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

Winter Holidays in 2020 and Happy New Year

December 16, 2020

As with everything this past year, the winter holidays are going to be celebrated a little bit differently because of the pandemic. Museums are continuing to offer virtual programs, tours, et. cetera to help us all engage with and keep our spirits up during the holiday season. While we are figuring out how we are celebrating this year, I thought I would do a short examination of the history of holidays that take place during this time of year.

There are many holidays celebrated in December around the world, and the ones I mention in this blog are only a sample of what holidays are out there. I have included in the list of links a link to the December holiday calendar that shares various holidays celebrated this time of year (even some that secular holidays). The holidays celebrated in December include but are not limited to Yule, Christmas, and Hanukkah.

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. Also, it is one of the celebrations from the Wheel of the Year acknowledging the change in seasons; Yule represents the celebration of death and rebirth in nature, and the eventual return of the sun from its weakest point in the year, faced during the winter season. Some of the traditions that are practiced during this Yuletide time are but not limited to decorating the Yule tree, lighting the candles on the Yule log, making and hanging wreaths, and telling stories.

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, depends on which part of the globe one lives on. In the Northern Hemisphere, it also marks the first day of winter. In Mary Kate Hagan’s article “Winter Solstice Celebration”, she pointed out that

Winter Solstice is a time to pause, with the restraints of winter, to perceive the seeds of our future growth. It is an invitation to align ourselves with the turning of the seasons and the natural world, experiencing ourselves as being woven into the sacred web of life, acknowledging the mystery of the Divine creative presence pulsating through all. (185).

Yule is linked to a number of religious celebrations and spiritual traditions that coincides with the Winter Solstice which occurs on December 21st this year in the Northern Hemisphere.

One of the most common examples of Yule’s connection with other religious celebrations and spiritual traditions is Christmas. A lot of the traditions that have been adopted into Christmas traditions came from pagan celebrations. Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday is one of the examples of books written about the history of Christmas and its roots in paganism. Nissenbaum used documents and illustrations in his book to share Christmas’s carnival origins and shows how it was transformed, during the nineteenth century, into the celebration we know now. His book also shared the origins of Christmas traditions from St. Nicholas to the Christmas tree and the practice of giving gifts to children.

Christmas is the celebration in the Christian religions to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and, especially in the secular world, gather with loved ones by giving presents and having meals together. There are many customs that vary in different countries, and in the United States Christmas traditions are celebrated together with many customs from other cultures and countries. Families around the world decorate the tree and home with bright lights, wreaths, candles, holly, mistletoe, and ornaments. Some individuals attend church on Christmas Eve, and Santa Claus comes from the North Pole in a sleigh to deliver gifts; in other parts of the world, Santa arrives on other modes of transportation such as in Hawaii he arrives by boat and in Ghana he comes out of the jungle.  Another holiday celebrated in December is Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday.

Hanukkah is celebrated by the Jewish people honoring the Maccabees’ victory over King Antiochus who forbade them from practicing their religion. They celebrate over eight nights to remember how the oil in the temple was supposed to last for one night ended up lasting eight nights. To celebrate Hanukkah, they start with a prayer, the lighting of the menorah, and food. The menorah holds nine candles, eight candles to be lit on each night and the nineth is used to light the other candles. Also, children play games such as the dreidel, sing songs, and exchange gifts. Unlike Christmas, the days the Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah changes each year because the holiday follows the lunar cycle. This year Hanukkah starts at sundown on December 10th and ends on December 18th. As I am writing this blog post, it is the sixth night of Hanukkah (when this is posted, it will be the seventh night) and will be lighting the menorah with my husband and his family.

All of the celebrations that I mentioned above and the ones I share within the links section have in common is the focus of celebrating with loved ones whether we are in person or not. While celebrating the holidays this year will be different, technology will be able to help us connect with family members as we focus on getting a better control of the pandemic.

I am taking a break from posting on the blog for the holidays. I will be working on the campaign and more posts on the blog for the upcoming new year. Stay tuned for more posts and exciting developments in the new year! Thank you all for your continued support, and I hope all of you have a fun and safe holiday.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!!

Related Posts:

Blog Campaign:

https://www.buymeacoffee.com/lbmfmusedblog

Happy Holidays! Museum Education during the Holiday Season

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year: Ready for Museum Education

Links:

Holiday Calendar List

https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/winter-celebrations/

https://religiouslife.princeton.edu/religious-holidays

USA Today: “Hanukkah 2020: When it is and what to know (no, it’s not the ‘Jewish Christmas’)” by David Oliver

F. C. Conybeare, “The History of Christmas”, The American Journal of Theology, Jan., 1899, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Jan., 1899), pp. 1-21, Published by: The University of Chicago Press.

Jan M. Ziolkowski, “The Yuletide Juggler”, The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity, Volume 5: Tumbling into the Twentieth Century, Open Book Publishers.

Mary Kate Hagan, “Winter Solstice Celebration”, The Furrow, Vol. 61, No. 3 (March 2010), pp. 185-188 (4 pages), The Furrow.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/12/winter-solstice-2017-first-day-winter-definition-space-science/

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

America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories by Bruce David Forbes

All About Yule

Holidays Calendar: Yule

James Buescher, “Wiccans, pagans ready to celebrate Yule”, Intelligencer Journal, Lancaster County, PA, Published: Dec 15, 2007.