Taking A Closer Look at the History of Christmas: A Public Historian’s Perspective

December 23, 2021

      As many people are preparing for celebrating Christmas, I decided to revisit and share the history of Christmas. I remember the first time I learned about the history of Christmas when I was still studying for my bachelor’s degree in history. My history professor assigned my class to read Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas towards the end of my first semester of college and we had a class discussion about the origins and history of Christmas. I continued to observe Christmas from a historical perspective since that time many years ago. While I have previously discussed what museums are doing to observe the winter holidays including Christmas, I realized that I have not yet discussed where it came from, how we started celebrating the holiday, and how it became the holiday we know it now. Here I will share a brief introduction to Yule and what Christmas was like before the nineteenth century when things like Christmas trees, the concept of gift giving, and the idea of the family-centric holiday were becoming associated with Christmas.

     We understand today that Christmas is a winter celebration within Christianity to honor the birth of Jesus Christ. When we take a closer look, we would be able to see that the origins of the holiday were not as straightforward as the religion may teach. Christmas has its roots in Paganism which honors the changes in seasons. Yule is connected to a number of religious celebrations and spiritual traditions that coincide with the Winter Solstice which occurs on December 21st in the Northern Hemisphere. Last year I briefly shared information about Yule or the Winter Solstice. In that post, I described what the celebration of Yule is:

 Yule is a celebration, practiced by pagans, neo-pagans, and other individuals who incorporate witchcraft practice in their lives, which involves gathering together to enjoy meals and gift-giving, and activities like feasting and wassailing (where the tradition of singing carols comes from) are sometimes regarded as sacred.

 This celebration corresponds with the astrological change of the Earth tilting away from the sun, known as the Winter Solstice. The amount of sunlight on Earth during this time varies, short day and long night to long darkness, depending on which part of the globe one lives on. In the Northern Hemisphere, it also marks the first day of winter.

To learn more about the Yule, Christmas, and other Winter Holidays, I included the link to the blog post “Winter Holidays in 2020 and Happy New Year” in the list below.

         Christmas was a different holiday than what we would recognize today. During the colonial period in New England, the Puritans suppressed the holiday, and it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. Their reasoning for suppressing the holiday, according to Stephen Nissenbaum, was because there was no biblical or historical reason to place the birth of Jesus on December 25th; it was in the fourth century that the Church decided to observe Christmas on December 25th which happened to be around the arrival of the winter solstice. Another reason they suppressed Christmas was that at that time the holiday involved behavior that most today would consider as offensive and shocking such as rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking and aggressive begging with threats of doing harm. In northern agricultural societies, harvesting was finished in winter, and since they had plenty of beer or wine and meat that needed to be consumed before it spoiled.  It was not until the nineteenth century that Christmas started to resemble the holiday we recognize.

           Wage labor and capitalist production were spreading in England and the United States by the early nineteenth century.  Employers were insisting on keeping Christmas as business as usual while some urban workers saw the meaning of the season as one that no longer involved a lull in demand for labor and for other urban workers winter meant the prospect of being laid off since the water-powered factories were put on seasonal halt. The Christmas season could be easily seen as a form of social protest by the managers and the upper class since the traditions included wassailing (singing) and mischief. Stories like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and poems like Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” started to introduce things including but not limited to the concept of generosity and the figure of Santa Claus that would become the traditions we know today. If you would like to read more about the history of Christmas, I recommend taking a look at Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas and other resources provided. I will be taking a break from posting new blog posts; in the meantime, be sure to stay tuned for new blog posts in 2022.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!!

Links:

Winter Holidays in 2020 and Happy New Year

The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday by Stephen Nissenbaum

Encyclopedia Britannica: Christmas

English Heritage History of Christmas

National Geographic How Christmas has evolved over centuries

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s