Nativity Scene
This nativity scene was painted by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (1725-1727) of Vienna.

A History of Christmas

The birth of Christ in Bethlehem is among the most celebrated moments in world history. Editor Emeritus Janine Pumilia gives us a history lesson on the holiday’s history and evolution, reminding us of the true reason for the season.

In his 1847 oil painting “The Romans of the Decadence,” French artist Thomas Couture depicts his vision of drunken, morally corrupted revelers at a pagan festival like the December Saturnalia in the Roman Empire.

The Christmas season is a steady heartbeat in our lives, predictable and lavish with rituals that tie us to ancestors recent and ancient. Like a giant sparkly snowball, it’s been rolling around the globe for nearly 17 centuries, following pathways blazed by Christianity, picking up shiny bits of time periods and cultures along the way. Some of those bits are pagan and pre-date Christ by many centuries.

It’s easy to celebrate Christmas without knowing it began as a Roman Catholic Holy Day, the Feast of the Nativity, by edict of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. If we search for the most constant core element of Christmas, we find it in the story of Jesus Christ’s birth as recorded in scripture. When we wish people “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays,” we’re really wishing them “Merry Christ’s Mass” and “Happy Holy Days,” whether or not we realize it. The customs associated with Christmas, however, are another matter.

Today we hang greenery and light candles and give gifts in mid-winter, just like our great-great grandparents did and just like ancient pagans celebrating winter solstice did. Our greens may be plastic, our candles may require two AA batteries and our gifts may be purchased online, but we’re following ancient customs just the same.

Where did we get them? From our European ancestors. Where did they get them? From the Roman Empire, which stretched across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North Africa at the time Christ was born.

We mimic medieval recipes and trot out imagery and carols from the Victorian 1800s, with lyrics that make little sense to us – what’s figgy pudding? How does an angel “hark?”

We love 1940s Christmas films and we string LED lights invented in the 1980s and we hunt down the hottest toys of 2020. Christmas is the ultimate mash-up of time periods.

Christmas Conflict

The Dec. 25 holiday set by Roman leaders some 350 years after Christ’s ascension has always stirred conflict. Through the centuries, people have accused Christmas of being too pagan, too Catholic, too subversive, too commercial and too bawdy. Governments have banned it, including our own Plymouth Colony. But Christmas has persisted.

Christians and pagans celebrated Dec. 25 for different reasons in the 4th century and winter solstice festivals were popular centuries before Christ was born. The solstice marks the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. Greenery was hung, candles were lit, wreaths were fashioned from evergreens, and feasting, drinking, dancing and gift-giving took place.

“The hanging of mistletoe and holly was a reminder that spring would come again, that the darkest day of the year was passing and light would return to the world,” explains Cait Dallas, curator and exhibit developer at Old World Wisconsin, in Eagle Wis., a living history museum operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society. “The roots for a winter holiday were pre-Christian. The common theme among them was placating the deities. You wanted the gods on your side so that next year’s crops would come in well.”

Many upper-class Romans celebrated a nativity festival for Mithra, a pagan god of light birthed from a rock in ancient Iran. Soldiers brought Mithraism to Europe from the Middle East and it became the primary rival to Christianity in the Roman Empire.

Some Romans associated Mithra with Deus Sol Invictus, “the unconquered sun,” and celebrated the god Saturn during the winter solstice, while Christians celebrated a different Unconquered Son.

Early Christians were still being persecuted by the Roman Empire in 274 AD when Emperor Aurelian declared Sol Invictus to be an official religion. By 313, however, Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which ended Christian persecution. Just 10 years later, he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

The transition to monotheistic (one God) Christianity didn’t happen overnight, however. Many Romans continued to celebrate pagan gods.

Why Christian leaders in the Roman Empire declared Dec. 25 as the date of Christ’s birth is still debated, since it’s not mentioned in scripture. Some scholars believe it was a political tool to help merge Christian and pagan cultures peacefully. They note that shepherds and sheep would not have been in fields in December. Others point to concepts in Judaism that link a prophet’s date of death to the date of his or her conception. Christian antiquity held that Jesus died March 25, so was conceived on March 25 (the “Annunciation”) and Dec. 25 followed nine months later, they reason.

Christmas declined along with the Roman Empire but made a big comeback when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne (also called Karl or Charles the Great) as emperor, at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, on Christmas Day 800 AD.

Charlemange, whose ancestry we’d call French today, sought to unite all people of Western Europe and convert them to Christianity. Those who refused him were killed by his armies.

