The rise and decline of Christmas: The perspective of history
December 21, 2005
Memorials to Christmas have been removed from the public square in many places, due to legal threats from the ACLU and the timidity of politically-correct leaders. Many mainstream retailers no longer say "Merry Christmas," but substitute a bland "happy holidays" or "seasons greetings." Kids in school are presented with snowflakes and snowmen to celebrate the "Winter Holiday."
Is Christmas in decline in America? If so, what are the consequences to the culture and to the vitality of the West? Before we attempt to answer such questions, it would be helpful to turn to history to discover how and why Christmas became the premier holiday of the sacred calendar. History can also help us to understand why Christmas overflowed the boundaries of the church and became a time of general celebration by the public, the annual occasion for the convivial reunion of family and friends, the Christmas office party for adults, and the night of wonder for children.
The rise of Christmas
Christmas rites were not among the early feasts of the church. The Church Fathers of the first and second centuries made no known mention of a celebration of Christ's birth. Historians are not in agreement about when and where the first Christmas celebration was held, and potentially spurious early dates have circulated widely on the internet.
The early church did not believe that Christ was born on December 25th, but the preference for that date slowly evolved in the Western church. Saint Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (c. 248 A.D.), said, "Oh how wonderfully acted providence that on the day the sun was born, Christ was born." Cyprian's poetic phrase "the day the sun was born" seems to have been a metaphorical reference to the lengthening of days after December 21st, the shortest day of the year.
In 354 A.D., over a century after St. Cyprian's statement about the birth of Christ, Pope Julius I selected December 25th as the date Christmas was to be celebrated. This date was observed by the churches in the Western half of the Roman Empire, which were under the spiritual jurisdiction of the pope. From that time forward, Christmas had special meaning to the Western church and Western culture. Christmas was now a permanent part of the sacred calendar. The season of Advent, signifying the coming of the Christ, was established around 500 A.D. Even so, Good Friday and Easter were still the premier sacred festivals of the church.
Many historical writers suppose that Julius chose the date December 25th to preempt and replace the winter holidays of the pagans, but this is still a question of debate among historians. However, there is no question that the date of Christmas worked to the advantage of Christianity during the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome. Christmas gradually rose in status during the barbarous era running from the fifth to the tenth century, but did not become the premier Christian holiday in Europe until the 12th century, as we shall see.
Western winter holidays
During the Dark Ages, Christian monks gradually evangelized Western Europe. The pagans of the West were accustomed to celebrating winter holidays during the season that coincided with Christmas. Whatever was the intention of Pope Julius, the simultaneous holidays certainly worked in favor of the popularity of Christmas. The monks, no doubt, put the timing of Christmas to good use in their evangelism. Since that day, the mood to evangelize and to bear witness for Christ has tended to peak in the Christmas season. Many folks love Christmas because it was the season when they or their loved ones first trusted in Christ.
As the monks were evangelizing Europe, they noticed that the pagan Scandinavians celebrated a Yuletide Festival. People sat around a burning yule log as they ate a hearty festival meal. Bonfires were lit to celebrate the return of the sun. The Danes brought the yule log to England and found the Celtic Britons celebrating a winter holiday in which mistletoe and ivy were used as symbols of fertility.
The pagan lands that were conquered by Rome adopted two of Rome's winter holidays. Saturnalia was the holiday dedicated to the pagan god Saturn and was celebrated from December 15th to January 1st. During Saturnalia, there were masquerades in the streets, festival banquets, and the gathering of friends to celebrate and exchange gifts. They decked their halls with garlands of laurel, but in England they used boughs of holly. Apples were attached to tree branches as a reminder that Summer would return. Masters exchanged places with servants so that the masters could party like the common people and the servants could put on gorgeous robes and hilariously mimic aristocrats. Saturnalia was a time of eating treats, drinking, dancing, and revelry, not unlike the office Christmas party of modern times, although much more elaborate and extensive.
The other Roman pagan winter holiday that involved winter celebrations was the cult of Sol Invictus (the invincible sun). Sol Invictus was popular with Roman soldiers in a manner strangely reminiscent of how Freemasonry is popular with American and English soldiers. Roman soldiers carried their winter celebrations of Sol Invictus to the most remote parts of the Roman Empire.
The white Christmas of memory
The white Christmas of nostalgic memory had deep snow. Christmas was generally much colder in the past because Europe and America endured an era of abnormally low temperatures popularly termed the "Little Ice Age." Some elderly people alive today had grandparents who remembered the cold winters of their childhood, when America was slowly emerging from the Little Ice Age.
