Holidays Don’t Need Fixing

The history of Christmas reveals that to treat religious tradition as exclusionary and untouchable is to deny the richness of cultural exchange.

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Turning one’s calendar to December brings some certainties:

1. The existential-crisis-causing realization that another year is nearly gone.

2. Gingerbread cookies.

3. Hearing the call to “put the Christ back in Christmas.”

This last movement, a response to the perceived recent secularization of Christmas, is commonly used among pastors, Christian bloggers, and public figures including athlete John Gibson and Reverend Jerry Falwell Sr. They will often criticize the popularization of terms like “holiday tree,” as well as the swapping of creche and manger imagery with that of fairy lights, ornaments, and presents.

In this call is a fundamental misunderstanding of both the history of Christmas and of religious tradition in general, which is neither separatist nor fixed. The long and winding evolution of Christmas into what it is today perfectly illustrates the cultural exchanges and external influences that shape how we celebrate.

The date of Jesus’ birth is unmentioned in the scriptures, and for the first centuries of Christianity, Easter was the central holiday. It was only in 336 A.D. when the first Christmas took place. The date chosen, December 25th, was the Roman calendar’s winter solstice, which was a time for celebration of light and warmth. Church leaders purposefully wished to associate Christmas with the pre-existing traditions surrounding the solstice in order to increase the chances of the new holiday taking hold. From the very start, Christmas was informed by pagan tradition.

Furthermore, the time around December 25th was Saturnalia, the Roman celebration of their god of agriculture. This was a month-long hedonistic festival involving the suspension of social rules and hierarchy, with slaves dining beside masters. Continuing through the Middle Ages, Saturnalia had strong influences on Christmas, which in those days was a rowdy affair. After mass, celebrators would join processions, drink, and demand fine food from the wealthy. Saturnalia is also the source of many of the traditions considered quintessential to Christmas, including the giving of gifts and decorating one’s house with evergreen foliage.

It was only in the 19th century that cultural shifts, as well as individual impact, shaped Christmas into something resembling what it is today. Washington Irving’s 1819 series, “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon,” portrayed an English Christmas celebration in which the rich and poor alike came together to feast. The absence of class lines in his story, especially in a time of social upheaval in relation to a holiday that emphasized class, was notable. In his story, Irving wrote that he was describing “ancient custom,” when it was really just born of his mind. In this way, Irving cemented the association of Christmas with charity and the reconciliation of differences, as well as promoting the Christmas dinner tradition.

Nine years later in 1828, a Christmas procession devolved into a particularly violent riot. This created a push for change and a desire to turn Christmas into a private, family-centered holiday. Americans looked to Old World customs as well as those of new immigrants (the name Santa Claus, for example, is from the Turkish-born Dutch Saint Nikolaas) to derive all the components for a perfect Franken-holiday.

This is why the call to “put the Christ Back in Christmas” has no grounds in history. Tracing back any holiday considered to be “established”—including Passover and Easter—reveals just how much external influence has shaped them, and how little sense there is in making them exclusionary. Cultural exchange is not something to be campaigned against, but to be celebrated as a beautiful inevitability that gives rise to the traditions in which we find connection and joy.