Charlemagne protected Roman Catholic tradition, including Christmas. Power struggles among his warring grandsons gave rise to independent countries of Europe we know today, all of which formed their own Christmas customs and legends.

By the 11th century, two branches of Christianity existed: Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, the latter having rejected the pope’s authority in 1054.

In 1534 England, after the Roman Catholic Church refused to annul King Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry established the Church of England and put himself in charge of it. He wasn’t the only one rejecting Catholic authority in the 1500s. After failed attempts to reform the Catholic church, various protesters – Protestants – split from the pope, proclaiming that scripture, not church tradition, was their ultimate authority. Among these Reformation leaders were Martin Luther in Germany, Frenchman John Calvin in Switzerland and John Knox in Scotland. In 1604, England’s King James VI commissioned the King James Bible, which drew heavily from the work of Reformation leaders. Bible scholars still reference it because words added to the Greek text by translators are italicized in it.

English Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries worked to “purify” (hence “Puritan”) the Church of England by ending what they viewed as its corruptions rooted in Catholicism. Some believed Christmas was among those corruptions, and it was banned for decades in England and Scotland.

Christmas returned to English tradition in 1660 under Charles II but its reputation was tarnished. The very concept of “holy days” offended Puritans, since only the Sabbath was named holy in scripture. “They for whom all days are holy can have no holiday” they said. They nicknamed Christmas “Foolstide” and rejected both Church of England and Roman Catholic authority.

Expanding literacy and the newly invented printing press made it possible for Christians to read the Bible firsthand rather than relying solely upon religious officials to guide them.

English Puritans were persecuted for holding views apart from the Church of England and many relocated to less restrictive Holland for this reason, including 18-year-old William Bradford. An avid Bible student since youth, Bradford and like-minded Puritans lived together for 11 years in Holland before setting sail in September 1620 from Plymouth, England. They were bound for the New World on a crowded merchant ship called Mayflower.

Pilgrims departing Plymouth, England, bound for the New World 400 years ago. They hoped to leave Christmas behind them, along with other “bad habits.” Painting by British artist Bernard Gribble.

The New World

Mayflower carried not only Puritans, but also people loyal to the Church of England; not all Pilgrims shared the same beliefs.

Once they landed on Cape Cod in 1620, the 102 Pilgrims formed Plymouth Bay Colony in today’s Massachusetts. Nearly half of them died during the first winter. By fall of 1621, Bradford orgnized a celebration of the colony’s first crop harvest, inviting the Native American Indians who’d helped the colony to survive. This gathering would later inspire our Thanksgiving holiday.

As a Puritan Separatist, Bradford hoped to prevent Christmas and other “bad habits” from taking root in the New World. He believed Christmas lacked a scriptural basis, was too heavily influenced by paganism and had devolved into an excuse for drinking and lewd behavior. And, like all Puritans, he rejected the basic concept of holy days.

In his journal, later published as “Of Plymouth Plantation,” Bradford recalls how he found non-Puritan citizens “in a state of joyous bedlam” playing a rowdy cricket-like game in the streets of Plymouth mid-day on Dec. 25, as had been their custom in England. He told them that if they wanted to spend Christmas praying quietly at home, that was OK, but there should be no revelry in the streets while Puritans put in a regular day of work.

It was an early example of New World religious intolerance. The Puritans who risked their lives in search of religious freedom weren’t keen on granting that same freedom to others. This fact was not lost on our founding fathers who would, some 150 years later, guarantee the right of all Americans to practice their beliefs free from government interference.

From 1659 to 1681, Plymouth Colony outlawed Christmas altogether, fining violators. Christmas couldn’t be stopped, however. As more Europeans arrived, they brought their Christmas traditions with them. Americans still bicker about Christmas. This is nothing new.

Frontier Christmas

Christmas persisted in the early settler years but was by no means the blow-out fixture it is today.

“Christmas didn’t really ramp up until after the 1830s in the U.S.,” says Dallas. “We start to see advertisements in newspapers for toys and other Christmas-related items in the 1840s and ’50s. Even in the earliest days of the frontier, people could get newspapers and magazines from nearby towns and these carried news from the East.”

Diaries, letters, cookbooks and literature provide clues about frontier Christmas customs in our region.

A visit to friends or relatives, sharing special foods and singing carols were Christmas staples some people enjoyed. Some hung fresh greenery, lit special candles and enjoyed dancing, singing and other homespun fun typical of all festive gatherings.

