January 19, 2021

The Best Christmas

By Stephen Tuttle | Dec. 12, 2020

Some people believe this will be the worst Christmas ever.

There's no doubt this year will finish with significant challenges. But the worst Christmas ever? Probably not worse than the multiple Christmases during the Civil War. And then there was the 1918 pandemic, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II ... we have a long history of challenging Christmases. 

We're lucky to have one at all. Boston once outlawed Christmas altogether. Having found no evidence of Christmas celebrations in the Bible, the Puritans running Boston banned all Christmas-related celebrations or references from 1659 to 1681. Violators could be shunned and fined five shillings. Not even the Grinch levied fines.    

Let's back up even further.

Christmas is one winter celebration in a very long line dating back a very long time. The date on which we now celebrate was dictated not by history but by a papal decree; we'll get to that in a bit.

There is evidence the winter solstice has generated celebratory activity as far back as 10,200 BCE among Neolithic people. The return of longer days was reason enough to have a party. We also know evergreen trees and boughs were used in winter celebrations by pagans, Druids, and early Egyptians. There is even some evidence of what we might call Christmas decorations, except they existed hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years before there was a Christmas. 

We now celebrate both the secular and religious aspects of Christmas on December 25 as a response to something else altogether.

In about 133 BCE, give or take, there began a quite extraordinary week-long Roman festival called Saturnalia that took place the third week of December. Part worship of their god Saturn, part celebration of the end of their fall harvest, it included gift-giving, feasting, sacrifices including the human kind, and an odd role reversal in which the lower classes and upper classes switched places. One additional twist was the temporary suspension of all laws — literally nothing was illegal. It's easy to see how that became an annual debauched free-for-all. 

By around 335 CE, Saturnalia had tamed some but was still plenty offensive to what, by then, could have been more than a million Christians. In 336 CE (some texts put it at 350 CE) Pope Julian I had seen enough. He decided he would counter-program the last day of Saturnalia with his own festival on December 25. He called it the Feast of the Nativity.

That's why we now celebrate Christmas, and symbolically, the birth of Christianity, on December 25. Most Biblical scholars say it is more likely Jesus was born in the spring but since there is no specific time noted in the Bible or historical writings of the time, we don't know for sure and never will. (To Christians for whom this is a special religious holiday, specific dates don't really matter.) 

We have, through the ages, continued the decorating, and gift-giving started long ago. The Germans, get credit for what we would call our modern Christmas trees — cut down, brought into the house, and decorated — in the mid-1600s. The ornamentation then was most likely to be fresh fruit, dried fruit, and candles.

German immigrants brought the tradition to the United States in the 18th Century, though it was still frowned on by religious conservatives as a form of paganism. But the trees and garland became a slowly spreading tradition we continue today. The ornaments are now fancier, but the idea is very, very old, indeed.

It did take a while before the secular and commercial Christmas we know today gained traction. By the 1830s, retailers were already holding pre-Christmas sales, and Santa Claus images of various sorts began popping up in advertising by 1840.

Christmas on December 25, started by a pope to compete with a Roman bacchanal, is now a commercialized, secular extravaganza of gathering, feasting, and sharing for most of us. This year, much of that commerce will take place online and, hopefully, in small gatherings.  

For many Americans — 65 percent of whom identify as Christians — Christmas Day will continue to be a day of extraordinary importance to their faith, regardless of whether Jesus was born on the 25th or not. For most of the world, nearly 70 percent of whom are not Christians, it is purely a secular holiday, or no holiday at all. 

Regardless of the traditions we follow or avoid on Christmas, or why, there is an overriding message that has drifted down through the ages that would be especially useful this year. Even the earliest records of winter celebrations long before Christmas included some form of a message of goodwill.

We could use some goodwill about now. It would be an invaluable gift from all of us to all of us, costing us nothing and making this the best possible Christmas.


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