other greens that were said to be “holy” or have magical powers. These Christmas songs and carols that we sing every year, such as Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly, The Holly and the Ivy, Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green, all combine the use of evergreens along with a celebration.
And that, in a very big nutshell, is how the customs and traditions that we hold dear during the Christmas and Holiday season came to be.
It is human nature and perhaps a human need to search for or to create some goodness when there is often conflict around us. Christmas is a time for just that and goodwill and peace among friends and enemies alike. May you be blessed with every good gift as we enter the holiday season. We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Written by Karin Andrews, Contributing Writer