Q&A: A Candid history of Christmas’ origins

While many may long for the true, “spiritual” Christmas from bygone days, the Rev. Bruce Forbes says that it never really existed. In his book Christmas: A Candid History, Dr. Forbes argues that the holiday as we know it today has always been part religious observance, and part party.

Dr. Forbes, an ordained United Methodist minister, is chair of religious studies at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. He spoke by phone with Mary Jacobs; here are excerpts.

Many traditions of Christmas have pre-Christian roots, and in the minds of some people that “taints” Christmas. Your thoughts?

One of the greatest surprises in writing this book was to understand how winter celebrations preceded an annual celebration of Jesus’ birth. If you think about winter, and its real severity, it just makes sense for human beings living in areas that have winter to have a mid-winter blowout party. You can guess what it would be like. You would celebrate light, to push back the darkness. It might feature evergreens, when it looks like everything else has died. It also could feature plants that bear fruit in winter, like holly or mistletoe. You would have feasting, get together with people so you don’t feel isolated, and maybe [have] singing, dancing, even gifts. That’s what a lot of us think about as Christmas, and yet I haven’t said a word about baby Jesus in a manger. So all of those are predictable parts of a mid-winter celebration, and we shouldn’t be surprised that, before Jesus even walked the earth, there were human beings dealing with winter, and they had mid-winter parties.

Our modern Christmas observances are relatively recent additions to Christian and Methodist tradition, according to the Rev. Bruce Forbes, author of Christmas: A Candid History. PHOTO COURTESY MORNINGSIDE COLLEGE

That’s changed my idea about Christmas. Instead of seeing [pre-Christian celebrations] as some horrible rival celebration, I see it as an understandable thing that human beings would do to cope with winter. What Christians do is come along and add something on top of that. So from the very beginning, Christmas has always been a mixture of those two things—a winter party and a celebration with Christian meaning. If people think we’re wrestling with this now, well, Christians have always wrestled with that.

When did Christians begin to celebrate Christmas?

A lot of people don’t know that the earliest Christians did not have an annual celebration of the nativity. For the first couple of centuries, Christianity was totally Easter-focused, so that everything was about the death and resurrection of Jesus. We have no records of Christians annually celebrating the birth of Jesus until sometime in the mid-300s.

If people say Christmas is “stolen” from pagans, what’s your response?

I would say that the Christians eventually felt it was important to celebrate the birth of Jesus every year. We don’t know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, and you had to put it somewhere, and they chose to put it during the midwinter festivals. But I think it’s still meaningful. The fact that it’s at the same time as pre-Christian mid-winter celebrations—maybe we were trying to hijack the popularity of mid-winter celebrations, or maybe we were trying to tame them down. I don’t know.

In your book, you talk about how Puritans in England made Christmas observances illegal. Why?

First, they said the early Christians didn’t have an annual celebration of Christmas, and they were right about that. Also, they thought Christmas celebrations were way too wild. It was almost all mid-winter party and not enough thinking about Jesus. They passed laws in England—in fact, in some places they had town criers that would go around on Christmas Eve and say, “No Christmas! No Christmas!” The Puritans did not fully suppress Christmas, but they discouraged it among a lot of people for about a century and a half.

One of the most surprising things I learned was, there was a group of folk historians who decided they would read all of the issues of The Times of London published in December from 1790-1835, to see how many times Christmas was mentioned. In more than half of those years, Christmas was never mentioned, which shows how much Christmas had fallen away as a major celebration.

How did this play out in the American colonies?

The people who were influenced by the Puritans—which would be the English-speaking dissenters from the Church of England—tended to either oppose or ignore or de-emphasize Christmas. That list would be the Puritans, who became the Congregationalists, the Baptists, the Quakers, the Presbyterians and the Methodists. The people who had Christmas celebrations were the people not influenced by the Puritans—the Scandinavians, the Germans, the Dutch.

So early Methodists in the colonies did not celebrate Christmas. In fact, there is no John Wesley Christmas sermon, because he lived in that century when the Puritans had effectively de-emphasized Christmas. It’s true that Charles Wesley wrote, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” but that’s simply because he composed hymns for every season of the year, and Advent and Christmas were part of the church year.

How and when did Christmas become the holiday as we know it?

Christmas comes roaring back in the middle of the 1800s with the influence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who were of German background. Albert brought the Christmas tree tradition from Germany, and people started copying that in England and in the U.S. Also, A Christmas Carol was immensely popular. It doesn’t say much about Jesus, but it does talk about generosity and caring for the poor.

In the U.S., the additional thing that happened was this morphing of St. Nicholas into Santa Claus. We think of the poem The Night Before Christmas as telling about the Santa we all know. In fact, it helped develop the Santa Claus lore. We didn’t have the sleigh or the reindeer or the idea of coming down the chimney until that poem. Other influences are Thomas Nast, an illustrator and political cartoonist. He’s the person who came up with the elephant and donkey to represent the political parties, and he had some classic illustrations of Santa Claus. The very first time The Night Before Christmas was published with illustrations, Santa Claus looks like a scruffy leprechaun. He’s an elf, which is very different then we picture him now. So Thomas Nast helps develop the picture we now have of Santa Claus.

What would you want Methodists to understand about Christmas?

Well, we have all “war on Christmas” talk, and the assumption is that Americans have always celebrated Christmas as a country and now somebody is messing it up. The fact is, in the colonies, they didn’t all celebrate it, and the debate wasn’t Christians vs. non-Christians, it was Christians versus Christians. So in early America, people who wanted to celebrate Christmas could, and those who felt it wasn’t important could ignore it. But life went on as usual. Lots of businesses were open and schools were open on Christmas Day. In early colonial America, and the early years of the nation, Christmas was a little like Ash Wednesday, or Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur for Jews. The people who care about those celebrate them but businesses don’t close for them. So the idea that everyone celebrates Christmas—that started when the commercialization of Christmas began in the middle 1800s. And when people think, “I wish we could go back to that pure spiritual Christmas, before it was ruined by all that commercialization,” well, from the very first years that Christmas was celebrated, it was a mixture of that mid-winter party and a religiously significant Christian celebration.

mjacobs@umr.org

Mary Jacobs

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