It’s ironic to hear Religious Right groups portray themselves as the great defenders of Christmas – their spiritual forebears hated the holiday and even banned its celebration.
The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay frowned on Christmas revelry, considering the holiday a Roman Catholic affectation. A law in the colony barred anyone from taking the day off work, feasting or engaging in other celebrations on Christmas, under penalty of a five-shilling fine.
The law was repealed in 1681, but Christmas celebrations remained unpopular in New England and other colonies for many years. That did not change after the Revolution, because many Americans viewed Christmas as a Tory custom, a reminder of the expelled British.
Although Christmas became popular in the South as early as the 1830s, other regions were apathetic. Writer Tom Flynn notes in his 1993 book The Trouble with Christmas that Congress did not begin adjourning on Christmas Day until 1856. Public schools in New England were often open on Dec. 25, as were many factories and offices. Many Protestant churches refused to hold services, considering the holiday “popish.”
Not until after the Civil War did Christmas begin to seriously affect American cultural and religious life. European immigration increased sharply after the war, and many of the newcomers came from countries with strong Christmas traditions. Germans, Italians, Poles, Swedes, Norwegians and others brought the holiday and many of its features, including Christmas trees and Santa Claus, to America in a big way.
The celebration spread, and in 1870 Christmas was declared a federal holiday by Congress. But practices in the states continued to vary. As late as 1931, Flynn reports, nine states still called for public schools to remain open on Christmas Day.
It might also surprise Religious Right activists to learn that many of the Christmas traditions they defend so vociferously have, at best, a tenuous connection to Christianity.
Several of the holiday’s most common features grow out of pre-Christian religions. The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia in mid-December, a time of general merriment, feasting and gift exchanges. Slaves were given time off and were even permitted to play dice games in public. During this period, many Romans decorated their homes with evergreens as a reminder that life would persevere through the dark days of winter.
Evergreen trees had long been viewed as a symbol of fertility by Pagan peoples. When winter came and most trees lost their leaves and appeared to die, the evergreen was a reminder that life would endure and that long days, warmer weather and a harvest would come again. Germans were early boosters of the Christmas tree and brought it to America. (The pious legend that Martin Luther decorated the first Christmas tree is not taken seriously by scholars.)
Candles, a necessary item during the dark winter period, were a common Saturnalia gift. Some scholars consider them a precursor to Christmas lights.
Originally celebrated on Dec. 17, the Roman Saturnalia eventually expanded to last an entire week, ending on Dec. 23.
So where did the Dec. 25 date for Christmas come from?
Many scholars believe that date came from another Roman festival, one that became popular around the middle of the third century – the feast of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun.
During this festival, various gods related to the sun in the Roman pantheon were honored. The festival was most popular during the reign of the emperor Aurelian (270-275 A.D.), who attributed his military victories to the sun god and may have wanted to establish a solar deity as supreme in the Roman pantheon. Images of Sol Invictus remained popular and appeared on Roman coinage even during the reign of Constantine the Great (306-337 A.D.).
There is some evidence that early Christians celebrated the festival alongside Pagans, and that church leaders, seeing these practices under way, simply appropriated the date for the birth of Jesus as Christianity grew and became the dominant religion of the empire throughout the fourth and fifth centuries.
Michael Grant, the late scholar of the ancient world, noted in his 1985 book The Roman Emperors that Dec. 25 was “a bequest of the solar cult to Christianity, converted into Christmas Day.”
Legal codes laid down by the emperors Theodosius I and later Justinian made Christianity the state religion and banned Paganism. Church leaders were generally tolerant of people taking old practices and adding a Christian gloss to them. Overt worship of Pagan gods disappeared but the Dec.25 date – and many residual practices associated with the old festival – remained.
As strange as it may seem, when Religious Right legal groups go to court to battle the “War on Christmas,” they may really be defending practices historically associated with the worship not of the son of God but the sun in the sky.