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A Short History of Medieval to American Christmas

Did you know Christmas has been illegal in The United States? Did you know it was considered unpatriotic at times? Did you know many of our traditions come from sketch books and fiction stories made popular in the 1820's?

The American Christmas Ritual is one that spans across Catholics, Protestants, New Agers, and 'Nones.' It would seem then our practice is mostly a conglomeration of various older traditions synthesized into something new. Where did it all come from?

Medieval Catholic Festivals were full of feasting and drinking as they are today. But what is different from our Christmas, is that Medieval Christmas festivals were frequently public activities, not limited to the domain of the family sphere. The idea that Christmas is "only in my home" or "only family time" or "predominately family time" is thoroughly un-Catholic because it places the Familial Order above The Ecclesial Order.

Mass is the heart of The Catholic Church, and thus the source of Catholic Culture, not the family. The family is chronologically the first interaction a child has with a culture, but that culture being Catholic means The Mass is logically first. This makes sense since The First and Great Commandment is to Love God with all our heart and mind and soul, and the Second is like unto the first, to love neighbor as ourselves. This then must be reflected in our Christmas celebration.

For this reason the most important Christmas activities of Medieval England were Mass, Morning Prayer, and Evening Prayer. In between such services people sung, feasted, visited others, and played games.

Medieval Christmas 400's-1500's

  • Preceded by Advent

  • By 567 Catholics make a Penitential Seasons, Advent, to prepare for this. "Preparation" for Christmas not not sweets and Christmas hymns, but fasting, penance, confession, to prepare the heart to receive God, not on fatness but by getting lean and mean.

  • Preparation for food did start, but this meant hard work like salting meats for storage, slaughtering of animals, etc.

  • December 6th was in Advent, but a day for "The Boy Bishops" in which a boy was mock ordained and allowed to command around people for the day. Typically done at royal court and/or in particular families. Holy Innocents on December 28th was similar.

  • Christmas Eve was "Adam and Eve" Day

  • St. Irenaeus recounts how Mary is the 2nd Eve, St. Paul tells us Jesus is the 2nd Adam

  • Christmas Day then is a celebration of the Birth of the Second Adam!

  • The Christmas Mass

  • The daytime Mass was the first. The Gospel was not about stables, shepherds, or angels but was simply John 1:1-14 where Christ the Eternal Word became flesh!

  • The Vigil Mass was the second Mass added to the Christmas Mass

  • The third was the Mass at Dawn.

  • NOTE: Anyone find it strange that "Midnight Mass" can be at 6, 7, or 8 pm? What does 'midnight' mean anyway?

  • Matins and Vespers

  • In the Medieval era people gathered at parishes for Matins before Mass on high feast days.

  • The daytime was full of full, festivities, and fine foods. People gathered back at the parish for Evening Prayer to round off the day.

  • The Christmas Creche

  • Introduced by St. Francis of Assisi himself in 1223, this picked up immediate popularity. Later Mary and Joseph were added, then shepherds, angels, and other figures.

  • Days off Work

  • Many areas protected having several, or seven, or all twelve days off.

  • Plays

  • Before the age of movies there was The Play. The Shepherd's Cycle [of Wakefield] and Paradise Play were two famous ones during Christmas time.

  • Public Games

  • Dice, gambling, cards, etc.\

  • Early form of field hockey and rugby combined

  • Early form of soccer and/or rugby

  • These were played by adults and were frequently rough

  • Public Singing and Dancing

  • "Caroling" was when some sang and others danced in a circle around those singing

  • People dressed for the cold to partake in public activities

  • Medieval reenactments and plays of Biblical Stories were popular, analogous to Passion Plays

  • Halloween during Christmas?

  • The Scandinavians dressed up like the 'Yuletide Goat' and scared people, much more like our Halloween

  • The Irish put candles in their windows and left an open chair at the dinner table to commemorate the departed

  • Feasting

  • King John of England, Christmas of 1213 had a feast including 24 hogshead of wine, 200 heads of pork, 1,000 hens, 500 lbs of wax, 50 lbs of pepper, and 100 lbs of almond

  • Bishop Swinfield of England in 1289 had 41 guests over who feasted on 2 and 3/4 cows, 4 deer, 4 pigs, 60 hens, 8 partridges, 2 geese, and 40 gallons of wine

  • Lord's of Manors gave peasants special bread, meats, and as much beer as they wanted on Christmas

  • "Boy Bishop" on Holy Innocents, 12/28

  • On the Third Day of Christmas, on the Feast of Holy Innocents, a boy was mock elected as Bishop. He would celebrate a faux Mass, give a homily, one said Vespers for The King, etc. He was given food and money as gifts. This is similar to the St. Nicholas Day custom of electing a 'boy bishop' who then commanded the family what to do that day.

The Outlawing of Christmas 1530-1680's

The Reformation hit England in the 1530's. By 1534 Henry VIII declared himself the supreme head of The Church in England, a functional separation from The Roman Catholic Church. By 1549 the first Prayerbook formed Anglicanism and produced the first English liturgies. By 1603 a group wanted to further "purify" Anglicanism of Catholicism. They became known as the "Puritans." By 1620, seeing they couldn't win the political struggle, some moved to "The New World" to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony, i.e. "The Pilgrims." Some twenty years later The Puritans who remained in England won the fight with force.

Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan, took over England in 1645. Christmas was hated by Puritans and so Cromwell, true to form, outlawed Christmas. This continued from 1645 until 1660. Exhibiting Christmas practices or behaviours was penalized with a 5 shilling fine. Christmas Day was to be a "fast day" and all shops, stores, and markets were to be open. Sound familiar?