Some experts estimate that the Medieval Warm Period ran from roughly 900 to 1300 A.D. and the Little Ice Age ran from about 1300 to 1850. During the Little Ice Age, there were several "minima," or cold snaps. The coldest period was the "Maunder Minimum," which ran from 16451715, and was a time of very low sunspot activity. During the Maunder Minimum, some winters were so cold that the English Channel froze solid and one could ride a sleigh across. For a safe sleigh ride, the ice has to be at least four inches thick. A sustained period of sub-zero temperatures without a thaw was required to freeze ocean water in that manner.
Recovery from the Little Ice age began around 1850, which was the end of the last cold snap, or "minima." Clement Moore wrote The Night Before Christmas (1822) during the cold snap. The poem describes new-fallen snow on Christmas Eve, and reindeer, which are arctic creatures, pulling Santa's sled. Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843 and described the bitter cold of London at Christmas. The miserly Scrooge was cruel to forbid his clerk to put more coal on the fire. The book, Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates (1865), by Mary Mapes Dodge, was set in the era when the Dutch had ice skating races on their frozen canals during the Christmas season. It was also the time when country people were sometimes snowed in for weeks at a time, as described in the long nostalgic poem Snow-bound (1866), by the sentimental Quaker, John Greenleaf Whittier.
The American song "Over the River and through the Woods" is about going to grandmother's house in a sleigh for Thanksgiving. Jingle Bells, another merry song about a sleigh ride, became almost the signature song of Christmas, although the original song made no mention of Christmas. Bing Crosby was famous for singing White Christmas, written in 1942. The first stanza beings: "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know." The reference of "sleigh bells in the snow" was thoroughly obsolete when Irving Berlin penned the lines, and very few people except for old folks in rural areas had heard sleigh bells in the snow during the Christmases they "used to know." By the 1940's, deep snow at Christmas and horse-drawn sleighs were an exotic rarity. People were nostalgic for the white Christmas that they never knew, except in storybooks and the artwork on Christmas cards.
The great New York department stores of a century ago had fabulous Christmas displays that would have impressed Walt Disney. The theme of the displays was different each year, but favorite themes included winter wonderland and the snow queen and her fairy court. Hundreds of moving characters in the simulated deep snow of the northern forest enchanted shoppers. Multitudes would come by train to New York to see these wonders, while the merchants made a fortune. Were the White Christmas extravaganzas of a century ago the pinnacle of Christmas in the West? Not at all.
The Gothic pinnacle of Christmas
It was during the Medieval Warm period that we saw the pinnacle of Christmas.
Western civilization recovered very rapidly from the Dark Ages during the years 10501100 A.D. This revival was supported by bountiful harvests due to warm weather and safety from brigands afforded by Christian knights, which encouraged trade. The economic boom was accompanied by, or driven by, a great spiritual renewal and a moral reform. The spiritual renewal began in the monasteries from a new emphasis on the cross of Christ in personal devotions. The moral reforms came from a series of famous reforming popes who reigned in the second half of the eleventh century.
Beginning around the year 1100, two great changes in the spiritual aspirations and imaginative perspectives of Christians magnified the importance of Christmas to the church and the culture. The high watermark of Christmas festivities in the West precisely corresponded to the peak of the Gothic Cathedral building craze running from 11501300 A.D. The weather was warm, harvests were good, Cathedrals were springing up, and the people celebrated Christmas during a prolonged season of eighty days, as no holiday has ever been celebrated in the history of the world.
Cur Deus Homo
The first great impetus for a greater emphasis on Christmas came from theology. Saint Anselm (10331109), Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote Cur Deus Homo (10941098), which can be translated "Why a God-Man," or "Why did God become a Man?" This classic work of theology concerned the incarnation of Christ and His work of atonement at the cross. Anselm argued that unless Christ is fully God and fully man, there is no atonement for human sin and all men are eternally lost. If Christ was not God, then his death was insufficient in value to atone for the sins of all mankind. He had to be divine to provide an atonement that satisfied the infinite holiness of God the Father. At the same time, Christ also had to be a man to suffer a punishment designed to punish a man, and to provide an atonement that can be applied to the account of a man. Men could not receive him as a personal savior if he were not a man. If Christ was divine but not human, or an intermediate being, like an archangel, His death would be irrelevant to the issue of human salvation. Anselm's theology of the atonement became doctrinally indispensable both to Catholics and Reformation Protestants.
