When we have the media telling us that Christmas is actually a pagan ceremony – it is really just the Puritan view of Christmas presented in the ‘new Puritan’ way. Below is a summary of Father Weiser’s brief history of the festival of Christmas, as set out in his book, “A Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs” (1) – a discursive study of Christmas from the perspective of 1952.
He noted that, in the Roman Empire it was a general custom to celebrate the birthdays of rulers, with no necessary correlation between the date of the celebration and the date of the actual birth- the birthdate of Plato for example was celebrated on the feast day of the god Apollo.
The early Christians celebrated the birth of Christ, in most cases on the feast of Epiphany (January 6), which is one of the oldest feasts. Father Weiser says: “Soon after the end of the last great persecution, about the year 330 AD, the Church in Rome definitely assigned December 25 for the celebration of the birth of Christ.” He noted that no official reason was given for this date, which led to different explanations subsisting – the first, that it was the actual date of birth, the second, that the birth was six months after the annunciation of John the Baptist (September 24), thus arriving at March 25 for the Annunciation – the Incarnation, and 25 December is nine months later – the birth of our Lord. Although this is an explanation that makes logical sense, it is dismissed by Father Weiser as relying upon too many assumptions.
The most probable explanation, according to him, is the third: “The choice of December 25 was influenced by the fact that the Romans, from the time of the Emperor Aurelian (275 AD) had celebrated the feast of the sun god, Sol Invictus, (the Unconquered Sun) on that day. “December 25 was called the ‘Birthday of the Sun’ and great pagan religious celebrations of the Mithras cult were held all throughout the Empire. What was more natural than the Christians celebrate the birth of Him who was the ‘Light of the World’ and the true ‘Sun of Justice’ on this very day? The popes seem to have chosen December 25 precisely for the purpose of inspiring people to turn from the worship of a material sun to the adoration of Christ the Lord..
It is sometimes said that the Nativity is only a ‘Christianized pagan festival’. However the Christians of those early centuries were keenly aware of the difference between the two festivals-one pagan and one Christian, on the same day. The coincidence in the date, even if intended, does not make the two celebrations identical – some newly converted Christians who thoughtlessly retained symbols of the sun worship on Christmas day were immediately and sternly reproved by their superiors and the abuses suppressed – examples subsist in the writings of Tertullian, (3rd century) and Christian authors of 4th and 5th centuries, the sermons of St Augustine (4th century) and St Leo I, (461 AD).
“The error of confusing Yule (solstice) and Christmas (the Mass of Christ), as if both celebrations had a common origin occurs even in our own time, [exemplified in] expressions like, ‘Christmas originated four thousand years ago’ and ‘the pagan origin of Christmas’ … While it is certainly true that some popular features and symbols of our Christmas celebration had their origins in pre-Christian yuletide customs, Christmas itself- the meaning and message- is in no way connected with any pagan or Yule rite.
“MIDDLE AGES: The great religious pioneers and missionaries who brought Christianity to the pagan tribes of Europe also introduced the celebration of Christmas. It came to Ireland through St Patrick (461 AD) to England through St Augustine (604 AD) to Germany through St Boniface (754 AD). The Irish monks St Columban (615 AD) and St Call (646 AD) introduced it into Switzerland and Western Austria; the Scandinavians received it through St Ansgar (865 AD). The Slavic people it was brought by the apostles the brothers St Cyril (869 AD) and St Methodius (885 AD) to Hungary by St Adalebert (997 AD).
“By about 1100 AD all of the nations of Europe had accepted Christianity and Christmas celebrated everywhere with great devotion and joy. The period from the 12th to the 16th centuries was the peak of a general Christian celebration of the Nativity not only in churches and monasteries but in the home as well. It was a time of inspiring and colourful religious services. Carols and Christmas plays were written. It was at this period too, that most of the delightful Christmas customs were introduced.
