Christmas as a Holiday
To inaugurate the holiday season, we here at Suits by Suits decided to delve in to the history of Christmas as a work holiday in the United States. (This is not unprecedented; check out our post on “The History of Labor Day,” which aired on – you guessed it – Labor Day.)
Most of us here in the U.S. are familiar with Christmas as the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus, on December 25. There’s the little baby in the manger, no room at the inn… that ties in with the Yule log somehow, doesn’t it? And wasn’t there something about candy canes looking like the shepherd’s crook? But where do those wonderful evergreen “Christmas trees” come in? What about the tradition of gift-giving, of Santa Claus, of stockings placed by the chimney with care? And what’s up with mistletoe?
It’s kind of complicated. Read on....
December 25 and the Winter Solstice
Long before Christianity, many cultures worshipped the Sun, often personified as a God. Those peoples living in the Northern Hemisphere noticed that during the winter days would get shorter and shorter due to the axial tilt of the Earth. The shortest day of the year is the Winter Solstice, which generally occurs on December 21 or 22. After the Winter Solstice, days begin to get longer and longer again, culminating in the Summer Solstice in June.
To sun-worshipping cultures, then, it was logical to consider the winter solstice a special day; afterwards, the Sun would be “born again” and slowly gain in strength until the summer. Historically, two well-known pagan celebrations of the winter solstice were the Roman festival of Saturnalia, generally held between December 17 and 23, and the holiday Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – literally, “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” – which was held on December 25th. The ancient Greeks (oddly) honored the sea god Poseidon on the winter solstice, as well as Demeter (the goddess of grain) and Dionysus (the god of wine). Romans also celebrated the birth of the Persian god Mithras on December 25th.
During the formative years of the Christian church, many Christians disagreed as to the birth of Jesus, with some preferring January 6th, others, March 25th, and still others, December 25th. Christmas was finally codified as December 25th by the Church of Rome in 354 C.E.
You might have noticed the god of wine and the goddess of grain in that previous paragraph. About.com helpfully notes that pagan winter solstice celebrations “often include two activities related to the failing sun: producing light and enjoying the cover the darkness provides. Thus, it is common for winter solstice celebrations to include candle lighting, bonfire creation, and drunken debauchery.” So you can relax and enjoy that sixth glass of spiked eggnog, knowing that you’re participating in a time-honored tradition that extends back thousands of years.
With the winter solstice representing the rebirth of the sun, it’s not surprising that those holidays would come to be associated with evergreen trees, long a symbol of rebirth and renewal. Druids, for example, viewed evergreen trees as “symbolic of the hope for the sun’s return,” and the pagan Germanic tribes of Europe celebrated Yule with a drunken feast around an evergreen tree. The “Yule log,” by the way, may derive from a festival honoring the Norse sun god, Baldur. Tradition was to light the log, and the party would continue until the last ember burnt out. (I've been to a few parties like that.)
Baldur’s sacred plant? The evergreen tree, of course.
The Christmas tree tradition probably stems from these traditions; the earliest references we have to a tree are found in late 16th century German craft guilds. One such reference details a fir tree adorned with treats, which children were permitted to take on Christmas Day. Others have noted the early involvement of the Protestant reformer Martin Luther in the Christmas tree tradition; Luther is said to have originated the tradition of placing lit candles in the tree after viewing the stars shining through evergreen trees while walking home one evening. (Note: this blog does not provide legal advice. Speaking solely as a blogger and not as a lawyer, I nevertheless would not recommend that you put lit candles on an otherwise very flammable tree.)
Unsurprisingly, German immigrants brought this tradition to the United States; today, the towns of Easton and Lancaster, Pennsylvania – initially settled by German emigres – both claim to have been the site of the “first Christmas tree in America” in the early 19th century.
The National Christmas Tree – an enormous evergreen tree located in the Ellipse just outside the White House in Washington, D.C. – has been decorated and (usually) lit to much fanfare every year since 1923. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter lit the first National Menorah.
We’ve just started to scratch the surface of the history of Christmas as a holiday… stay tuned for more!