Christmas is come, hang on the pot,
Let spits turn round, and ovens be hot;
Beef, pork, and poultry, now provide
To feast thy neighbors at this tide;
Then wash all down with good wine and beer,
And so with mirth conclude the Year.
Virginia Almanac (Royle) 1765
The earliest western Christians, still saddled with Roman conceptions of what constituted civilization (that which was behind their walls) and what did not (everything else ) did not celebrate birthdays–a view that continues today among certain minority Christianity-derived sects like the Jehovah’s witnesses, and thus had little interest in celebrating, or even marking, Jesus’ birth. The earliest remaining reference to anything remotely resembling Christmas dates to the year 336, when the Church of Rome initiated a Feast of the Nativity on December 25.
But why that date, when biblical accounts clearly suggest that Jesus was born in the spring? Well, one of the linchpins of the success of the Roman Empire was it’s enlightened approach to war and the management of conquered lands and people. Unlike later, less wise, colonial powers–primarily Europeans–the Romans did not enforce a program of social and cultural conversion. The leader of a conquered–or soon to be conquered–people would be given the opportunity to join the empire willingly. In this way, the Roman Empire was more built more like a quilt than a parking lot; cultures were stitched into the whole rather than paved over, and the empire was strengthened as a result. The Roman Church, at this point (the inquisition would be coming) took note, and scheduled it’s nativity celebration to coincide with the winter solstice and pagan traditions associated with it. Thus were wassail bowls and evergreens added to the mix, making it readily acceptable to converts.
In the next 300 years, the celebration of Christmas custom spread to England and on to Scandinavia, absorbing elements associated with another pagan ritual, the Norse mid-winter feast season known as Yule.
The first use of words resembling “Christmas” both in form and meaning, appeared in English around 1038, by which time the western Christian celebration of Jesus’s birth hybridized with the pagan influences listed above, among others, had merged with more eastern Christian traditions, specifically Epiphany, a celebration that marked Jesus’s revelation as God and the visit of the Magi (the “three kings”) and Christmas had officially been expanded to 12 days– mentions of golden rings and lords-a-leaping would not come until later.
Ever since that time, there has been a struggle between dour, conservative elements who would like the celebration of Jesus’ birth to be a serious, sacred, reserved affair, and those who favor the “merry” aspects of the season. Some Church officials as far back as the 10th century are noted as lamenting the pagan influences, a sentiment that is continued today in the grumpy complaints of stick-in-the-mud conservatives and their mostly unheeded calls to “put Christ back in Christmas” or “stop the war on Christmas.”
As has historically been the case, these wet blankets are predominantly marginalized and ignored–but not always, In Colonial America, the celebration of Christmas was banned and criminalized in large swaths of New England controlled by Puritans, while folks in the Virginia settlements were whooping it up with great abandon. Even Captain John Smith wrote in 1609 that he kept “Christmas amongst the Salvages: where wee were never more merrie, nor fedde on more plentie of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild fowle, and good bread, nor better fires in England then in the drie warme smokie houses of Kecoughtan.”
I don’t think those of you who’ve been reading with me have any doubt where I come down on this–I’m in the line with Captain Smith and those old Roman Saturnalians. Christmas to me is about the ideals of love–brotherhood, friendship, family–that we acknowledge but don’t always service over the course of the year. As for the “war on Christmas” crowd, I shake my head and say: you don’t get it. I make no secret of my atheism, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t cling determinedly to the things that I learned in church as a youth. Indeed, the failure by–and outright refusal of–so many who tout their faith and piety to even attempt to live by the rules their religion espouses drove me to the conclusion that the structure doesn’t matter, it’s the metaphor we need to believe. And I believe it strongly.
So, yes, Christmas to me is about festivity–about decorating my house in a way that makes friends, neighbors, and strangers smile, about wearing some sweaters with snowflakes on the chest, about plotting a spread that feeds 50 folks I love, then gorging with them on food, fellowship, beer and–this year–the sweetest cinnamon moonshine I’ve ever sipped from a mason jar. It’s about sending cards and getting cards. It’s about venturing out to a mall to roam around from store to store even when all of my shopping is done, just to rub shoulders with happy strangers and enjoy the “hustle and bustle” of a crowd drunk on pleasure–or the promise of it.
At Christmas play and make cheer
For Christmas comes but once a year
Good bread and good drink, a good fire in the hall
Brawn, pudding and souse, and good mustard withall:
Beef, mutton and pork, shred pies of the best:
Pig, veal, goose and capon and turkey well drest:
Cheese, apples and nuts, jolly carols to hear,
As then in the country is counted good cheer.
Thomas Tusser (c. 1520-1580)