Christmas, which is observed on December 25, is a holy religious event as well as a global cultural and economic phenomenon. People have been celebrating it with customs and rituals that are both religious and secular in nature for two millennia now.
Christmas Day is marked by Christians as the anniversary of the birth of the spiritual figure whose teachings serve as the foundation of their faith, Jesus of Nazareth.
Popular traditions include giving gifts, putting up Christmas trees, going to church, gathering with loved ones for feasts, and, of course, waiting for Santa Claus. Since 1870, the United States has observed December 25 as a federal holiday known as Christmas Day.
Let’s get to know more about the modern history of Christmas!
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17th And 18th Centuries.
Following the Protestant Reformation, several new religious groupings, like the Lutheran Church and the Anglican Church, continued to observe Christmas. Since it was first published in 1629, John Milton, an Anglican poet, has penned the poem On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, which is frequently repeated during the Christmas season.
Martin Luther “inaugurated a time in which Germany would establish a unique culture of Christmas, widely imitated in North America,” according to Donald Heinz, a professor at California State University. Christmas was observed as one of the main evangelical feasts among Dutch Reformed Church congregations.
However, in 17th-century England, several sects, including the Puritans, fiercely disapproved of Christmas celebrations, calling them “trappings of popery” or “rags of the Beast” and a Catholic creation. The established Anglican Church, on the other hand “pushed for a more thorough celebration of holidays, penitential times, and saints’ days. The Anglican party and the Puritan faction started to clash over the calendar revision.”
In response, the Catholic Church promoted the celebration in a manner that was more strongly focused on religion. In order to continue their traditional Christmas generosity, King Charles I of England ordered his noblemen and gentry to return to their landed estates in the middle of winter.
Christmas was outlawed in 1647 by the Puritan-ruled government of England after Charles I was defeated by the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War.
Pro-Christmas riots erupted in various places, and protests ensued. For weeks, Canterbury was under the authority of the rioters, who adorned doorways with holly and screamed royalist anthems.
The Vindication of Christmas (London, 1652) protested against the Puritans and mentions Old English Christmas customs including carol singing, old Father Christmas, dinner, roast apples over the fire, card playing, and dances with “plow-boys” and “maidservants.” People continued to hold semi-secret religious ceremonies commemorating the birth of Christ and sing carols while the prohibition was in effect.
Christmas was once again openly celebrated in England after King Charles II’s Restoration in 1660. The Christmas holiday was not often celebrated among Calvinist pastors. As a result, even though James VI decreed its commemoration in 1618, church attendance was low since the Presbyterian Church of Scotland discouraged the celebration of Christmas in Scotland.
In 1640, the Scottish Parliament formally banned the celebration of Christmas with the justification that the church had been “purified of all superstitious observation of days.” Christmas Day was not declared a bank holiday in Scotland until 1871, unlike England, Wales, and Ireland where it is a common law holiday and has been celebrated for centuries.
“Now thanks to God for Charles return, / Whose absence made old Christmas mourn. / For then we scarcely did it know, / Whether it Christmas were or no,” could be found in Poor Robin’s Almanack after Charles II’s restoration.
The celebrations surrounding Christmas are described in James Woodforde’s diary from the second half of the 18th century throughout a number of years.
Puritans in Colonial America vehemently resisted celebrating Christmas, just like they did in England. The Pilgrims of New England purposefully chose to work on their first December 25 in the New World. Christmas was decried by Puritans like Cotton Mather because the Bible did not mention it as a holiday and because the traditional celebrations of the day sometimes entailed raucous behavior.
The loss of the holidays celebrated by the working classes in England was lamented by many non-Puritans in New England. In Boston, Christmas celebrations were made illegal in 1659. The English ruler Edmund Andros lifted the prohibition on Christmas celebration in 1681, but it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that it gained popularity in the Boston area.
At the same time, Christians openly commemorated the feast in Virginia and New York. Christmas was enthusiastically celebrated by Pennsylvania Dutch settlers, the majority Moravian population of Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Lititz in Pennsylvania, as well as the Wachovia towns in North Carolina. The earliest Christmas trees and Nativity Scenes in America were created by the Moravians in Bethlehem.
After the American Revolution, when it was believed to be an English tradition, Christmas became less popular in the United States. Christmas was far more celebrated in Germany than in America at this time, and George Washington attacked Hessian (German) mercenaries on December 26, 1776, the day after Christmas, during the Battle of Trenton.
Christian Christmas church services were outlawed and the three kings cake was renamed the “equality cake” under anti-clerical government measures when the atheistic Cult of Reason was in charge in Revolutionary France.
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Early in the 19th century, authors envisioned Tudor Christmas as a joyful occasion. Charles Dickens’ 1843 publication of the book A Christmas Carol served to rekindle the holiday spirit and general good cheer. Its immediate success greatly contributed to the idea that Christmas is a season focused on compassion, family, and kindness.
