Learning and Exploring

Christmas History

I tried to research Christmas history a few years ago, I read some books as part of A Literary Christmas. I basically held a vague understanding that early Christian married pagan elements (some Roman, some “barbarian”) to Christian concepts. But modern Christmas is modern Christmas with significant points (the tree, Santa Claus) brought from Germany in the Victorian period to America (Christmas wasn’t that significant until recently as a huge day unto itself although perhaps Advent season was in some traditions, early, strictly Protestant Americans didn’t celebrate it). I think that my slapdash research then rather matches both the actual history of Christmas and the way it is put together, a patchwork of various traditions put together in various ways over its history.

And yes, I’m going to be one of those, “but ackshully” people, but I hope I don’t follow the spirit of them. I don’t intend to follow the killjoy spirit, just generally being a history, humanities, and myth nerd.

I don’t think we are ever going to have a very clear history of Christmas. I’ve come across misinformation and confusion on Christmas history. Be wary of anything that speaks too definitively, actually be wary, there is a weird resurgence in ancient paganism generally that I think wants to rewrite things or blur the truth, particularly about the darkness of these religions and about the accuracy of our knowledge, these are ancient, ancient things, our knowledge is at best vague. I’m going to be sticking to Britannica mainly with some dictionary definitions.

Advent. This seems to be the earliest Christian conception of Christmas, but it is far more religious and with less of an emphasis on one day.

December 25th. Per Britannica: this is the date of a Roman holiday (dies solis invicti nati) about the rebirth of the sun which, in one view Christians then connected with the rebirth of the Son. Another view ties the conception of Christmas with the Spring Equinox which timeline puts Jesus birth at Christmas.
Modern Holiday. Britannica again confirms the German origin of some significant modern Christmas concepts as well as the fact that the Puritans didn’t like Christmas.
Saturnalia. This is the Roman holiday of the Winter solstice that I think most people with any conception of an understanding of Christmas use to point out the pagan origins of Christmas, that all we did was Christianize it. I think that is too simplistic, especially since Christmas wasn’t that big of a conception really until fairly recently. Clearly the dates are what we did directly take. However, it certainly seems to be a far more like Saturnalia now, at least New Years is. Such days as the first of the year are always going to have an ancient pagan emphasis.
Yule is the Germanic celebration of the Winter solstice. Britannic didn’t have a separate entry for Yule while googling it brings up tons of articles. I think this is a subject where modern imagination takes a very little source or historical knowledge and runs wild.
St. Nicholas is the origin of Santa Claus (North-Western Europe and American via the same) and Father Christmas (UK, I think I prefer Father Christmas, maybe because it is less familiar, I just don’t care for Santa or at least how we have him) and Père Noël in France. He is an actual early Christian saint, I’m not sure I knew that or I’d forgotten, we don’t have documentation, just Christian canon tradition, but it seems like it is fairly believable tradition? Obviously, tons of mythic traditions have been added on and then those myths were revived more recently to morph into Father Christmas and Santa Claus.
Christmas Tree. While trees did have significance in Yule in Germany, apparently that is not the source for the modern Christmas tree, which yes, did come from Germany. It originated in an Advent play.
Mistletoe. I don’t know how this transforms from having to do with Druid sacrifice (potentially human! although this isn’t mentioned in the Britannica article, I think it was in the Celtic book I just read, but again, tread carefully this is ancient) to kissing at Christmas.
Wassail. Basically originally an Old Norse toast that turned into an English drink.
Christmas carols and songs deserve a whole post. We shall see if I get to that in this 12 Days of Christmas or not. I read a book about some of the carols and songs, but I know that the story told for the 12 Days of Christmas song is inaccurate, so I will have to spend more time carefully researching songs. I am more interested in getting to a post about the different tunes between the UK and US for different carols.
Failure in research: “Happy Christmas” for the Brits vs “Merry Christmas” US. In U.S. there is a sort of, I don’t know, phony debate over “Happy Holidays” vs “Merry Christmas.” Why not both, its a huge extended holiday season anyway? I’m not going to get into that.* What I wanted to know was why the Brits say “Happy Christmas” while we say “Merry Christmas.” I first learned of this, I think in, wait for it, Harry Potter. I thought I remembered reading something about Queen Victoria and snobs preferring “happy” because “merry” was plebian or something, but I can’t find any source I’m happy with (and the stupid debate above mentioned drowns everything out). What I could gather is that the word “merry” had different connotations, like, um drunkenness, and that possibly snobs preferred “happy.” I found a blog post, but I would prefer a more creditable source. I’ve given up sorting through the absurdity, maybe I will tackle this next year better. Anyway “happy” nowadays is about as specific and useful as “nice” in my opinion while “merry” feels specific, jolly and a bit mischievous.
To sum up. First of all, wow, this took longer than I meant. Anyway, I don’t like fossilizing things the “well, ackshully” way, nothing new gets created plus I have no personal connotation of the pagan (no one does!) or Advent aspects anyway. I like the patchwork history. Pick the traditions or “traditions” you like, make up new ones, take pagan, Christian, whatever you like, change what you like, just don’t create a false history!
Sources:
*Actually (ackshully) I am, if you take offense at “Merry Christmas” would you like to go to Hell? Hades? Sheol? Gehenna? Jahannam?
. . . I, at least, find myself funny. I got a little tired of sorting through those stupid articles.

6 Comments

  • Elizabeth

    This was so interesting to read! I’ve only had the vague impression that Christmas was a combination of Christian and pagan elements too so this was cool.

  • Catherine@basedonthebook

    All the pagan influences are really interesting, I’m guessing that’s why some Christians (like Jehovahs Witnesses) don’t do Christmas? I thought we just said Happy Christmas now because it sounds more modern, but it’s interchangeable here I’d say. Merry Christmas sounds nicer though 🙂

    • Livia Rose

      Yes, we knew some people who didn’t do Christmas. Dad always tried talk about how it was pagan, but I think he knew that forbidding Christmas was too extreme. He then switched to him being the Grinch, which is a far more accurate interpretation of his opinion.

      We always thought/think Jehovah’s Witnesses to be a cult. I’ve been listening to the Minimalists and Ryan Nicodemus grew up in that sect/denomination/cult, he’s mentioned various things, like no celebrations were allowed, so he grew up never celebrating his birthday, much less Christmas for awhile.

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