There is some sort of Christmas celebration in virtually every part of the world. You might be familiar with the tradition of setting up a Christmas tree, decorating it and putting gifts at its base. A star may well be placed on top of the tree and flashing lights may be draped all over its branches. A large man dressed in red and white might even be rumoured to climb down the chimney and deliver these gifts, carrying with him a list of good and bad deeds determining which children deserve gifts – or if a lump of coal is more appropriate!
But this, of course, is only one cultural celebration of Christmas, connected mostly to the Christian religion that celebrates December 25th as the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. There are many other ways and forms in which to observe this festive season, all with different details but generally occurring during the same time of year.
The fact of the matter is that Christmas has undergone a number of evolutions and changes over the centuries. Digging a little deeper will reveal that not only was it a holiday that originally had no connection at all to trees or Santa Claus, but that it was celebrated in an entirely different way until much more recently than might be assumed.
The Birth Of a Holiday
In the United States, December 25th has been an official holiday since 1870. But the celebration of this time of year has been around a great deal longer. The celebration was originally in fact not based around the birth of Jesus, but instead around the winter solstice. This refers to a point in the seasons when the harsh winter is finally reaching its end, and longer days and warmer weather is due to start rolling in. Given that all our ancient ancestors were farmers and relied heavily on the seasons in order to survive, the winter solstice was an extremely important occasion.
In Scandinavia, for example, the Norse famously referred to the period of time as the Yule, which officially started on December 21st. The celebration generally extended into January as the weather began to get warmer, and great logs would be burned and feasts enjoyed, with the focus being on how abundant crops would be in the coming year.
Similarly, in European countries celebrations also occurred at this time of year, although for different reasons. It was in December that animals were slaughtered in order to avoid having to feed them during the winter, which resulted in enormous feasts that went on for days. Beers and wines crafted earlier in the year would also generally be ready at this time of year, which gave the feasting an extra edge of fun and merriment.
In Germany specifically, the pagan god Oden was observed, who was said to swoop through the skies at night, looking over the land and determining who would be prosperous in the year that came, and who would pass away. All the connections should already be coming together at this point, as to how the modern Christmas came to adopt its details.
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Saturnalia And Christianity
In Rome yet another celebration occurred during the winter solstice, known as Saturnalia. Named after the popular god of Saturn, the celebration was a time for citizens to let loose, go a little wild, and indulge in excessive amounts of food and drink. Schools were closed during the month-long celebrations, and slaves and peasants celebrated side by side for the duration. More importantly, however, was that Juvenalia was also celebrated at this time, specifically on December 25th. It honoured Mithra, a child-like god that was believed to have been brought forth into the world from a rock.
During this time Christianity had one major holiday, Easter. The birth of Jesus of Nazareth was not observed at all. At least not until the fourth century, when it was put forward that the birth of Jesus would now be celebrated on December 25th. Interestingly, Pope Julius I decided on the date. This date is not mentioned in the Bible, and has been a point of conflict between Christian puritans and church officials.
So why was the date chosen?
It is commonly believed that December 25th was chosen in an effort to give the holiday as broad an appeal as possible to multiple cultures across the world, with the winter solstice already being a major celebratory day, and the Saturnalia and birth of Mithra likewise fitting into the time frame. Either way, Christmas caught on and spread rapidly, soon observed in Scandinavia, Egypt and other parts of the world by the sixth century.
Christmas But Not Christian
What is overlooked is that although Christmas became widely celebrated, how it was celebrated had become entirely lost. By the Middle Ages, although Christmas had all but entirely replaced the Pagan traditions of old, celebrations were rowdy, drunken and widely seen as an excuse to behave badly, with little in the way of consequences.
A common practice arose for the poverty-stricken of an area to descend on the houses of the rich, demanding that the best food and drink in the house be handed over. If it were not, the invaders would cause chaos. Hence, it became seen as a time that the wealthy could give back to the less fortunate, and so keep a sort of balance in perceived society.
Christmas In The United States
In the United States, the celebration took far longer to take root than other parts of the world. This was due to a shifting in religious beliefs in European countries. Christmas was first banned in 1645, with a wave of focus on the religious aspect of Christmas, and a vow to do away with the previous rowdy celebrations. The holiday would be reinstated later.
However, the English separatists who departed for the Americas in 1620 were even more devoted to the religious aspects of the holiday, and when the celebrations were reinstated back home, it remained banned in America, specifically in Boston, until 1681. The revolution would change all this, as is commonly known, and finally after customs gradually strayed from connection to European countries, Christmas once again was fully legal by 1870.
A Holiday Reinvented
Still, although the holiday was again in full swing, it was nothing more than an excuse for the streets to be filled with drinking, bad behaviour, and eventually riots. The early 1800s saw massive unrest in the United States, with the festive season fuelled by drunkenness and the excuse of the holiday, often a time for protests against the upper classes.
This gave way to a push for the festivities to be focused less on bad behaviour, and more around a sense of peace, prosperity, and everyone getting along in harmony. A book came along soon afterwards, which had an impact so wide, and so deep, that it almost defies rational explanation. The book was called A Christmas Carol, and it became so popular that it redefined a long-running holiday tradition with near magical effect. What had been a time of drinking and protests evolved into a relaxed period of calm and serenity, over little more than 100 years from the release of the book.
Christmas Is Now Red, White And Green
It was near the start of the 1900s, specifically in 1931, that the holiday took yet another interesting turn. This one, however, more consciously created than the good-natured book, A Christmas Carol. The change concerns the character Santa Claus, and how he turned into a very specific, iconic image that would be adopted around the world.
The character Santa Claus had gone through a number of changes and evolutions, but he would take on a distinct, unchanging form from the 1930s onwards. It was during this time that Coca-Cola wanted to capitalise on the holiday spirit, and become an inseparable part of it. So, with the help of artist Haddon Sundblom, a jolly, fat man was created, wearing robes of red and white, the official colours of Coca-Cola.
The marketing campaign swept across the United States, and was extremely successful in making red and white widely accepted as belonging alongside green, which had previously been a Christmas colour. The green had featured mostly in the form of Christmas trees and decorative holly. From then on, however, there would be no depiction of the character Santa Claus that did not feature his red and white robes, bringing us to the most popular images of the festive season that we now celebrate.
Of course, the vast majority no longer see Santa Claus as a promotional image for Coca-Cola, and his colours are more or less incidental. But it is interesting none the less to fully grasp that he was, and still remains, a creation of a globally dominating soft drink company. For those who say that Christmas these days is driven by commercial greed, this seems to justify it!