What Happened to the Traditional Christmas?
“Christmas was an enjoyable time for us children,” says Rita, looking back to the 1930’s. “Everybody went to church, where we sang our favorite hymns. When we came home, Mother cooked a turkey, and we had Christmas pudding and cream. We sincerely believed it was Jesus’ birthday, his day. But things have changed. The only thing many children seem to think about now is Father Christmas coming to bring presents.”
By Awake! correspondent in Britain
OVER the years, the celebration of Christmas has changed in many ways—and not just in recent times. Even in 1836, English author Charles Dickens said: “There are people who will tell you that Christmas is not to them what it used to be.”
Perhaps surprising to some, Christmas has not always been a popular event. In the 19th century, when Dickens wrote, Christmas had diminished in popularity. Most British newspapers ignored it during the early part of that century.
Dickens and his older American counterpart, Washington Irving, made an effort to idealize Christmas. Why? Not solely to restore old traditions but also, at least as far as Dickens was concerned, to alert readers to the harsh realities of life for the underprivileged and thus to better their condition.
While the industrial revolution brought prosperity to some, it also resulted in slums, squalor, and sweated labor. “Every great town has one or more slums,” wrote Friedrich Engels in 1844, “where the working class is crowded together . . . , removed from the sight of the happier classes.”
Britain’s Factory Act of 1825, which only concerned cotton mills, stated that no person should work in a cotton mill for more than 12 hours a weekday or 9 hours on a Saturday. In 1846, historian Thomas Macaulay blamed such intense labor for “stunting the growth of the mind, leaving no time for healthful exercise, no time for intellectual culture.”
A revival of Christmas festivities took place in the midst of such 19th-century social and moral problems.
Dickens and Christmas
Charles Dickens led in arousing social conscience to the problems of the poor. In his classic novel A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, Dickens skillfully employed his knowledge of Christmas traditions to achieve his end.
A Christmas Carol was an immediate success, and thousands of copies were sold. The following year, nine London theaters staged dramatized versions of the tale. On Christmas Eve 1867, Dickens presented a reading of it in the United States at Boston, Massachusetts. In attendance was a Mr. Fairbanks, a factory owner from Vermont, who said to his wife: “I feel that after listening to Mr. Dickens’s reading of A Christmas Carol tonight I should break the custom we have hitherto observed of opening the works on Christmas Day.” He was true to his word. The following year he added the tradition of giving a turkey to his employees at Christmastime.
Charitable handouts became commonplace during the Christmas season, ranging from charitable trusts dispensing coal to poor widows to village squires making gifts of money and food. Christmas soon became, in theory, the opportunity for all classes to meet in social harmony. Allowing the divisions between the rich and the poor to become deliberately blurred at this time of year salved many consciences.
A number of festive traditions were either revived or created. For example, the first Christmas cards appeared in 1843, and as printing became cheaper, the market prospered. Christmas trees, a much older tradition, also greatly increased in popularity after Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, introduced the German manner of decoration, employing tinsel, ornaments, and candles.
The commercial promotion of Christmas was gaining momentum. Today, a little over a century later, Christmas has become so commercialized that there is public outcry over it. This raises the question: What was Christmas like originally?
Origins of Christmas
Providing historical background, The Chicago Tribune just last December noted in a front-page story: “Ironically, the holiday that Christians now complain is being co-opted by commercialism traces its roots to a pagan festival that was taken over by Christianity.
“The first reported observance of Christmas as the birth of Jesus Christ was more than 300 years after the event. In the 4th Century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and, scholars believe, Christians set Jesus’ birthdate at Dec. 25 to coincide with existent celebrating by non-Christians.
“‘Rather than battle against the pagan holidays, they decided to join them and try to replace them,’ said University of Utah professor Russell Belk . . . ‘The pagan holidays replaced by Christianity were the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia—which were carnivalesque celebrations with gift-giving—and later the Yule celebrations in England and Germany that celebrated the winter solstice,’ Belk said.
“Christmas has gained and slipped in popularity over the centuries. It was banned for a time in England and America by Puritans who objected to the frivolity associated with it. But toward the mid-1800s, Belk said, ‘Christmas was in trouble, waning in popularity.’ He said religious leaders welcomed an injection of commerce, via gift-giving and Santa Claus, to revive the holiday.
“That revival, Belk said, was credited largely to English author Charles Dickens, whose 1843 ‘A Christmas Carol’ showed a reformed Scrooge who became a generous giver.”
