The Curious History of Christmas

As day dawned over England on December 25, 1647, the nation woke to the strangest Christmas of all: no Christmas. For the first time, Christmas had been canceled.

Christmas canceled? Indeed, Christmas canceled. Noël nixed. Advent outlawed.

Twelve years later, the Massachusetts Bay Colony followed suit. In place of decorations, they posted the following public notice:

The observation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dressing in Fine Clothing, Feasting and similar Satanical Practices are hereby FORBIDDEN, with the Offender liable to a Fine of Five Shillings.

Had the spirit of Scrooge settled over England? Had Mount Crumpit moved to Massachusetts? Had the White Witch swept through the West on her way to conquer Narnia?

Well, no, not quite. In fact, as we travel through some of the history of Christmas past, we who love the coming of Christ may feel a strange sympathy rising in our hearts for the Puritans who did this. We may not want to cancel Christmas ourselves, but we may feel newly aware of the season’s many follies. More importantly, we may feel freshly eager to consecrate Christmas to that one great end so easily hidden under wrapping paper, buried beneath holiday bustle, and lost in shopping malls: the worship of Christ himself.

Birth of Christmas

We might imagine that the birth of Christmas coincided, more or less, with the birth of Christ — but the story is a bit more complicated. For the first three centuries of church history, few seem to have celebrated Christmas (and those who did may have known nothing of December 25).

The first Christmas celebration on record dates to the mid-fourth century, with Julius I (bishop of Rome from 337–352) being the first to declare December 25 as the date for the holiday. December 25 was the darkest day of the year in the then-used Julian calendar — a fitting day to celebrate the birth of the “great light” (Isaiah 9:2).

Yes, fitting — but accurate? Perhaps not. Joseph Kelly, with reference to Luke 2:8, notes that “shepherds in Judea were outdoors from March until November,” making a spring, summer, or fall date more likely than a winter one (The Origins of Christmas, 55). So why December 25? Did the symbolism of the winter solstice prove decisive, especially in the absence of another clear date? Were Roman Christians attempting (as many claim) to baptize or counter winter pagan festivities, such as the weeklong celebration of Saturnalia or the Feast of the Unconquered Sun?

Possibly. The history is somewhat tangled, and the influences are not always clear. A century before Julius I, for example, a Christian named Sextus Julius Africanus suggested March 25 as the date of Christ’s conception — another fitting day, given that some Christians dated the creation of the world to March 25. So, the December celebration of Jesus’s birth may have flowed, in part, from that supposed date (Origins, 60).

For the purposes of this article, however, we can say this confidently: Whether or not early Christians wanted Christmas to counter pagan holidays, the celebration of Jesus’s birth did indeed find itself nestled among pagan traditions from the start — and, as a result, popular celebrations of Christmas sometimes could look decidedly unchristian.

The story of Christmas, then, is not the story of a once-sacred holiday becoming increasingly corrupted by secularism and commercialism. The sacred and the sacrilegious, the holy and the profane, the profound and the banal have always met at Christmas. They have been entwined, from the beginning, like holly and ivy.

Day of Debauchery

From the early years of Christmas, and on through a full millennium, perhaps the most formidable threat to Christmas worship was one we might not expect. Our seasonal associations are so cozy and snug, so cheerful and family friendly, that we read with surprise some accounts of Christmases long ago. In many times and many places, December 25 was a day of debauchery.

In his book The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum offers a window into some celebrations of old:

It involved behavior that most of us would find offensive and even shocking today — rowdy public displays of eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging (often involving the threat of doing harm), and even the invasion of wealthy homes. . . . Christmas was a season of “misrule,” a time when ordinary behavioral restraints could be violated with impunity. (5–6)

Drunkenness, lust, revelry, sacrilege, theft — we do not imagine these elements when we sing “the glories of Christmases long, long ago,” but there they were, parading in the streets for all to see. Judith Flanders notes how the first English Christmas carol was a drinking song (Christmas: A Biography, 31).

“Goodwill without a good God means little. A large heart without a large Christ remains too small to save.”

We find the same dark thread no matter how far back we travel. In the fourth century, soon after the first Christmas celebrations, the pastor John Chrysostom “warned his congregation about feasting to excess and about wild dancing, and he urged them to approach Christmas after a heavenly and not an earthly manner” (Origins, 126).

Perhaps, then, we can understand why English lawmakers in 1644, three years before the famous ban, lamented how a day “pretending the memory of Christ” in fact displayed “extreame forgetfulnesse of him.”

Season of Snug

Then, about two hundred years ago, something changed. Slowly, gradually, through the complex and surprising trail of history, Christmas grew less raucous and more tame, less lewd and more child-friendly, less like a naughty elf and more like a jolly Santa.

By the early nineteenth century, new traditions were taking Christmas from the street and the bottle to the home and the hearth. The indoor Christmas tree, first seen in 1605, became common. Gifts for children, at first a muted part of the holiday, became extravagant. And, of course, parents started telling tales of a certain St. Nicholas and his eight reindeer.

An 1852 book, noted by Flanders, illustrates the difference in two drawings (124–25). “Old Christmas Festivities” pictures a scene filled mostly with rowdy men eating, drinking, and dancing. A woman in the center looks coy as a man leans in for a kiss. A child in the corner works. Meanwhile, “The Christmas Tree,” depicting a more modern scene, shows us a room of mostly women and children, demure and adorable, surrounding an ornamented tree.

