A Brief History of Christmas

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O Holy night, The stars are brightly shining.
It is the night of our dear Savior's birth.

A soft coating of pure white snow blankets the countryside. Stars twinkle in the cold winter sky. The welcome-home aroma of wood smoke drifts from my neighbor's chimney. Somewhere in the neighborhood, cookies shaped like angels are just coming out of the oven. Santa is finishing up his last couple of shifts at the Mall, and all my credit cards are toast.

Christmas is here at last!

In the spirit of the season, I thought it would be fun to take a quick look at how MasterCard's favorite holiday came to be what it is today.

First off, it is pretty certain that December 25 is not really when Christ was born. In fact, we probably don't even have the year right. The best guess of bible scholars is that he would more likely have been born on September 29, in the year 5 BC. That, or maybe sometime in March, a month which is considered holy among many people to the present day, as commemorated by the NCAA basketball tournament.

The reason we're not real sure is that the early Christians did not seem to think that details like Jesus' birthday were all that important in the big picture, probably because they were pretty busy getting fed to lions. Then along came the Emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the official religion of the Civilized World, and after that they were all busy feeding non-Christians to lions.

In about the middle of the 5th century the lions apparently got full, and so they had a little time to turn their attention to celebrating the birth of Jesus. The Pope at the time, Saint Sixtus III, decided to declare December 25 the official date for "Christ Mass," mostly because a lot of people were already used to taking that day off work.

In northern Europe and Scandinavia, the date marked a Norse holiday called "Yule," which roughly translates as "December is about the crappiest time of the year around here, and if you go outside your breath makes icicles on your upper lip, so we might as well all hang around indoors, burn a big log, roast a reindeer, and get really, really drunk."

Of course, there was also the Roman "Saturnalia," which means "We don't really need an excuse to get drunk – we're Italian."

A lot of our Christmas traditions come down to us from these pagan holidays; Christmas trees, mistletoe, holly, wreaths, caroling, exchanging gifts, peppermint schnapps, gaining 15 pounds in two weeks, and many others.

For hundreds of years the whole Christmas thing worked out pretty well, and people got right into the spirit. In fact, the revelry sometimes got so enthusiastic that it lead to the joyful burning of ghettos, public buildings, and, since lions had become relatively scarce, the occasional non-believer.

Then along came the Protestant Reformation. Among other things, the Protestants decided that wild celebrations and a bunch of customs with their roots in paganism were not fitting ways to celebrate the birth of the Savior. So they did the only thing they could - they spent a good part of the next three hundred years killing or being killed by people who didn't agree with their idea of the proper way to worship the Prince of Peace.

Among the Puritans of Colonial New England, Christmas celebrations and decorations were outlawed. It took more than two hundred years for these prohibitions to relax and for the old traditions to reassert themselves throughout America. It was not until 1870, when President Ulysses S. Grant discovered that the eggnog had rum in it, that Christmas became a national holiday.

Christmas as we know it today has evolved a great deal over the course of the twentieth century. A lot of our modern traditions have strong roots in commercial marketing, from the red-suited Santa Claus (popularized by an illustrator named Haddon Sundblom in a series of Coca Cola ads in the 1930s) to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (who first appeared in a Montgomery Ward promotional book by a staff copy writer named Robert May). It seems that in our world, wherever there's a buck to be made, you will find a heartwarming Christmas character.

And to be honest, I don't really care. I treasure the memory of being about seven years old, lying in bed on Christmas eve and struggling to fall asleep so that I could take the "Sleepy-Eye Express to Christmas Morning." Then I could race downstairs and shred the wrapping paper from the cardboard cylinder of Lincoln Logs that had been sitting there under the tree, tormenting me.

I loved Rudolph, Frosty, Santa, and all the rest. I still do. And I loved making all that fun happen, to the extent I was able, for my son. Now when I see the lights on the Christmas tree, they remind me fondly of the absolute joy of unbridled childhood avarice.

But, despite the fact that the date and all the details may not be quite accurate, those lights also remind me of stars in the sky over a manger somewhere in the Middle East, where a little baby had no crib for a bed. A little baby who grew up to be the Savior of Mankind.

Have a blessed holiday.

Copyright © 2008, Michael Ball