“A few popular customs, however, were suppressed as improper – such as dancing and mumming in church…
“DECLINE: With the Reformation in the 16th century there naturally came a sharp change in the Christmas celebration for many countries in Europe. The Sacrifice of the Mass – the very soul of the feast- was suppressed. The Holy Eucharist, the liturgy of the Divine Office, the sacramental and ceremonies all disappeared. So did the colourful and inspiring processions, the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints. In many countries, all that remained of the once rich and glorious religious festival was a sermon and a prayer service on Christmas day.
“Although the people kept many of the religious customs alive, the deep religious inspiration was missing, and consequently the ‘new ‘ Christmas turned more and more into a feast of good-natured reveling.
“On the other hand, some groups, including the German Lutherans, preserved a tender devotion to the Christ child and celebrated Christmas in a deeply spiritual way within their churches, hearts and homes.
“In England, the Puritans condemned even the reduced religious celebration that was held in the Anglican Church after the separation from Rome. They were determined to abolish Christmas altogether, both as a religious and popular feast. It was their contention that no feast of human institution should outrank the Sabbath (Sunday); and as Christmas was the most important of the non-Sunday festivals, they directed against it all their attacks of fierce indignation. Pamphlets were published denouncing Christmas as pagan, and its observance was declared to be sinful. In this anti-Christmas campaign, these English sects were much encouraged by the example of similar groups in Scotland, where the celebration of the feast was forbidden as early as 1583, and punishment inflicted on all persons observing it.
“When the Puritans finally came to power in England, they immediately proceeded to outlaw Christmas. The year 1642 saw the first ordinances issued forbidding church services and civic festivities on Christmas Day. In 1644, the monthly day of fast and penance was appointed for December 25. The people, however, paid scant attention to these orders and continued their celebrations. There was thus inaugurated a great campaign of two years’ duration (1645-1647). Speeches, pamphlets and other publications, sermons and discussions were directed against the celebration of Christmas, calling it ‘anti-Christ’ ‘idolatry’ ‘abomination’, and similar names. Following this barrage of propaganda, Parliament on June 3 1647, ordained that the feast of Christmas (and other holidays) should no longer be observed under pain of punishment. On December 24 1642, an Act of Parliament again reminded the public that ‘no observance shall be had on the five-and-twentieth-day of December, commonly called Christmas Day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches in respect thereof.’
“Each year, by order of Parliament, town criers went through the streets a few days before Christmas, reminding their fellow citizens that ‘Christmas day and all other superstitious festivals’ should not be observed, that market should be kept and stores remain open on December 25.”
….Father Weiser detailed riots throughout England, some with loss of life…
“The Government, however, stood firm and proceeded to break up many Christmas celebrations by force of arms. People were arrested in many instances but were not punished by more than a few hours jail. Anglican ministers who decorated their churches and held service on Christmas day were removed from their posts and replaced by men of softer fibre. Slowly and relentlessly, the external observance of Christmas was extinguished. December 25 became a common workday, and business went on as usual. But in spite of these repressive measures, many people still celebrated the day with festive meals and merriment in the privacy of their homes.
“REVIVAL IN ENGLAND: When the old Christmas eventually returned with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, it was actually a ‘new’ Christmas. The spiritual aspect of the feast was now left mostly to the care of the ministers in the church service on Christmas day. What was observed in the home consisted of a more shallow celebration in the form of various nonreligious amusements and general reveling….. However, a spirit of good will to all and of generosity to the poor ennobled these more worldly celebrations of the great religious feast…
“The singing of Christmas carols, which had been suppressed by the Puritans, found only a slow and restricted revival in England. Even as late as 1823, an English collector of Christmas lore, William Hone, (1842), wrote in his ‘Ancient Mysteries’ that carols were considered as ‘something past’ and had no place in the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, a few religious carols had been written and soon became favourites among the English-speaking people. The most famous of these are ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by Night’ (Nahum Tate, 1715), and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing,’ (Charles Wesley 1788).”
(1) Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, (1952), at pp. 60-65.Image: Medieval Christmas