Before you wish for an Old-Fashioned Christmas…
Did you ever wonder what a real Christmas must have been like, before being obscured by the likes of Santa, shopping, office parties, commercialism, and merrymaking assisted by the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol? In the introduction to his book, Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas,[1,2] Ace Collins explores this pastime, beginning with a caution: Before You Wish for an “Old-Fashioned” Christmas…
What follows are excerpts from the introduction that provide just a snapshot of these Christmases of old, and there is hardly one of them that is to be expected.
It seems that the most awesome event in human history, the coming of God to earth as a babe in a manger, has been forever obscured by Santa, shopping, and merrymaking… [But before] we brood and protest too much over what we think Christmas must have been like in generations long past, we might actually feel encouraged about the season we celebrate today when we consider what Christmas was really like in the days of old.
Only in relatively recent times, the past two hundred years, has Christmas even been celebrated by most Christians. Up until the 1800’s the day recognized as Christ’s birthday was largely a pagan celebration. Those who bemoan the lack of religious zeal in modern Christmases would have been appalled at the way people in early America celebrated the day. For a majority of people who embraced Christmas throughout history, Christ wasn’t a part of the day at all. In most of the world, especially in England and America, Christmas was not a time of worship, prayer, and reflection; rather, it was a day set aside to sing bawdy songs, drink rum, and riot in the streets.
For centuries, Christmas was anything but a holy day. It was most often a sinful parade of excess, a day set aside for ignoring laws and even terrorizing citizens… Those who attended church did so in wild costumes, the messages of many priests were anything but scriptural, and gambling was common during the services. After church the poor often stormed the homes of the elite in moblike fashion, pounding on doors and windows, demanding the finest food and drink. If the hosts did not respond, the guests [for want of a better word I guess?] broke into the home and took what they wanted. The drunken celebrations hearkened back to the time when Romans and Greeks marked the winter solstice with a weeklong festival of self-indulgence. As nothing about these celebrations was staid or reverent, many devoted Christians loathed the holiday and considered it an instrument of sin and evil.
As the number of Christians increased and the followers of Jesus developed new customs, it would have been natural for them to mark the birth of Christ. Yet ironically, this time of great joy was overlooked. In fact, the early church did not celebrate the birth of Christ at all until 125, when Telesphorus, the second bishop of Rome, declared that church services should be held to memorialize “the Nativity of our Lord and Savior.” Still, no day was set aside as the official birth date of Christ. Since no one was quite sure in which month Christ had been born, the first Christmas services were usually held in September, during the Jewish Feast of Trumpets (modern-day Rosh Hashanah). Within a few years, more than a dozen different days had been assigned by various congregations as the birth date of Christ. Eventually, the most common date for celebrating Christ’s birth was January 6th, the modern-day religious holiday for Epiphany. The fact that church leaders did not choose to designate a single date for Christmas indicated how little emphasis was placed on this celebration.
In 320 Pope Julius I … specified December 25th as the official date of the birth of Jesus Christ. This proclamation was in large part ignored, as Christmas still took a back seat to [the festival of the birth of the invincible sun, earlier proclaimed by Roman emperor Aurelian in 274]. Five years later  Constantine the Great … introduced Christmas as an immovable feast on December 25th. He also adopted Sunday as a holy day … These decisions were no doubt a result of church leaders’ lobbying the Roman emperor for a Christian holiday that would cancel out the pagan midwinter celebration. With the power of the government behind this date, they assumed that Saturn and all the partying that went with the marking of this pagan god’s day [such as the weeklong festival, Saturnalia, from the 17th to 24th December] could be forgotten forever.
Their assumption was quickly proven erroneous. With the birth of Christ going head-to-head against the pagan celebrations, many chose to celebrate the pagan holiday and repent after the parties were finished. Some Christians who did choose to mark Christ’s birth did so in the same fashion that pagans honoured Saturn and other gods, with wild carousing and sinful behaviour.
Collins then goes on to explain about the period in the 1600’s where the Puritans in the British Empire, led by Oliver Cromwell, rose up to overthrow King Charles I, and set about banning Christmas festivities and all the debauchery that went with it. He believed that Christmas should be a sober day of reflection where people go about their business just as they would on any other day of the week, and then go home to quietly consider what Christ meant in their lives. So both the sociable and the unsociable extremes of the holiday celebration were outlawed. No gifts given, no toasts made, no carols sung. Likewise, no day set aside to drink rum, riot in the streets and sing bawdy songs, or invade the palatial homes of royalty and the upper-class.
Those who took to the streets for merrymaking, singing of carols, or participating in any of the old traditions of the day would be arrested, fined, jailed.
For his entire rule, Cromwell managed to put a cap on the traditionally riotous English Christmas behaviour. Yet after he died and was replaced by his son [Richard], the commoners demanded the restoration of the old-fashioned Christmas celebrations. When Richard … refused, the door was opened for a rebellion. With the promise of making Christmas what it had been, Charles II was welcomed back to the throne, and the Puritans were tossed out in the streets.
Charles and those that followed him restored the debauchery of Christmas past. Many in the royal family even encouraged the social chaos and misbehaviour by contributing liquor and food for the celebrations.
