How Christian is Christmas? The celebration of Jesus’ birth finds no biblical basis, and the bible’s account of the birth suggests a different time of year entirely. How did Christmas come to be the single most observed Christian holiday? The story has ancient political, cultural, and religious threads.
Human celebration of the winter solstice is as old as history itself. Many ancient cultures observed the day when days get longer as a time of waiting and hoping. Saturnalia is perhaps the best known of these ancient pagan celebrations. It is said to have been instituted by Roman authorities to lift morale after a crushing military defeat by Carthaginians in 217 BCE. Nominally, it honored Saturn, god of agriculture and harvests, and coincided with the winter solstice to signal hope for the coming growing season. The Romans were clever coopt-ers, though. They assimilated conquered people in part by integrating indigenous customs into Roman customs. The Roman mantle provided cover for some practical measure of cultural freedom and thus preempted (or at least masked) overt defiance. Hence, Saturnalia in all likelihood represented different cultural themes to different people in different parts of the empire.
The most noted Saturnalia practices were the reversal of master and slave roles, the exchange of gifts, and indulgences normally prohibited by morals and manners. Other pagan solstice traditions included Yule logs (Scandinavian), decorative greenery (Roman) and mistletoe (Celtic). Saturnalia grew in length as it grew in popularity over 200 years, and efforts to shorten the festival first to 3 days by Augustus and then to 5 days by Caligula provoked outrage and unrest. In Saturnalia, the threads of political authority and popular culture were woven into tension.
The religious thread takes another 300 years to develop. During the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, theologians debated the date of Jesus’ birth, the appropriateness of celebrating his birthday, and the appropriateness celebrating anyone’s birthday at all. The Eastern Roman Empire celebrated Jesus’ baptism, the Epiphany, on January 6th, while in Egypt, there was a growing interest in the nativity, particularly the visit by the magi. Depending on the bishop, the Christmas feast either was or was not celebrated on the Epiphany during those centuries. Even as observance of the forty days of Christmas and Advent began developing in the Middle Ages, Saturnalia traditions were attached to it.
Ultimately, it was the political thread that firmly affixed Christmas to December 25th. Charlemagne was crowned Emperor on December 25th, declared Christmas Day, in 800 AD, and almost immediately Christmas became a coronation tradition and a court fashion. Protestant reformers condemned the excess of Christmas celebrations, going so far as to ban Christmas in England in 1647. As in earlier millennia, the prohibition incited unrest. Pro-Christmas rioters seized Canterbury for several weeks, decorated doorways with holly and sang carols in protest. Christmas remained banned until 1660 in England and until 1681 in Puritan Boston, where celebrating was frowned upon until it became a recognized holiday only in the mid-19th century.
Here we see that Christmas has always sparked controversy. If you feel pulled into tension between excessive indulgence and the abject humility of the Christ child, then you are in the company of many through history going back to the very origin of Christmas.
Join the conversation. What tension does anticipation of Christmas ignite in you?
Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.