Cur Deus Homo reinforced the ancient orthodox belief that Mary conceived Christ through the Holy Spirit of God and gave birth to Christ as a Virgin. Through this means, Christ, as God the Son, became the Deus-homo, or the God-man. Anselm explained in clearer words than had ever been spoken, why God's coming to earth in the form of a man was essential to human salvation. Therefore, the birth of Jesus Christ as the God-man was a gift to all people to give them hope of eternal life.
As a result, the Christmas season in the Middle Ages was a time of hope and joy. When the people celebrated the coming of the Christ during advent, they had hope because they felt that God was coming to visit them through the Christ-child. On Christmas day, they rejoiced because they felt that God was with them. The people experienced this collectively as a community. The Christmas spirit was reinforced in the home, with friends, in the community, and at church. One cannot overestimate the powerful stimulus for good this had upon the society and culture.
The Cult of the Virgin
As one grounded upon Reformation doctrine since my youth, I do not believe in the intercessory office of the Virgin Mary, although I do believe in Anselm's Cur Deus Homo, the miraculous incarnation of Christ in the womb of Mary, the Virgin birth, and the atonement. However, one must understand some of the history of the Cult of the Virgin if one is to correctly understand the Medieval Christmas.
Prior to the eleventh century, the honor bestowed on the Virgin Mary by the church was no greater than the honor bestowed upon the apostles. However, during the period 11001200 A.D., the cult of the Virgin rose to a premier position in Roman Catholic spirituality. Almost all the Gothic Cathedrals built between 1150 and 1300 were named for the Virgin, such as Notre Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris), Notre Dame de Chartres, Notre Dame de Laon, Notre Dame de Reims, Notre Dame de Amiens, and so forth. Prior to 1150, most churches were usually named for apostles or saints.
Why did the Cult of the Virgin rise to prominence so quickly in the twelfth century? No one knows for sure, but several factors can be considered. Anselm's Cur Deus Homo emphasized the centrality of the incarnation of Christ. God became man when Mary conceived a child through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the commemoration of the birth of Christ became indispensable to Christians. The Virgin Mary took center stage as the Christmas story was told.
The virginity of Mary was emphasized for two reasons. Her virginity emphasized the miracle of the incarnation of Christ and the virgin birth. Mary's virginity also represented a high state of sanctity according to Medieval thought. In 1074, Pope Gregory VII, a great reformer of morals, required priests to be unmarried and celibate. Marriage was not despised by the church, but virginity and celibacy was considered a superior spiritual state of being. Thus, Christmas became a time to honor the holy virginity of Mary and her divinely favored role as "Mother of God."
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (10901153) was the most influential man of the twelfth century. He wrote marvelously sweet love songs to the Virgin, which gave the Cult of the Virgin a beauty, mystery, and romance that appealed to Gothic sensibilities. Of the great body of Medieval poetry, Bernard's poems about the Virgin are among the few that can bring a tear to the modern eye. Bernard's Cistertian order (from which the Trappist monks were to spring) brought a new intensity and emotional depth to the adoration of the Virgin.
Bernard's idealization of Mary as the perfect woman was in accord with the idealized woman of the romantic troubadour minstrels and the courtly romances (elaborate tales told in the courts) of Southern France. As a young aristocrat before his conversion, Bernard was in a position to have heard the songs of wandering troubadours in French courts, and to have read the courtly romances.
By 1150 A.D., one could hardly tell if a French poet was writing to the Virgin or to the aristocratic lady of the castle. After 1150, all the sculpted and painted Madonnas in the churches represented an ideal of feminine beauty. One can scarcely tell if the artist was celebrating an ideal of beauty, or adoring the Virgin, or a muddled blend of the two. It is very difficult for moderns to appreciate how intensely these ideals and sentiments were felt by Gothic men.
With this kind of imaginative intensity, Medieval men were ready to throw themselves into the adoration of the Virgin during the Christmas season. The Virgin had the starring role in the story of the advent of Christ.
The Medieval Christmas
Christmas celebrations lasted 80 days in Medieval Europe, or 20% of the year. Advent, the first half of the Christmas season, began on November 15th, lasted 40 days, and ended on Christmas. During Advent, the ringing of bells and the singing of carols was heard in the cities and towns. "Mysteries," or plays of sacred dramas including the Christmas story, were publicly reenacted. During the long performances, all the dangers, tribulations, and triumphs of the holy family were keenly felt by the crowd. A craft guild or confraternity was granted a monopoly for performing the mysteries by the city fathers, and parts in the drama were passed down to new generations within families like an hereditary right. Advent included processions through the street with elevated statues of the Virgin. December 6th was the feast of Saint Nicholas, who was a popular saint of that era.
