It is easy to think that the way we celebrate Christmas today is the way it has always been. The fact is, Christmas has changed greatly in the last 100 years, and before that, we might find it quite unrecognizable. Christmas celebrations, traditions, the image of Santa Claus, and many other things are truly a modern construct. In some ways, the Ebenezer Scrooge character in Charles Dickens Christmas Carol was not all that unusual in his day, 1843, and Dickens, as usual, was writing a political satire as much as anything.
The first thing to consider is the timing of Christmas. Most scholars, theological and historical, agree that were Christmas placed at its proper time on the calendar, it is more properly an event that happened in April. There are two reasons for this. First, in the bible there is the mention of baby sheep. As with most animals, sheep give birth in the early spring which would render such newborns almost fully grown at the start of winter.
Next is the biblical reference to a census being taken. Historians and archeologists have been able to establish such an event happening but again it was in the spring.
And finally, although this is certainly not the last fact, there is the fact that the early Catholic church worked hard to have pagan rituals removed from public participation. In month prior to the beginning of winter, there was a long celebrated feast of having the last fresh meat of the season. That feast is commonly known at “carnival.” The root of that word is the Latin word “carne” which means meat. The Catholic church correctly realized it could not have the feast removed from the public mind so it supplanted it with a feast of its own, Christmas. The celebration of carnival also commonly saw the bringing of fir trees into the home.
If we fast forward to late 17th century America we find that Christmas was not celebrated by the Puritans and their early descendants. The Puritans viewed the celebration as a sinful time of excessive celebration, gluttony, drunkenness, and misbehavior. Such had been the case in the England they left and they were committed to change. Early American almanacs leave out all mention of Christmas from their pages.
In 18th Century Boston the tradition of “wassailing,” brought from England, was practiced by the poor. This was a tradition of begging for food. In the mid-1700s it was simply the poor going to the houses of well-to-do Bostonians and knocking on doors begging. By the late 1700s, it had become a practice where these people used threats of invading the homes of those who did not give to them.
The first Christmas religious service held in New England happened in 1789 by the Universalist Church of Boston. By 1818 the practice had spread to many of Boston’s churches and the beginnings of a celebration took hold in New England. Still, the day did not have the status of a holiday as we understand such things today.
When Clement Moore wrote “The Night Before Christmas” in 1823 he was, it is believed, relating a Dutch tradition of Christmas to his children. It is interesting to note in the poem that he refers to Santa Claus as an “elf” and that his sleigh and reindeer as being “tiny.” This is a far cry from the Santa Claus we know today. Also at that time, most artist renditions of what Santa Claus looked like always included him smoking a pipe.
Still, at that time, there was no American tradition of gift giving. Although the idea of gift giving was offered by Unitarians in 1806 it did not take off until merchants embraced the idea several decades later. It is thought that the tradition is also an import from the Dutch where children put out their wooden shoes in hopes that Saint Nicholas would leave them a coin or two. The 1840s saw the beginning of merchants advertising the idea of gift giving, and with that, Christmas became fully established in American.
Santa Claus was transformed in the 1890s from Clement Moore’s tiny elf to Coca Cola’s white bearded rotund full-sized Santa we all know today. Christmas, like America itself, had become a compilation of German, Nordic, and English traditions. Saint Nicholas himself, though, was a person of the Byzantine Empire. Nicholas was a 4th Century bishop of Bari. The Byzantines revered Saint Nicholas as the protector of children. From this fact the tradition of Sinterklaas evolved in Holland and Belgium. In that tradition, Sinterklaas had a helper with him when he delivered presents, via the chimney, to all the children.
The history of Christmas varies with the country, but as a well-accepted and widely celebrated event, it was the 19th century before it truly took hold. The most enduring image of Christmas is the American invention of a Santa Claus as we know him now. An image that varied greatly from one country to the next 150 years ago, now varies slightly.