The Origin of Christmas, article in The Chautauquan 1909
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MODERN scholars have an unpleasant habit of destroying our most cherished illusions. It matters little to them how long an erroneous belief has persisted; their business is to determine its origin in fact and trace its history, thus relieving our minds of prejudice and also, not seldom, of much poetical illusion. Yet the readjustment of opinions which follows such a process is not without compensations. The history of the development of a belief is in itself a fascinating study for the light it throws upon race psychology and the human habit of overlaying facts with poetry, of changing the obvious, the commonplace, into something new and strange. Some such attendant compensation follows the investigations of modern scholarship into the origin and observances of our most cherished festival, that of Christmas.
Most of us have always believed that many of the common practices, the pretty customs of Christmas time, were of Germanic and pagan origin, practices which early Christianity approved as a means of bringing the observance of Christmas in harmony with deep-rooted social customs. This, upon investigation, seems to be only in part true, and a review of history is necessary to show the exact proportion of truth that the general statement contains.
It must be remembered that for several centuries before the conversion of the German tribes to Christianity, Roman influences, Roman law and custom, were dominant in the larger part of Europe and in Britain as well. Germany, Gaul, and Britain were Roman provinces, ruled by Roman governors and garrisoned by Roman legions. The conquered races occupied a subordinate place; they were vassals to the allconquering Roman. Through several centuries this Roman rule was maintained, weakening only as the might of Rome failed and the Roman legions were called home to quell domestic disturbances; and during all these centuries the ruling race forced its own laws and customs upon the subject tribes, changing the native customs and manner of life to an extent often hard to determine, but doubtless very considerable. So it was that the Roman festival periods such as the Saturnalia, Brumalia, and the revelries which celebrated the new year, the Ides of January, festivals observed by the Roman legions and the Roman citizens throughout the Empire, were accepted by the tribes of Germany and Britain.
The dates of these important Roman celebrations are of great interest. The Saturnalia, a time of great license and unrestrained hilarity, was observed from December seventeenth to December twenty-third. The Brumalia celebrated December twenty-fifth, our Christmas day, a day which in the Roman calendar was supposed to be the shortest of the year. The New Year's celebration was but a week later. Thus, roughly speaking, the whole latter half of December was one great holiday time, celebrated with many interesting and peculiar observances, many of them decidedly immoral, some of them beautiful.
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The festival periods of the German tribes did not at all correspond to those of the Romans. The chief celebration seems originally to have occurred, roughly, during the first half of November, the cattle killing time, when fresh meat was plentiful. This seems also to have corresponded to the Teutonic New Year's festival, the German year ending with the gathering of the crops and the slaughtering of the cattle. The Roman and German holiday periods were thus somewhat at rivalry, the native celebration anticipating by forty days the Roman festivities of the Saturnalia. The two customs, native and foreign, persisted side by side and their relative importance became largely one of emphasis. That the December celebration outstripped its rival is apparent from later developments. That the German celebration in November persisted far into Christian times is apparent from the recognition accorded it by the church, which, following its usual policy, seized upon this survival from pagan times and made it a matter of church observance by associating with it the celebration in honor of St. Martin. This action of the Church was taken in the middle of the sixth century, November 11 becoming the recognized day of St. Martin, Martinmas.
The action of the Church in this instance is typical of the method it employed in dealing with the other festivals of Roman origin which had been adopted by the German tribes and by the Britons. Impossible to root out, these festival periods were made to coincide with church observances, nowhere more notably than in the instance of Christmas.
The early Church had not been greatly interested in the date of Christ's birth nor in the observance of the day. The Epiphany, which celebrated Christ's baptism in the Jordan, received the entire emphasis, the day being January sixth. In the fourth century, however, the Church determined upon the celebration of the Nativity. The exact date was, of course, impossible to determine and December 25 was selected for at least two very interesting reasons. The first undoubtedly was that December 25, Brumaire, was already a festival day and in the festival period of the year. By, so to speak, Christianizing this day in giving it important religious significance, the Church aimed at transforming pagan practices to Christian usages. In the second place the Church was desirous of changing the Roman calendar. January 1 was thought an improper day on which to begin the New Year. The turning point of the year, supposedly December 25, was considered the more logical date. Therefore, by making this one of the most important days in the Christian calendar, the Church hoped ultimately to make it the beginning of the new year. This purpose, as we know, failed, largely because of later conflicting practices and theories. Christmas, however, had been established and was observed as a day of Christian significance, the first recorded instance being in the year 354, by the Roman Bishop Liberius. Slowly the observance spread throughout the entire Church.