Dickens aimed to create Christmas as a season of giving that is family-focused and connects “worship and feasting, within a context of social reconciliation.”
In what has come to be known as the “Carol Philosophy,” Dickens imposed his humanitarian vision of the holiday and influenced many aspects of Christmas that are still observed in Western culture today, such as family get-togethers, the consumption of seasonal foods and beverages, dancing, games, and a festive spirit of generosity.
Merry Christmas, a key word from the narrative, became widely used after its publication. This occurred at the same time as the Oxford Movement’s emergence and the expansion of Anglo-Catholicism, which sparked a resurgence in ancient rituals and religious practices.
Scrooge became a byword for a miser, and the phrase “Bah! Humbug!” was used to mock the holiday cheer. Sir Henry Cole created the first mass-produced Christmas card in 1843.
The First Noel, “I Saw Three Ships,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which were made famous by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, made their first print appearances in William Sandys’ “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern” (1833).
When it appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1848, a picture of the British royal family at Windsor Castle with their Christmas tree caused a stir. In 1850, Godey’s Lady’s Book in Philadelphia printed a modified version of this picture. America had adopted the practice of decorating a Christmas tree by the 1870s.
The 1820s saw a resurgence of interest in Christmas in America thanks to a number of short stories by Washington Irving that can be found in “Old Christmas” and The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.
Irving used the tract Vindication of Christmas (1652) of Old English Christmas traditions, which he had transcribed into his journal, as a format for his stories. Irving’s stories portrayed the peaceful, warm-hearted English Christmas festivities he experienced while staying in Aston Hall, Birmingham, England, which had largely been abandoned.
The poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore was written in 1822. (popularly known by its first line: Twas the Night Before Christmas). The poem contributed to the gift-exchanging custom’s rise in popularity, and seasonal Christmas shopping started to gain economic significance.
This also sparked a cultural debate between the holiday’s spiritual value vs the concomitant commercialism, which some believe has tainted the occasion. Harriet Beecher Stowe included a character who laments that the actual spirit of Christmas was obscured by a shopping binge in her 1850 book The First Christmas in New England.
While the Christmas holiday was not yet widely observed in all areas of the United States, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow noted in 1856 that there was “a transition stage concerning Christmas here in New England.” The old Puritan sentiment keeps it from being a happy, hearty celebration, despite the fact that every year it gets more so.
Even our Presbyterian friends—who had hitherto staunchly disregarded Christmas—threw up their church doors and gathered in force to celebrate the anniversary of the Savior’s birth, a newspaper reported in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1861.
Despite having “genuine Puritan stock,” the First Congregational Church in Rockford, Illinois, was “preparing for a grand Christmas jubilee,” a news writer wrote in 1864.
14 states, including a few from New England, had made Christmas a recognized holiday by 1860. Louis Prang popularized the Christmas card in America in 1875. The “father of the American Christmas card” is what he is referred to as.
Christmas was formally recognized as a federal holiday in the United States on June 28, 1870.
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There were a number of unofficial truces between opposing forces for Christmas during the First World War, particularly (but not alone) in 1914. The fighting men spontaneously organized cease-fires, which included declarations of no-shooting orders yelled from a distance to reduce the stress of battle for the day as well as cordial interactions, gift-giving, and even competitive sports between foes.
These events became well-known and somewhat mythologized in people’s collective memories. They have been used to illustrate to children the principles of Christmas and have been described as a sign of everyday humanity even in the direst circumstances.
Many Christmas traditions in the UK were only practiced by the wealthy and upper classes up until the 1950s. Many of the Christmas customs that later spread to the broader populace were not yet widely practiced. The tree was a unique find. Christmas supper should not include turkey, but rather beef or geese. Children may receive an apple, an orange, and candy in Christmas stockings.
With greater income starting in the 1950s, the full celebration of a family Christmas with all the trimmings only became more common. Up until 1912, national newspapers were released on Christmas Day. Up until 1961, the post was still delivered on Christmas Day. While league football games ended in England at the end of the 1950s, they remained in Scotland into the 1970s.
After the Soviet Union’s founding in 1917, Christmas and other Christian holidays were outlawed under the country’s official atheism. The League of Militant Atheists launched a campaign against Easter, Christmas traditions including the Christmas tree, and other Christian holidays in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. In their place, the League created an antireligious festival to be celebrated on the last day of every month.
Children in Moscow were encouraged to spit on crucifixes on Christmas Day in 1929, at the height of this persecution, to protest the celebration. Instead, the New Year was given more significance than the holiday, along with all of its accoutrements like the Christmas tree and gift-giving.
Orthodox Christmas did not once more become a public holiday in Russia for the first time in seven decades after the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991. In the 20th century, when Christmas festivities spread beyond traditional Christian societies, certain nations with a majority of Muslims outlawed the ritual on the grounds that it was incompatible with Islam.