The word "Christmas" comes from "Christ's Mass." Actually, there were three Christmas masses. The first mass, at midnight of Christmas Eve, was the "Angel's Mass." The Angel's Mass teaches that the light of salvation comes at the time of greatest darkness. Late December had the longest nights in the year, and midnight is the darkest time of night. Legend has it that Christ was born at midnight. Sacred Vespers or hymns and carols were sung just prior to the Angel's Mass.
On Christmas morning, the "Shepherd's Mass" was celebrated. The angel heralds came to the shepherds to announce the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. During Christmas day, "The Mass of the Divine Word," or "King's Mass," was celebrated. King's Mass commemorates the birth of Christ in our hearts.
A sumptuous banquet was served Christmas day, which included a Yule boar. The banquet was accompanied by scripture readings, and followed by games such as backgammon, chess, and cards. Songs, dances, and spiked punch added high spirits to the festivities. The carol dance required a leader to sing a verse and a ring of dancers to respond with a chorus. Solemn and merry Christmas music was essential to Medieval Christmas celebrations.
The twelve days of Christmas ran from Christmas day to January 6th, the feast of Epiphany. Epiphany celebrates the visit of the Magi, or three kings, to the Christ child. An "epiphany" is the appearance of a divine being. The Magi worshipped Christ as a king of divine birth.
Advent was the devout phase of Christmas, and the Twelve Days of Christmas, or "twelvetide," was the rowdy rollicking phase. Borrowing customs from Saturnalia, the ribald crew ridiculed authority and masters waited upon servants. A Lord of Misrule was chosen to preside over the jocund chaos and to ensure that the revelry was filled with farce and hilarity. The modern New Year's Eve party is a pale remnant of the jolly and crazy season of twelvetide.
A great feast was held on the night before Epiphany. At the meal, the folks would eat "king's cake," and drink ale or wine to honor the thee kings. Christmas decorations were typically taken down and the mess made during the twelvetide celebrations was cleaned up. The next day, the Mass of the Epiphany was celebrated.
The Christmas season ended at Candlemas, on February 2nd, 40 days after Christmas. Candlemas is the feast of the purification of the Virgin. Jewish law required ritual purification of a mother 40 days after giving birth.
After celebrating a late night mass, the priest blessed candles with holy water and incense and distributed them to the people. A candle-lit procession left the church in the dark of night as choir sang. The itinerary of the procession included a visit to a cemetery or a shrine of the Virgin. The procession returned to the church and was met by the priest holding an image of the Holy child. The priest represented Simeon, the devout man who recognized Mary's child as the Messiah when she came to the temple for her ritual purification. The candle bearers entered the church and sang the Canticle of Zacharias, who was the priest in Luke to whom the angel announced the birth of John the Baptist, by his wife, the cousin of Mary. After the ceremony, blessed candles were brought to the sick for their encouragement.
Summary & conclusion
The rise of Christmas to its Gothic zenith corresponded to the rise of European civilization from the obscurity of the Dark Ages to its Gothic splendor. The holiday was central to Medieval civilization, even more than Ramadan is central to Islam. During the Little Ice Age, Christmas revived as a winter festival with both sacred and secular qualities.
At the present time, the heart of a great Western cultural and religious tradition is being cut out by those who have no heart. A concerted effort is being made by soulless institutions to drive out the sacred elements of Christmas but preserve a vague "winter holiday," with snowmen and icicles. "Mommy, why do we have a plastic snowman on our green lawn? Do you have sweet memories about snowmen and icicles?" "Hush child, it is a tradition." "But mommy, a tradition about what?"
As a child, I liked snowmen, icicles, reindeer, and holly wreathes as a secondary whimsy. But these things would have seemed like empty clutter apart from Him who was born of a virgin in a Bethlehem stable as the angels gave glory to God.
Let us not despair in the present darkness. The message of the Angel's Mass is that the light appears at the darkest time of night. Even so, come to us, our new born king, and give us light!
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow death, upon them the light has shined.... For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 2, 6)
RenewAmerica analyst Fred Hutchison also writes a column for RenewAmerica.
© 2005 Fred Hutchison