Superficially, the season of snug seems more amenable to Christian worship — at least, much more amenable than a drinking party. At the same time, its superficial resemblance to Christian values may present a different kind of danger. When the Christmas stage is filled with shepherds and cherubs, family and fun, stars and trees, we can forget to notice that the manger is still empty. Debauchery displays an “extreame forgetfulnesse” of Christ; so does vague cheer and general merriment.

As I recently reread Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella A Christmas Carol — a book that many claim “invented” our modern Christmas — I found myself needing to be on guard lest I reduce Christmas to mild church attendance, an inclination to charity, and a loving family around the fire. I do not mourn Scrooge’s transformation, of course, any more than I wish the Grinch’s heart had stayed two sizes too small. But I need reminding that goodwill without a good God means little, that a large heart without a large Christ remains too small to save.

No matter how jolly, a Christmas shorn of Christ offers gifts without a Giver, a feast without God’s favor, and cheer without the costly love of our incarnate Lord.

Packages, Boxes, and Bags

We have one more stop on our journey through Christmas history. We have seen the wild dancing; we have felt the glow of bright fires. And now, mingled with jingling bells and roasting chestnuts, we hear the ching of the cash register. The Christmas of the last century and a half, and the Christmas of today, is big business. Really big.

As we watch the Grinch undergo his own Scrooge-like conversion, he does not bring a mere Christmas goose to the Cratchits; he instead returns all the toys he had so despised — those tartookas and whohoopers, those gardookas and trumtookas. But we have come a long way even from the original Grinch, which appeared half a century ago. Then, the song of Whoville still rose above the toys as the real reason for the season. Today, the Grinch would hear much less singing and much more noise; he would see far less hand-clasping and far more controller-holding. Had he come to our towns, might his heart have remained the little prune it always was?

If Christians of old had to guard against Christmas debauchery, we have to guard against Christmas commercialism. Our holidays are not so much in danger of drunkenness as of December sales and the bustle of buying — “the commercial racket,” as C.S. Lewis called it (God in the Dock, 338).

Donald Heinz notes the subtle yet deeply deforming effect such a racket, coming at such a time, can have on God’s people. Engaging in mindless, Christmas commercialism “re-trains believers to act like consumers precisely when they are behaving religiously” (Christmas: Festival of Incarnation, 225). Here indeed is our threat: not that we would imagine toys and trinkets as the meaning of Christmas, but that the liturgies of the shopping mall would become enmeshed with the liturgies of worship, shaping us in ways we hardly recognize.

In reality, Christ and the commercial racket ever have been, and ever will be, at irreconcilable odds. The Lord we hail on Christmas morning was born and raised in poverty. He, more than anyone, warned against the dangers of wealth and the deceptive glitter of stuff. He told us that we cannot serve God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24); might we also remember on Christmas that we cannot celebrate both Christ and Amazon?

I have no broad cultural or political burden to “put Christ back in Christmas.” But as a worshiper of Jesus (and now especially as a father with a young family), I do have a burden to make Christ the blatant, unashamed, all-consuming center of our Christmas. The world will do what the world will do, but can we not witness to a different way?

Could We Cancel Christmas?

Witnessing well in the Christmas season will require some careful thought and planning. We may need to interrogate our received traditions (perhaps especially the commercial ones), asking if they actually say anything at all of Jesus. Upon investigation, we may find that many elements of our cultural Christmas can be grafted into a sincerely Christian approach to the holiday. Other elements, however, may need to be shoved back up the chimney.

As we consider what might stay and what might go, we would do well to remember the dominant note in the Bible’s version of the story: joyful, awestruck worship. “Glory to God in the highest!” the angels shouted from heaven (Luke 2:14). The shepherds, after witnessing the wonder with their own eyes, then “returned, glorifying and praising God” (Luke 2:20). Shortly after, Simeon and Anna lifted their voices heavenward at the sight of the infant Christ (Luke 2:28–32, 38). And whenever those wise men saw his star, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10).

Can we not, then, raise children who know that Christmas is more than a toy store under a tree? Can we not wrest the season back from the powers of a commercialized culture and find our deepest joy in that most precious gift, received without price? Can we not labor to make our homes and our hearts living Nativity scenes, where the presence of Jesus slows our hurried pace and satisfies our cravings for more?

If we give gifts, can we do so as an explicit expression of God’s generosity, and perhaps with a modesty that keeps the main Gift clear? If we decorate, can we not adorn our trees and homes as the Israelites of old wrote truth on their doorposts? And if we make merry, can we not also make plain, in both silent and spoken ways, that Jesus is Lord of the feast?

Perhaps more than all, can we not believe that the coming of Christ holds treasures of wonder we have barely begun to explore? Augustine leads us in Christmas worship: “Man’s Maker was made man, that he, ruler of the stars, might nurse at his mother’s breasts; the Bread might be hungry, the Fountain be thirsty, the Light sleep, the Way be tired from the journey” (Origins, 122) — and all so that sinners might be saved, the dead made alive.

We could not cancel Christmas if we tried, nor would most of us want to. But as secular carols fill the mall, and as the craze of commercialism tramples the season like a runaway sleigh, we do have the opportunity — indeed, the commission — to point the season’s lights in another direction: to God enfleshed, the Infinite as infant, I Am as Immanuel.