The History of Christmas
The Christmas most people believe is traditional — the Victorian Christmas of Charles Dickens' time — bears little resemblance to Christmas past.
During the Middle Ages and into the early period of modern Europe, Christmas was a peasant celebration filled with hedonism, drinking, carnality and social inversion. It was even banned in an effort to curb decadence. The British Parliament abolished religious festivals, including Christmas, in 1647 and the Puritans of New England outlawed Christmas between 1659 and 1681. People caught celebrating were fined five shillings.
December 25 was set aside to mark the birth of Jesus Christ. However, looking back at how Christmas was observed and shaped, the Nativity played a minor role in Christmas' present form. What is more, the date chosen as Christ's birthday was arbitrary, but not illogical. It was not until the fourth century that church authorities selected December 25 to celebrate Christ's Mass. There is no historical or biblical reason to place the birth of Jesus Christ on this day. Scholars have suggested a spring birth was more likely because Saint Luke talks of shepherds watching their flocks when Christ was born. This only happens in the spring during lambing time.
It is commonly believed the aim of Christmas was to replace and absorb popular non-Christian festivals. Saturnalia, the most popular Roman festival in republic times began on December 17 to honour Saturn, the god of agriculture. Continued until January 1, it was filled with feasts, games and normal social order was turned upside down. More threatening to Christianity was the pagan Mithras, or sun, cult. On December 25, winter solstice, the birth of the sun god was celebrated. Mithraism was declared the religion of the Roman state in 274.
After the declaration of Christmas, a melding of traditions and rituals ensued, but by the 17th century Christmas was more commonly celebrated with its pagan traditions, not as a feast for Christ's Mass. Activities included mumming (a practice still found in Newfoundland that involves performance acting and dressing in disguise) and wassailing (a type of social inversion where the lower classes would invade wealthy homes and demand gifts).
The growth of cities and high unemployment in the early 19th century lead to gang riots during the Christmas period. Believing social order was being threatened a group of New Yorkers, who became known as the Knickerbockers, aimed to reinvent Christmas. Members included Clement Moore, author of the renowned poem penned in 1822 that begins, " 'Twas the night before Christmas," and Washington Irving who wrote The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, in 1819, stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor.
Christmas was successfully moved from the unruly streets to the familial order of the home, transforming the holiday from a class-based ritual of demanding gifts from the elites, to a family centered giving of gifts by parents to children. This upholds the Christian tradition of giving presents to children to commemorate the gifts given by the three wise men to baby Jesus, but is also inline with the modern value of the nuclear family. The modern conception of Christmas was greatly influenced by Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, written in 1843. Although, in reality this Victorian ideal never existed, many credit the story for focusing Christmas on sentimentality, family and charity and for the popularity of Christmas today. It was not until the 1880s that Christmas became the primary holiday in North America.