It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Christmas is upon us. The great capitalist holiday. Well, it didn’t start that way, of course. For a lot of people, it’s even not all about presents, but it’s hard to miss the capitalist part of Christmas. It’s so overwhelming. Anyways, as I said, it was not like that at first… I mean, I don’t know. I just think it wasn’t, because I don’t even know when we went from Jesus’s birthday to Santa Claus. So…
Who Invented Christmas?
It was not Charles Dickens. There’s literally a movie called The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) about Charles Dickens. But it wasn’t him.
Christmas Day is the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, as you know. It started two millennia ago, but the origins of the celebration are even older. People, mostly in Europe, used to celebrate the winter solstice. December 21st is the shortest day of the year, the idea was that the worst was behind, the sun would slowly come back, hooray! In some Scandinavian countries, it was a particularly festive time. For the Germans, it was also about honoring some pagan god named Oden.
But what about December 25?
Did you know that December 25 has been a federal holiday in the United States only since 1870? A long time before that, members of the upper classes in Rome used to celebrate on this date another birthday, Mithra’s (the god of the unconquerable sun). It took place during the Saturnalia Festival.
Christians didn’t like that festival. When it was decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus as a holiday, no date was found in the Bible, and Pope Julius I decided it would be December 25. It is believed that it was a way to put an end to the Saturnalia Festival and to use the popularity of the winter solstice celebrations to help the adoption of the new tradition.
It worked for a long time. But Christmas was eventually canceled.
The War on Christmas
Puritanism is a buzzkill, especially during the 17th century in England. In 1650, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell wanted to get rid of everything decadent in the country decided to outlaw the holiday. It didn’t last, a decade later, the Monarchy was back with Charles II who reinstated Christmas.
In England at least. Not in America. At least, not everywhere in America. If in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith was happy to celebrate Christmas, the celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. And after the American Revolution, Christmas was a bit too English and was not popular at all.
When it made its comeback in America, Christmas was not the same as before. It was not a festival anymore. It became a family affair. That started in New York in 1828 where a riot occurred during the Christmas season. It was a time of class conflict, and the rich didn’t want to hear about the problems of the poor and encourage the city council to institute the city’s first police force—what a Christmas present! Because of all that, those rich people decided to change the way Christmas was celebrated.
The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent. is a collection of essays and short stories written by the American author Washington Irving and published serially throughout 1819 and 1820. Some of his texts about a peaceful Christmas bringing together people inspired members of the upper classes to adopt a new approach.
What about Dickens?
He didn’t invent Christmas, but he certainly helped change the way it was celebrated. The classic holiday tale A Christmas Carol was first published in London in 1843. Published on 19 December, the first edition sold out by Christmas Eve. A year later, thirteen editions had been released. It was a smashing hit that reinvigorated the Christmas holiday and inspired several traditions. It became a family gathering with seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit.
In America, the book pushed further what Washington Irving’s writing had already inspired. Christmas became a day for the family with gifts for the children. Soon, older traditions (some religious) came back, and new ones were added, in order to build an American Christmas tradition that families quickly adopted.
One of them was Santa Claus
Who Invented Santa Claus?
Born in Turkey around 270 A.D., Saint Nicholas of Myra (born Nicholas of Bari) was an early Christian bishop who became known for his legendary habit of secret gift-giving—and for being the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, and students. In the late 18th century, Saint Nicholas found his way to America with the help of Dutch families in New York who used to gather in order to honor the anniversary of his death.
What made him an iconic Christmas tradition was a Christmas poem called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” that was first published anonymously in 1823 (and later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore even if some contend that Henry Livingston Jr., not Moore, was the author of the poem). In it, Saint Nicholas came in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer and, after landing on the roof, he entered the house down the chimney, carrying a sack of toys used to fill the stockings hanging by the fireplace—plus, the first line is “’Twas The Night Before Christmas.”
In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew one of his notable works by drawing Santa Claus on the cover of the January 3rd, 1863, issue of Harper’s Weekly. This cover established the image of the Santa Claus we know today.
What About the Christmas Tree?
It was a German Custom that began during the 16th century when Christians started to bring decorated trees into their homes. Prince Albert being German, he imported the tradition into England. In 1846, Queen Victoria and her husband (Albert!) appeared in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. It quickly became fashionable to do the same (as eating gingerbread men). Christmas tree found their way to the houses of British families, but also in America—especially on the east coast.
Christmas was born from a lot of traditions. Pope Julius I, Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, Saint Nicholas of Myra, Clement Clarke Moore, Thomas Nast, and Prince Albert all played their part in making Christmas the holiday we know today.
Happy Christmas to all!
I often write about Christmas it seems, you can also read about the first Christmas cards. And on a somewhat related subject, I wrote about the creation of LEGO bricks, still a classic Christmas gift for the kids.