“It’s Christmas time and time for a carol. Time to cheer about the little King. To fill the bowl and roll out the barrel. Have ourselves a fling.”*
The first stanza of the song “It’s Christmas Time” in one line captures the dual nature of the Christmas celebration—religious versus secular.
What started out as a pagan celebration of the end of harvest long before Christ was born, was appropriated by 3rd century Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
When in Rome …
The Roman celebration of Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, began Dec. 17 and lasted for seven days. The next day, Dec. 25, was a celebration day for the sun-god, Mithra. A few days after that, the Kalends of January—or Jan. 1—was a celebration of the new year.
During this time, people stopped waging war, businesses closed, homes were decorated, gifts were exchanged—and hedonistic celebrations ran rampant.
Early Christians decided to supplant the worship of pagan gods. By the middle of the 4th century, the church decreed Dec. 25 would be recognized as the birth of the Christ in an effort to draw pagans away from worship of the sun god. Instead, they hoped people would worship the Son of God.
It worked, and yet it didn’t. Pagans turned toward recognizing Dec. 25 as the birth of Christ, but they also held onto their pagan good-times celebrations. Even back in the early centuries, Christmas was split between religious and secular celebrations, as it is today.
Christmas is outlawed
However, during the mid-17th century, it became illegal to celebrate Christmas in any form.
In England, under Oliver Cromwell and the Anglican Reformation, Parliamentary law outlawed the celebration of Christmas. In 1659, a law by the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony also made Christmas illegal in Boston and Puritans fined people 5 shillings for their celebrations.
It wasn’t until King Charles II restored Christmas in England after the Restoration, and the law in the New World was repealed in 1861, that Christmas was allowed to be celebrated openly again.
In 1870, Christmas was one of the first five congressionally designated federal holidays; however, it was only applicable to federal employees in the District of Washington. Congress extended the holiday outside the district in 1885.
A visit from Saint Nicholas
In the early 19th century, secular Christmas celebrations took shape. Christmas began to center around families and feelings of goodwill toward man. Authors such as Washington Irving and Charles Dickens helped solidify the spirit of Christmas.
Then, in 1823, the children’s poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas was published, giving a detailed description of the “right jolly old elf,” as well as his team of eight reindeer.
But that’s another story.
* excerpt from “It’s Christmas Time,” by Victor Young and Al Stillman