Then, as now, “Christmas isn’t the most important holy day in the Catholic church,” notes Dallas. The pre-eminent Catholic holy day is Easter, a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Unlike Christmas, the timing of the resurrection is undisputed since it coincided with the Jewish Passover in scripture.

“If we step back and look at it, how you celebrated Christmas on the frontier really depended on your resources and situation,” says Dallas. “Some people had spending money, others not. It made a big difference. There was a lot of poverty on the frontier. And no matter what, the litany of regular chores still needed to be done on Dec. 25 – milking the cows, feeding the animals, cleaning the clothes and so on.”

Some pioneer families had a year-round habit of gathering in the evening to read aloud from the Bible. At Christmastime they read about the birth of Jesus.

A church was often the first community building erected in a settlement, doubling as a general meeting house. Worship services held in homes or churches were important then as now.

“Some frontier communities had traveling priests or ministers who served a large geographic area,” says Dallas.

Our region mostly was settled by “yankeees” from New England and New York, largely Protestant. Waves of European immigrants soon followed, most entering Chicago by railroad or the Erie Canal, then moving west by rail or animal power. Some Scandinavians landed in Rockford simply because it was the western end point of the rail line when they arrived.

“Church services were held in native tongues – Swedish, German, Italian, Greek Orthodox – just as we see services in Spanish today,” says Caitlin Treece, educator at Midway Village Museum in Rockford. Gift-giving was a modest affair on western frontiers.

“Gifts were often handmade,” says Treece. “Dolls made from fabric scraps, maybe a quilt someone had worked on all year long, hand-made socks, sweaters, wooden toys, maybe something you ordered from a Sears and Roebuck catalog at the General Store. A child might receive a treat like a cookie or candy cane or a piece of fresh fruit.”

This 1848 engraving of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, with their nine children gathered around a decorated Christmas tree, helped to transform the image of Christmas from a drinking holiday to a family-friendly season.

Victorian Christmas

Why is so much of our Christmas imagery influenced by Victorian Europe? Because a Christmas makeover was among the projects guided by British Queen Victoria during her long reign from 1837 to 1901. America was forming its own Christmas tradition then and followed the queen’s lead.

“Yankees who could afford it were traveling to Europe and back, seeing new Christmas customs and liking them, such as decorated Christmas trees,” says Dallas. “They brought these concepts home with them.”

Christmas trees, candy canes and advent calendars, already popular in Germany, became popular in Great Britain after German Prince Albert married Victoria in 1840. The couple reshaped the holiday in other ways, too.

“For a long time, Christmas was really more of a drinking holiday in England,” explains Treece. “Albert and Victoria had nine children. They set an example for a much more family-friendly, child-centric Christmas.”

A now-famous 1848 engraving of the royal family gathered near a Christmas tree influenced Brits at a time they were already re-examining the holiday’s meaning.

Another Christmas game-changer was the wildly popular 1843 Charles Dickens novella, “A Christmas Carol.”
The transformation of Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge from a greedy miser to a man capable of compassion for the needy struck a chord with the British and U.S. public. Christmas evolved to reflect not only self-indulgence, but also love and generosity to one’s community.

“Dickens set the image for what a real British Christmas with the trimmings looks like and this influenced the American Christmas,” says Treece. “It became a time to give and share of what you have.”

In the U.S., the yearning for a home-and-hearth family Christmas deepened as the nation faced its bloodiest chapter. Yankees and Confederates alike coped with homesickness, separation and devastating loss in the early 1860s.

“Christmas customs from Europe took root here more slowly because the Civil War was smack dab in the middle of the Victorian Era,” says Treece.

As we face a Christmas diminished by a pandemic, we can remember Americans who have faced very difficult Christmases before us. This 1863 engraving for “Harper’s Weekly” Magazine, by Thomas Nast, conveys the heartache of separation and loss at war time. American nostalgia for a family Christmas ramped up during the Civil War and has grown ever since. Not until five years after that war did Christmas become a federal holiday.

Both Illinois and Wisconsin contributed large numbers of troops to the Union Army and homefront folk worked hard to keep farms going and supplies flowing to soldiers.

“During this time, mailed Christmas cards grew very popular,” says Treece. “Christmas was described as ‘the saddest day on the battlefield.’ Soldiers tried to do little things to keep up traditions – maybe saved a letter from home to read on Christmas Day or sang carols or attended a church service – something to remind them of a normal Christmas.”

In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant made Christmas a federal holiday in hopes of uniting Americans around something both sides cherished.

“By then, Rockford was a pretty big city with a lot of stores,” says Treece. “There were many options for shopping here. If you had the money, you could buy most anything.”

