Sunday, 14 December 2008

A Short History of Christmas

For the first few centuries after Jesus' time on Earth, the Church paid little attention to the celebration of His birth. Nevertheless, as Christians increasingly commemorated the events of theie Saviour's life, the issue of the date of His birth became more prominent. However as Scripture at no point mentioned when He was actually born, early Christian teachers suggested various possible dates.
The Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus, in 221, was possibly the first to nominate the 25th of December. He did this by identifying the spring equinox (March 25th) as the date of the creation of light on the 4th day of creation and by reasoning that Jesus’ conception was the same date, 5500 years later, and His birth being nine months after that, December 25th.
In 350 Pope Julius I designated December 25th as the day to celebrate Christ’s birth. He did so mainly as a political move to counteract the effect of Saturnalia, the popular feast held in honor of the Roman god Saturn, which occurred at the time of the winter solstice, climaxing on December 25th, a Roman holiday. December 25th also was a celebration of the birthday of the Persian sun god Mithra. It was hoped that by picking this date Christianity would be more appealing to pagans. 25th December was formally fixed by the church in AD440 and at first the festival was known as ‘The Feast of the Nativity’. Later it was called ‘Christ Mass’ which was eventually shortened to “Christmas.”
Christmas began to be widely celebrated with a specific liturgy in the 9th century butfor many centuries it did not attain the liturgical importance of either Good Friday or Easter Sunday, the other two major Christian holidays.
Throughout the Middle Ages, various laws were passed to encourage the celebration of Christ's birth. For instance in 1551 the English Protestant King Edward VI’s Holy Days and Fasting Days Act demanded that every citizen must attend a Christian church service on Christmas Day and must walk to church. Also the Unlawful Games Act of 1541prohibited all sport on Christmas Day, with the exception of archery practice. Another law passed around this time was forbidding the making of mince pies or eating Christmas pudding on Christmas Day. This law was decreed by Henry VIII, which seems a bit rich coming from a king historically famed for his gastronomic appetite.
In mid 17th century England, Christmas celebrations had become increasingly rowdy and the puritan Oliver Cromwell and his Parliament felt that Christmas, like the other religious holidays were unscriptural. They reasoned that such days took away from the Sabbath, which God had given to Christians as a special day to celebrate God's work in Christ, so they abolished Christmas and declared it to be an ordinary working day. Soldiers were ordered to go round the streets and confiscate food being cooked for a Christmas celebration and to arrest those taking part. However many churches ignored the edict and entire congregations were detained. After the death of Cromwell and the restoration of King Charles II, Christmas was restored.
Meanwhile, in America, Christmas was not celebrated by the early settlers, who were mainly Puritans. In 1659 in Boston, Christmas was banned, with any one found guilty of observing Christmas or any other religious holiday being made liable to pay a fine of five shillings. The ban lasted for over 20 years before being repealed.
Although Charles Dickens is always associated with Christmas, when he was born in 1812, it was a very minor festival. This was due to the Industrial Revolution, which started in the second half of the 18th century. Christmas had been the great festival of the traditional village community and as this community broke up, so its festivities began to lose their meaning. However, with stories such as The Christmas Carol, Dickens became a successful protagonist for the Victorian middle-class philanthropic view that Christmas should be reinvented as a season of goodwill. Around the same time Queen Victoria's German husband, Prince Albert, introduced the teutonic habit of erecting a Christmas tree. Published pictures, that were featured in the Illustrated London News of the Royal Family around a Christmas tree draped with candles, presents and sweets, proved influential in igniting the spark of modern Christmas celebration as a family event.
In America, by the mid 1850s, rigid puritanical attitudes opposing Christmas had softened and many Americans were adopting the recent English custom of celebrating Christmas in a big way with cards, a tree and other associated paraphernalia. In 1870 Christmas was declared a federal holiday by the United States Congress.
Christmas Day began to be marked in something like its present form in England after the First World War, but public services only started to close down entirely for Dec 25th in the late 1950s, the time when Christmas with all the trimmings became the family norm. It wasn’t until 1958 that Scotland began to celebrate Christmas Day as a national holiday.
Today many complain that Christmas is now an overly commercialised festival. The celebration of the birth of Christ has become a mega-bucks business. In Britain families spend an average of £125 on food and each person £240 on gifts. Sadly, many are caught up in the stream of partying, gift buying, eating and drinking, with barely a thought for the origins of this special day.

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