It is all too Puritan for American shops to celebrate "We're open Christmas Day!" This tendency has also been noted in Max Weber's famous The Protestant Work Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. It's important to remember here that Puritans are a sort of English Calvinism, who see money as proof of hard work, which is proof of being elected by God. Taking multiple days off and wasting money and time on feasting and fun doesn't correspond with this Protestant theology at all. Feasting & Fun is thoroughly a Catholic thing because we see time as a gift, rather than as a commodity, e.g. "I'm out of time," "I don't have enough time," "I need to spend more time," etc.

When Charles II returned to throne he brought back Christmas and other festivities, meriting him the title, "The Merry Monarch." Recall that The Reformation and the 'Age of Discovery' are going on around the same centuries. The United States' Southeast was settled by Anglicans, the North by Puritans, and a dash of Baptists came to The South later on. All three were from England. All three then were simply stripping down ancient English Catholic practices. Just like Puritan England then, a Puritan outlawed Christmas in Boston in 1649 with a 50 shilling fine for violation. This remained until 1681 when a non-Puritan governor came into office.

Christmas Keeping as Unpatriotic 1680's-1800's

Anglicans in Virginia were known for celebrating Christmas but this all became suspicious as tensions rose between The Colonies and Great Britain. By the time the Revolutionary War broke out in the 1770's celebrating Christmas was too Anglican, therefore too English, therefore made you suspect of being a Loyalist, therefore it could lead to you being perceived as unpatriotic at best or a traitor at worst.

In other words, in the 1600-1700's, Christmas was not an American tradition. It was rarely celebrated, and frequently only by well-to-do Anglican Virginians who owned lots of land and slaves as a kind of 'Old World English custom.' It is therefore not all that radical that George Washington crossed the Delaware to attack the Brit's Hessian mercenaries on Christmas day. Christmas wasn't much of a holy or secular day.

Now to balance this view John Smith's men in Jamestown did celebrate Christmas. So no one is saying people didn't celebrate Christmas, only that it wasn't a major holiday or custom of Americans. It all depended on the group you were with, what Old World group you came from, and why you were in the Colonies. Puritans wanting to 'do their own thing' were happy to abandon Christmas, Anglicans wanting gold, guts, and glory and to see themselves as English citizens kept to Christmas.

Nevertheless the attack on Christmas morning changed the fate of The Colonies. Many consider it one of the most important battles of the Revolutionary War, the one that changed the tides and led to American victory. By 1783 then that war is over, our country is a youngster, and Christmas really ain't a part of its blood yet.

America Increases in 'Christmas Spirit' 1800's-1860's

It was some 30 years later, in the early 1810's-1820's that changed all Christmas for America. Washington Irving sketches, writings, and Charles Dickens' novellas like Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, but especially -- you guessed it -- A Christmas Carol that became instance classics. A young Dickens, only 24, was suddenly internationally famous for his Christmas writings. He published one every year just for the holiday. They depicted a "traditional Christmas" focused on the family and home that arguably never existed. Nonetheless pamphlets depicting a kind of Family-Around-the-Table Christmas were thought to be 'the ancient practice.' Americans as Protestants were largely ignorant of Catholic history took up the idea quickly. Thus, the Christmas a "[only] family time" was born. What's important to see here, is that there arguably has always been a stream of the American Christmas tradition that is Secular, that is, not having to do with Christ. By the 1820's Christmas shopping is in, a fad, it's popular.

Christmas Cards, Santa Clause, Rudolph, & Romance 1870's-Today

The Cathedrals schools and seminaries had produced "Hi mom and dad, it's insert-name-here, school is good but hard, send money" post cards that were used by Americans to produce our Christmas card tradition. Though many countries gave gifts on Epiphany, January 6th, we picked up on the December 25th practice. Americans were looking increasingly to Catholics and even some Anglicans for Christmas advice. Christmas picks up steam. The Civil War happens from 1860-1865. Christmas is declared a Federal Holiday in the United States in 1870, some 50-60 years after it garnishes popularity. There is a mixture of shopping, cards, Jesus, and family all swirling around various traditions. Given America was never like a Catholic European country, there isn't The Church, nevermind a Christian community, that can actually give "Christmas" a single, objective meaning.

Within 60 more years it's the 1930's. Coca-Cola draws it's fat, jolly "Santa Clause" who has clearly long departed from St. Nicholas of Myra. A Protestant country borrowing Catholic practices somehow moves St. Nicholas' Memorial from December 6th to December 25th. It's not too long from there that even well meaning Christians have to explain to their children that somehow Jesus and the fictional Santa Clause are somehow 'on the same team.' By 1939 Rudolph is made by Montgomery Ward stores to attract Christmas consumers.

Arguably the latest development of American Christmas is the Romance factor. Mariah Carey's "All I want for Christmas" and the numerous Christmas movies about obtaining romance outnumber 'Christmas spirit' films. Some five years ago I noted that out of 10 Christmas movies on at that moment, 8 were about romance.

So when people tell you Christmas has always been about Jesus this depends on what they mean by "Christmas." In The Catholic Church, yes. In the various Protestant Communities, in some yes, in some no. In our country, kind of, for some people, some time. But the idea that in our country "Christmas" has always meant family gathered around a candle-lit turkey is a relatively new development in The American ethos. In the U.S., shopping for Christmas is as old as Christmas being popular. So if Protestants want a "Jesus is the Reason for the Season," they'll need more than candles and a family table, they'll need the Mass. "Keep the Mass in Christmas" is the only way you'll keep a single, unbroken tradition from our current practice back to Christ.

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