With the holiday again a drunken street celebration, songs of the era, including “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” alluded to the nature of the carnival.
Obviously a “Merry Christmas” back then had little to do with the kind of merriment we associate with Christmas today. The kind of merriment these people had in mind involved the looting of homes belonging to the upper-class while in the midst of a drunken stupor. Collins explains:
Large bands of men would go to upper-class homes demanding food, drink, and money. If the homeowners did not comply, their houses were often looted. When the carol mentions the singers want pudding, an underlying threat can be heard in the line, “We won’t leave until we get some.” Those who lived in the palatial homes the crowds visited knew the rioters would not depart until they had gotten what they wanted. So even though the royal class had returned to power, many of them feared Christmas as a day of unpredictable violence.
Church leaders of all denominations were aghast at the return of the pagan Christmas celebrations … [and] except for the Church of England and the Catholic Church, churches simply closed their doors and ignored Christmas altogether. The police usually wrote off the often violent day as a tradition, so few lawbreakers were arrested. For generations, in many areas of London, Christmas was a day when many feared to venture into the streets.
Over the next two centuries the hope for a Christ-filled Christmas might have been lost altogether if it had not been for many Catholic and Anglican churches stubbornly holding Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. Other than these gatherings of worship and the quiet reflections of some families that shared the story of the Savior’s birth at home, Christmas was anything but holy in almost all of the English-speaking world.
The drunken parties and gang riots grew so bad that in 1828 the New York City Council met in special session to discuss the issue, and a special police force was formed just to deal with the unlawful conduct of citizens on Christmas Day.
Collins then explains a little of the German influence on the Christmas holiday. At a time when the majority of the English-speaking world were celebrating a Christmas of debauchery, Germany were already celebrating a more reverent Christmas involving the gathering of family and friends (including children) to share food and fellowship in acknowledgement of the Saviour, amidst music, decorations, homemade treats and evergreen trees in their homes. And so…
When Queen Victoria married her cousin, Germany’s Prince Albert, in 1840, the English Christmas was transformed as well. Albert brought with him the reverent and family-oriented German traditions of the season,  which turned Christmas celebrations in Windsor Castle into a family affair. Soon British families picked up on the way the royals were spending their Christmas and adopted the new traditions… Yet it took a combination of several elements to make Christmas a universally accepted time of joy and family gatherings.
A summary of two such elements are:
1. 1822 – Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, now known as, “The Night Before Christmas”, made children an integral part of the Christmas traditions.
2. 1843 – Charles Dickens publishes “A Christmas Carol”, which has since been made into movies, stage productions, and TV musicals many times over. At the heart of the story were values such as charity, hope, love, and family. With Scrooge representing the common thinking of almost all industrialists of the time in both England and America, A Christmas Carol made people take a second look at their values.
Over the next twenty to thirty years, Christmas evolved from a holiday characterized by drinking and riots into a day of family, giving, and worship. Thanks to Moore’s St. Nick, Santa Claus was everywhere – in stores, on street corners, and in advertising displays. Buying presents and decorating trees became important [thanks in part to Prince Albert perhaps?]. In America, states began to declare Christmas an official holiday. Finally, after eighteen centuries of all but ignoring the day, churches began to open their doors for believers to worship, sing songs about Christ’s birth, and celebrate not just the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter, but his incarnation as well.
In conclusion, and in what is perhaps the greatest revelation that Collins offers in his introduction to this book, he observes:
Perhaps ironically, with the introduction of Santa and Scrooge, and with the commercialization of Christmas, those living in America and England finally got a chance to experience the real meaning of Christmas. Santa put an end to the drunken riots and brought peace to the season, and this allowed millions to reflect on the peace offered by the babe’s birth in a manger. … Though many today may grow tired of the commercialization of Christmas, in reality it has opened the door for Christ to once again become the focal point of the season, and for family, especially children, to be at the heart of the celebration.
Although the commercialisation may in part be responsible for the freedoms we now experience in remembering Christ’s birth, it has to a large extent also taken over the hearts and minds of many at this time of year. It is indeed also an irony that the big man in the red suit who now usurps the interest of many at Christmas, especially children, should be partly responsible for the freedom we now have to focus on the one who deserves pride of place as the inspiration for the holiday in the first place.
Because you see, Christmas is not about giving, it’s about a gift. May the gift of forgiveness through Jesus, our Lord, fill your heart this year.
- Collins, A., Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, Zondervan (2003), p.9-19. Note: The entire introduction of the book, parts of which are cited here, is available as free readable sample, at Amazon [click on the image of the book in this article].
A browse through some of the criticisms (limited though they be) of this book on Amazon reveal a possible lack of research on Collins’ part. For example, Bill Egan says, “His [section] on Christmas carols has a totally fictitious account of the history of “Silent Night” and [the] book has a completely fabricated version of the Nativity scene set up by St. Francis of Assisi.” While this particular review is not intended as a critique of the introduction to Collins’ book, I welcome corrections that are adequately researched and humbly offered.
For the curious reader, this then raises the question of the origins of the German Christmas traditions. Although Collins does not address this in his introduction, I did find some information about this here [link broken?] of which I am sure there is much more that can be said.