Christmas is as holiday of special significance in the United States with both religious and secular value. Celebrated worldwide the Christmas holiday draws its roots from winter holidays and celebrations that have been occurring for millennia. Customs such as gift giving, family togetherness, Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and church attendance draw their sources from a wide variety of places and ideas. Here is a brief overview of the holiday’s history both in Europe and America.
Celebration of the winter solstice goes back millennia and across the various cultures of Europe. To the farming cultures of the time the solstice meant they had made it through the worst parts of winter and that warmer and longer days were coming soon. The Norse in Scandinavia celebrated their solstice holiday Yule from December 21st through January to celebrate the return of the sun. A custom of the Norse was the burning of a great log for as long as 12 days during which a feast would occur. It is believed this tradition laid the foundation for the custom of the Yule Log. Across Europe livestock was slaughtered due to the coming cold but this gave people an abundance of meat to go alongside wines and beers that finished fermenting in the winter months.
The Romans And Saturnalia
The Romans had their own winter holidays but due to their warmer mediterranean climate these celebrations took on different forms. Saturnalia was a celebration of the god Saturn who among his many duties was also a god of agriculture. Lasting for an entire month this Roman holiday was renowned for eating, drinking, and the relaxing of social norms. The Romans (a people long concerned with public image) closed businesses and schools to celebrate and the ruling class allowed peasants the control of cities as the social order was flipped for the holiday month.
Christianity And The Winter Solstice
At the time the major holiday for Christians was Easter as a winter holiday had not yet become associated with the religion. This changes when Pope Julius I declared December 25th as the celebration of Jesus’s birth. Historians believe this was done to absorb existing traditions into the church and by the 8th century celebration of ‘The Feast Of The Nativity’ had spread across Europe. By the middle ages Christianity had become the majority religion in Europe. Christmas as it was celebrated had taken on much of the pre-existing solstice celebrations. This meant that their version of Christmas had a more rambunctious carnival atmosphere with feasting, drinking, playful celebrations, and the playing of pranks.
Christmas In America
In the beginning Christmas was not a popular holiday in the United States. In fact from 1659 to 1681 it was outlawed in Boston with fines being issued if you celebrated. English traditions in general were not popular following the American Revolution. However, by the 1800s Christmas started to gain in popularity. The 1800s were a time of much conflict across social classes. In this atmosphere of increasing social awareness Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol’ and its message of togetherness, compassion, and family resonated with the public. The modern holiday began to take on the trappings of peace and togetherness. Also during the time families were becoming less strict with their children and the revived holiday gave them a reason to spoil their children a little with gifts. Now emerging as a family holiday Americans began to research old traditions from Europe and added them to the American version of Christmas. Growing out of societal needs and old customs Christmas became a federal holiday on June 26, 1870.