What About Christmas Customs?
Dickens is said to have “enjoyed all the attendant paraphernalia of Christmas.” But from where did the paraphernalia come?
Providing interesting insights into this matter, New York Newsday of December 22, 1992, quoted John Mosley, who wrote the book The Christmas Star: “‘The early church leaders didn’t celebrate Christmas in December specifically to celebrate the birth of Christ,’ [Mosley] said. ‘It was their way of dealing with the winter solstice,’ the turning point of winter, when the sun stops its drift to the south and heads north again, bringing new light.
“Evidence for this is seen in the symbols of Christmas, Mosley said. Most obvious is the use of green plants, which symbolize life in a time of darkness and cold. ‘The most obvious green plant is the Christmas tree,’ he said. ‘And the northern Europeans celebrated the solstice in the forest; they worshiped trees. So the Christmas tree is really a throwback to tree worship in prehistoric times.’
“Also, Mosley said, ‘What do you put on the trees? Lights. Light recalls the Sun and symbolizes the Sun. It’s for the rebirth of the Sun and the return of light after the solstice. The main things involved in solstice celebrations everywhere are light and green plants.
“Dec. 25, he added, ‘was also the original date of the winter solstice, and many of the things we do now, and which we think are relatively modern Christmas customs, really trace their origins to the solstice celebrations.”
Music also characterizes Christmas celebrations. Thus, it is not surprising that the Roman festival of Saturnalia was renowned for its feasting and merrymaking, including dancing and singing. That the modern Christmas owes much to the ancient Saturnalia, scholars no longer dispute.
England’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey, complained about the “Victorian, Charles Dickens Christmas.” The reason? “I am concerned in case our children are affected by the commercialism,” he said.
According to the newspaper The Scotsman, Anglican bishop David Jenkins believes that Christmas commercialism is driving people to the point of nervous breakdown. “We worship greed and Christmas becomes the feast of greed and folly,” he said, adding: “Ordinary persons are made miserable by their credit card debts. . . . There is increasing evidence that after Christmas people get into despair and have family rows. It is increasingly causing more trouble than it is worth.”
The Church Times of England aptly summed up the problem of Christmas: “We need to be liberated from the great bacchanalian orgy we have allowed it to become!”
What to Do About It
You can recognize Christmas for what it is, a pagan celebration that falsely parades as the birthday of Jesus, and have nothing to do with it. That is what Rita did, the woman mentioned at the outset. She became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and she is now united with more than 4,500,000 fellow Witnesses, who shun Christmas completely.
Yet, it is not always easy to take a course that differs from that of the majority. (Compare Matthew 7:13, 14.) The Church Times acknowledged: “It takes a brave man, woman or family to opt out of a festival that is thrust upon us so aggressively by our peers.”
Many who have made the decision to “opt out” agree. But they also know that a deep love of truth has given them both the incentive and the strength to take and maintain that stand. The same can be true of you—if that is your desire.
[Box on page 17]
Did you know these facts?
* Jesus was not born on December 25.
* Shepherds in Israel had their sheep under cover in the depths of winter and not in the fields at night.
* The ‘wise men’ were in fact Magi, astrologers, and visited Jesus when he was a young child, not a baby.
* Nowhere does the Bible say that Christians are to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But there is an express command to commemorate his death.
[Box on page 18]
Why Witnesses Don’t Celebrate
The Witness, the official newspaper of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, U.S.A., presented the following question in its feature “Question Corner.”
“My wife has asked my 10 children to help celebrate my 80th birthday.
“However, two of the children are Jehovah’s Witnesses and said they do not celebrate birthdays because they live their lives closely following the example that Jesus left us and according to the Bible.
“They say that neither Jesus nor any early Christians celebrated birthdays. It was a pagan tradition and one that Christians would have nothing to do with. It was viewed as a pagan tradition at the time of Christ and is to be viewed the same way today.”
Priest John Dietzen answered the question: “I know this is hurtful for you, but the information you give is correct. Among numerous differences in belief and practices between Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Christian denominations is this one.
“Consistent with this belief, their members do not even celebrate Christmas, partly because it celebrates the birthday of Jesus and also because the date of Christmas was established, apparently in the fourth century on the day of the winter solstice (according to the old Julian calendar), which was before then a great pagan feast.”
[Picture Credit Line on page 16]
Santa Claus: Thomas Nast/Dover Publications, Inc. 1978
Tree and stockings: Old-Fashioned Christmas Illustrations/Dover Publications, Inc.