But, though officially recognized as a day of the Church calendar, the popular recognition of Christmas was of slow growth, largely because of the competition of other festivals sanctioned by long usage. For centuries, therefore, we find the Church resorting to various expedients to emphasize the observance of the day. Not until the twelfth century is there evidence that the Church felt it necessary to curb the Christmas customs, which, at this period, had assumed a spirit of revelry foreign to the religious nature of the day. It is only in comparatively modern times, in fact, that Christmas has assumed the importance that we now attach to it as a day of love and goodwill. The steady growth of this emphasis may be ascribed to the influence of the Church in transferring and modifying pagan customs. As folk days of pagan origin lost their significance Christmas grew in importance, gradually becoming the chief day of the twelve days of festival which, beginning on December 25, extended to January 6, Epiphany.
An interesting illustration of the movement by which Christmas became the greatest day of the Christian calendar may be taken from the history of Scandinavian countries. Until the tenth century the Northmen were pagan, celebrating certain periods of the year peculiar to their calendar. The chief of these was, in the ninth century, observed about the middle of January and it was not until the reign of Hakon the Good of Norway (940-963) that the January festivities were transferred to December 25, this act signalizing the conversion of the Northmen to the Christian faith. The northern Yule, with its picturesque observances, thus became identified with Christmas.
The common observances of Christmas as celebrated in America of today thus go back to very old folk customs in Germany, in England, and in Scandinavia. There are, moreover, elements of Roman origin which in the course of the centuries have become greatly changed. Each nation which has come to the observance of Christmas has contributed its part to the festive customs of the day, and Americans, as befits their mixed ancestry, share in all this diverse wealth of tradition.
Of all Christmas customs that of the Christmas tree is perhaps the most beautiful. The history of this essential feature of a modern Christmas reveals again the transference of customs from one day to another. The practice of decorating houses with branches of fruit trees seems to have originated in Italy, from thence brought by the Romans to Germany and England. Originally the custom was connected with New Year's Day. Branches of fruit trees were, in anticipation of the day, placed in warm water so that they might break into leaf and blossom as an augury of the new year. If full-leaved and beautiful, it was held a good omen. This interesting superstition ultimately became attached to Christmas observances in a most fascinating way. In the tenth century a myth of oriental origin became current in Europe, to the effect that on the night of the nativity many wonderful things happened, among which was the bursting of the forest trees into leaf and blossom. It was but a step to associate this legend with the traditional New Year's practice, and in the course of centuries this was done, the decoration of houses with branches of trees and young trees becoming finally a Christmas rather than a New Year's custom. It is interesting to note, however that the first authentic reference to a Christmas tree occurs, it is said, so late as 1604. This was in the city of Strasburg, the tree being adorned with paper roses, apples, etc., evidently in the spirit of the old legend.
To trace the history of other peculiar Christmas observances would require much elaboration, but in brief they all go back to Roman, Teutonic, English, and Scandinavian customs. The use of mistletoe is probably of Druidic origin, the mistletoe being sacred to the Druidic cult. So with the yule log and other ceremonies, each indicating some old custom, the significance of which it is now almost impossible to determine because of its antiquity.
Our Puritan ancestors in their anxiety to rid themselves of all ceremonial in anyway connected with the Roman Church, did away with the Christmas festivities to which their English ancestry entitled them. Thanksgiving became, instead, the time of rejoicing. But of late years, due doubtless in part to the German element in our population, the American Christmas has come to resemble the German Christmas, as a time of festivity, of gift making, and of goodwill. The Christmas tree has become a national institution and unless the demand for trees constitutes a menace to our forests bids fair to remain so. In England, too, the Christmas tree has been added to the English observances of the day though in that country, it is interesting to note, the custom was not adopted until so late as the reign of Queen Victoria.
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