Christmas became a bigger event with each passing decade, propelled by retailers and marketers as the middle class grew and could afford to buy gifts, by now widely produced by factories. A uniquely American version of Christmas folklore solidified. It starred Santa Claus (“santa” means “saint”), a figure we took from the Old World, refitted with a better personality, and exported around the globe.

Santa’s Evolution

As Dickens did for England, our own creative class helped to shape the U.S. Christmas we know today. American Santa Claus got his start in an 1822 poem written by Clement C. Moore for his children, titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” also called “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

“…He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread…”

Skinny Santas and green-suited Santas and elf-like Santa figures populated Europe for many centuries under various names, probably informed by ancient deities like Rome’s Saturn or the Norse Odin, who appeared as magical, white-bearded old men, says Dallas.

As Christianity grew, these figures were conflated with a real-life defender of the Christian faith, a Roman Catholic bishop named Nicholas. He lived during the 3rd and 4th centuries in the Mediterranean Sea town of Myra, Lycia (now southwest Turkey) and had a legendary reputation for generosity. He remains a patron saint of children and sailors in today’s Roman Catholic church.

Moore described America’s Santa as a plump, white-bearded old man in a red suit who travels the night skies by reindeer-pulled sleigh. The poem’s line, “Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread” is important, because some countries had Santa and anti-Santa figures who were indeed dreadful.

“These myths have a dark and scary side in some places,” Dallas says. “For example, the Krampus figure takes a ‘be good, or else’ tone toward children.”

Krampus is a menacing, horned, half-goat, half-demon mythical creature known to people in the Alpine region of Austria. He may drag naughty children to Hell or eat them for lunch.

Our kindly Santa became a Yankee hero during the Civil War when cartoonist Thomas Nast illustrated him in 1863 handing out gifts to Union soldiers. Nast updated Santa for an 1881 cover of “Harper’s Weekly” magazine, using Moore’s poem as a guide. That image hasn’t changed much in the 140 years since, although Coca-Cola tweaked it the 1920s.

“Most Santa figures around the world are kindly males with magical powers,” says Dallas. “They fly through the sky and reward children with free treats if they behave well. Italy’s Befana is an exception, a kindly old woman riding a broomstick.”

Children in the Netherlands anticipate Sinterklaas, who rides a white horse named Amerigo.

In Iceland, childrens’ shoes placed on windowsills are filled with goodies by Juletide Lads.

German-American illustrator Thomas Nast drew this Santa in 1881, taking his cue from Clement C. Moore’s 1822 poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Moore and Nast solidified the image of American Santa Claus.

Before Victoria showed him the error of his ways, England’s “Father Christmas” was known as a red-robed party animal more concerned with adult revelry than children.

Central European nations like Austria, Switzerland, Portugal and Croatia celebrate Christkindl, a blonde, sprite-like child with wings, an image Reformation leader Martin Luther encouraged.

Hungarian and Polish folklore includes Mikulas, whose evil assistant, Krampusz, leaves behind raw potato pieces or a wooden spoon for naughty children.

Children in Norway know of Joulupukki and the Yule Goat.

Russians and Ukrainians celebrate Ded Moroz, or “Old Man Frost,” who carries a magic staff and gifts children on New Year’s Eve, bringing his granddaughter, Snegurochka, with him.

“We also see elf-like characters, like the Julenisses,” Dallas says.

Nisses are Scandinavian pixies (think garden gnome) who help with a family’s household and farm chores. They evolved into Christmas gift bearers in about 1840 and became “Julenisses.”

In the end, Christmas is what we bring to it. The spiritual reflection, social and family traditions, commercialism and generous impulses of Christmas play out each year as familiar fixtures in our lives and world. In this pandemic year, Christmas will be different, but it will still be Christmas.

“During the Civil War, people yearned for peace, family and hearthside,” says Dallas. “Our ideas about Christmas evolved a lot during that time of great stress. People today also are feeling nostalgic as they face separation from loved ones.”

All we want for Christmas is normalcy, but we’re getting a lump of coal instead.

This, too, shall pass.

Christians can find comfort in the unchanging core story of Christmas. Perhaps a less hectic holiday will allow more time for reflection on the key concept of love taught to us by Christ.

Christians believe the Son of God came into the world through humble circumstances, showed us what love can be, forgave our human failings and ultimately triumphed over evil and death. This is the steady heartbeat of Christmas, no matter the state of the world.

Merry Christ’s Mass and Happy Holy Days!