Christmas Reinvented

There have been two major reinventions of Christmas during the Christian era. The first was a near total makeover of the Saturnalia and other pagan festivals in the third and fourth centuries. The second transformation is more recent, but surprisingly, less well-known. It produced the modern commercial version everyone loves to hate. Few realize, however, that the Christmas remake of the early 1800s was a deliberate attempt to create a new, commercial tradition; to take a troubling, riotous festival off the streets and domesticate it by placing it into the home.

The absorbing story of the second coming of Christmas is told in a new book, The Battle for Christmas by University of Massachusetts history professor Stephen Nissenbaum (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1996; $30). The 381-page work is an historical treasure of facts on the evolution of Christmas and I recommend it to students of cultural/religious history.

The current issue of U.S. News & World Report (12/23/96) features as their cover story an article based largely or Nissenbaum’s book. Author Jeffery L. Sheler notes in his article, "In Search of Christmas," (from which I’ll be quoting) that for much of the Christian era, Christmas celebration has been regarded as an affront unto God. "Through most of its history, the Christmas season has been a time of raucous revelry and bacchanalian indulgence more akin to Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve than to a silent, holy night. So tarnished, in fact, was its reputation in colonial America, that celebrating Christmas was banned in Puritan New England, where the noted minister Cotton Mather described yuletide merrymaking as ‘an affront unto the grace of God’." Mather was on solid historical ground, as the festival and its typical manner of celebration was blasphemous and vile.

The most widely held view of Christmas’ origins by historians, explains Sheler, "is that the holiday was an intentional ‘Christianization’ of Saturnalia and other pagan festivals. In the third and fourth centuries, the church in Rome found itself in fierce competition with popular pagan religions and mystery cults, most of them involving sun worship. From the middle of December through the first of January, Romans would engage in feasts and drunken revelry, paying homage to their gods and marking the winter solstice, when days began to lengthen. In A.D. 274 Emperor Aurelian decreed December 25 — the solstice on the Julian calendar — as natalis solis invicti (‘birth of the invincible sun’), a festival honoring the sun god Mithras."

The first mention of a Nativity feast shows up for the first time in a Roman document from A.D. 354 which lists December 25 as Jesus’ birth date.

"In designating December 25 as the date for their Nativity feast, says Penne Restad of the University of Texas, Rome’s Christians ‘challenged paganism directly’." Restad has written a 1995 book, Christmas in America: A History, where she says that had early Christians even known the date of Christ’s birth (which they didn’t) they wouldn’t have been interested in celebrating it. She notes that early Christians "viewed birthday celebrations as heathen." Church father Origen in the third century labeled it a sin to even think of keeping Christ’s birthday "as though He were a king pharaoh." But as we know, the appeal of the wild winter celebrations won out. What was most interesting to me was how all that changed in the 1800s.

By the 1820s Christmas celebrations were getting out of hand — especially in the rapidly growing cities of an industrializing America. Nissenbaum tells us that in 1828, New York City organized its first professional police force in response to a violent Christmas riot. A type of trick-or-treat was part of the celebration where the poor and "rabble" would demand gifts and drinks of the well-to-do by yelling threats from the streets, pounding on their doors and continuing through the night in a menacing wassailing. A Christmas carol from the early 1800s said, "We’ve come here to claim our right . . . And if you don’t open your door, we will lay you flat upon the floor."

"A concerned group of New York patricians that included Washington Irving and Clement Clark Moore, author of A Visit From St. Nicholas, began a campaign to bring Christmas off the streets into the family circle. Moore’s classic poem provided the new mythology for this Christmas make over. Moore’s St. Nick — far from being the creature of ancient Dutch folklore — was an ‘invented tradition’, says Nissenbaum, ‘made up with the precise purpose of appearing old fashioned’." The poem caught on, gifts to children replaced begging, and Christmas was on the road to being domesticated and commercialized.

Nissenbaum says, "What many historians find most fascinating about the reinvention of Christmas is that its commercialization, now so frequently denounced, is what spawned the transformation in the first place." He adds, "To turn Christmas into a purely religious celebration now, might cheer those who want to ‘take back Christmas’, but such an observance would lack the cultural resonance and impact of a holiday deeply rooted in the marketplace and if Christmas came to that, we probably wouldn’t keep it as a society."

The difference between Christmas and the biblical festivals is profound. The former’s reincarnations are rooted in political/religious power and civil/commercial considerations. The festivals of Yahweh are rooted in the magnalia Dei, the mighty works of God, which memorialize the Divine Plan for all ages. The Festivals of Scripture tell us much about God. The celebration of Christmas tells nothing about God, but a lot about paganism, parties, politics and how to create a successful commercial tradition.


Additional Articles:

Should a Christian Observe This World's Holidays?
Christmas is NOT Christian
The Plain Truth About Easter
Halloween: "Learn Not The Way Of The Heathen" (Jeremiah 10:2)

Main Holy Day Menu


Written by: Richard C. Nickels
Giving & Sharing
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Neck City, MO 64849
United States of America

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