It’s Christmas Day – of course. This year let me add my voice to the chorus of nonsense about the day. Maybe mine won’t be quite as stupid and ill informed as most. One can hope. My central theme is that Christmas is a CHRISTIAN feast – not pagan, Roman, druidic, or whatever. It is purely Christian at heart. Certainly it has accrued a mountain of stuff from other midwinter celebrations, but that does not alter its core idea.
Let’s begin with the date because exploring that path uncovers a multitude. There is no evidence that a celebration of Jesus’ birth existed on the Christian calendar before the 4th century. There was a great deal of debate about possible dates and also a certain amount of skepticism about the wisdom of celebrating a birth in general. In the 3rd century, the date of birth of Jesus was the subject of both great interest and great uncertainly. Around 200 Clement of Alexandria wrote:
There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].
Other contemporary writers argued for May 20, April 18 or 19, March 25, January 2, November 17, and November 20 as possibilities. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) argued for a winter solstice date which by his time had found some favor within the church:
Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.
Early Christian writers show no knowledge of Christmas. Irenaeus (died c. 202) and Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240) omit it from their lists of feasts, and in 245 Origen, commenting on Leviticus, says that Scripture talks about sinners celebrating their birthdays – such as Pharaoh, who then had his chief baker hanged (Genesis 40:20–22), and Herod, who then had John the Baptist beheaded (Mark 6:21–27) – and talks of saints cursing the day of their birth – such as Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14–15) and Job (Job 3:1–16).
The earliest known mention of Christmas as (possibly) being celebrated on the 25th of December is recorded in a 4th-century manuscript compiled in Rome. This manuscript is believed to record a celebration that occurred in 336. It was prepared privately for Filocalus, a Roman aristocrat, in 354. The reference in question states, “VIII kal. ian. natus Christus in Betleem Iudeæ”. This reference is in a section of the manuscript that was copied from earlier source material. It’s taken as a kind of confirmation that Christmas was celebrated on that date but the reference is too scant to be sure.
In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas Day was overshadowed by Epiphany, which in western Christianity focused on the visit of the magi. But the medieval calendar was dominated by Christmas-related holidays. The forty days before Christmas became the “forty days of St. Martin” (which began on November 11, the feast of St. Martin of Tours). The prominence of Christmas Day increased gradually after Charlemagne was crowned Emperor on Christmas Day in 800. King Edmund the Martyr was anointed on Christmas in 855 and King William I of England was crowned on Christmas Day 1066.
In the High Middle Ages, the holiday had become so prominent that chroniclers routinely noted where various magnates celebrated Christmas. King Richard II of England hosted a Christmas feast in 1377 at which twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep were eaten. Caroling also appears in the records of this time. The first records is of a group of dancers who sang. The group was composed of a lead singer and a ring of dancers who provided the chorus.
Throughout the Middle Ages across Europe various aspects of non-Christian midwinter celebrations got added into the mix: holly, ivy, mistletoe along with feasting, drinking, gambling, dancing, and sporting, along with elaborate masques, pageants, and plays.
Following the Protestant Reformation, many of the new denominations, including the Anglican Church and Lutheran Church, continued to celebrate Christmas. Martin Luther helped turn Christmas festivities into something specifically German which then spread to the rest of Europe and North America. The Dutch Reformed Church also celebrated Christmas as one of the principal evangelical feasts. However, in 17th century England the Puritans strongly condemned the celebration of Christmas, considering it a Catholic invention and the “trappings of popery” or the “rags of the Beast.” The calendar reform became a major point of tension between the Anglican party and the Puritan party.” King Charles I of England directed his noblemen and gentry to return to their landed estates in midwinter to keep up their old-style Christmas generosity, but following the Parliamentarian victory over Charles I in the English Civil War, England’s Puritan rulers banned Christmas in 1647.
Protests followed as pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities and for weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. The Vindication of Christmas (London, 1652), argued against the Puritans, and makes note of Old English Christmas traditions, dinner, roast apples on the fire, card playing, dances with plough-boys, old Father Christmas and carol singing.
The Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 ended the ban, but many Calvinist clergymen still disapproved of Christmas celebration. As such, in Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland discouraged the observance of Christmas, and though James VI commanded its celebration in 1618, attendance at church was scant. The Parliament of Scotland officially abolished the observance of Christmas in 1640, claiming that the church had been “purged of all superstitious observation of days”. It was not until 1958 that Christmas again became a Scottish public holiday.
In Colonial North America, the Pilgrims of New England shared radical Protestant disapproval of Christmas. The Plymouth Pilgrims put their loathing for the day into practice in 1620 when they spent their first Christmas Day in the New World working – thus demonstrating their complete contempt for the day. Non-Puritans in New England, however, deplored the loss of the holidays enjoyed by the laboring classes in England. Christmas observance was outlawed in Boston in 1659. The ban by the Puritans was revoked in 1681 by English governor Edmund Andros, however it was not until the mid-19th century that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in the Boston region. I mention all of this by way of pointing out that the contemporary (false) claim by evangelicals and the right wing in the US that there is a War on Christmas while not remotely the case nowadays was certainly true in the past – and the perpetrators were their own ancestors.
As I have been at pains to point out in this blog as well as in my professional writing in general, the supposed “origins” of customs are a complete red herring, but in the case of Christmas there is no question that it started as a Christian celebration. The fact that it accrued bits and pieces from Saturnalia, yule, etc. is neither here nor there. Christmas did not originate in these other customs. Furthermore, it is an evolving and diverse festival.
Christmas dinner has always been very important to me and in previous posts I’ve talked about mincemeat, pudding, roast goose etc. These past few years I’ve been alone without an oven, so I’ve had to be creative. Here’s a little gallery from those times.
Now I have an oven, so I’m roasting a duck this year for the main meal. Same rules apply as always – roast as hot as the oven will go. It makes a lot of smoke but the meat is juicy and the skin crisp.