This is the second post in a three-part series discussing the Truth about Christmas (you can find part 1 here). Today we will discuss why Christmas was banned by the Puritans and the beginnings of the Christianizing of this holiday.
Why Was Christmas Banned?
For the early Christians, Christmas wasn’t a holiday that was celebrated. It wasn’t solidified in its creation until closer to 200 A.D. but its rites and observance were still obscure. Many early church fathers, such as Irenaeus and Tertullian did not include the celebration of Christmas as one of the feasts of the Church. Origen and Arnobius believed only pagans, not saints, celebrated their birthdays. Instead, greater emphasis was placed on the death of the saints, not their birth.
Christmas became important when Charlemagne was crowned emperor on Christmas day A.D. 800. Even with the heightened importance placed on Christmas because of this event, the celebration of Christmas was banned in England by the Puritans. This came in response to this holiday’s association with drunkenness, misbehavior, paganism, and idolatry. Although Christmas became legal again in England in 1660, many people still questioned its celebration.
When the Puritans established colonies in America, they continued to disapprove of Christmas celebrations. This belief prevailed even after the holiday became legal during the 18th century, and after its establishment as a federal holiday in 1870.
In his book Puritans at Play, Bruce Colin Daniels writes of the Puritans view of Christmas:
“First, no holy days except the Sabbath were sanctioned in Scripture, second the most egregious behavior were exercised in its celebration, and third, December 25 was ahistorical. The Puritan argued that the selection of the date was an early Christian hijacking of a Roman festival, and to celebrate a December Christmas was to defile oneself by paying homage to a pagan custom (p 89).”
Mainstream Christianization of Christmas
In the early 19th century, Christmas festivities became increasingly more popular through the rise of the Oxford Movement which tried to revive Catholic observance in England. It also emphasized the centrality of Christmas in Christianity, in addition to charity to the poor, family, and children, kindness, gift-giving, and Santa Claus or Father Christmas.
The popular novelette “A Christmas Carol” published in 1843 by Charles Dickens perfectly encompassed the spirit of Christmas for England and the surrounding nations.
Much like the change in opinion of Christmas in England from a spirited drunken festival to a family-centered holiday, we see that change in America as well.
(Wikipedia “Christmas- History“, “Christmas- Introduction“, “Christmas in Puritan New England“, New Advent “Christmas“, Britannica “Oxford Movement“, Christianity.com “Christmas in Church History“, History.com “History of Christmas” )
Pagan Roots of Popular Christmas Customs and Traditions
Over time as Christianity continued to spread across the world, the pagan practices and traditions of their winter festivals started to blend with the now “Christian Christmas” celebrations to create the observances we see today.
Kissing under the mistletoe
Countless Christmas movies depict a couple kissing under the mistletoe as an innocent fun tradition, but the customs surrounding mistletoe and winter festivals were anything but innocent.
Many cultures regarded the mistletoe plant as magical because it was known to treat many common ailments. The ancient Romans performed fertility rituals under it in an effort to appease the Roman god Saturn.
In Norse mythology, mistletoe is associated with the goddess of love, Frigga. She is believed to kiss those who pass under it. In the Middle Ages, it became a tradition for a man to kiss a woman under it, and if he refused it was considered bad luck.
The practice of gift-giving was popular during winter festivals and it became a point of contention for the Puritans who believed this proved the holiday was pagan. As the focus of Christmas turned more Christian in theology, gift-giving was seen as a natural response to God giving us the ultimate gift – Jesus and salvation. It was also seen as essential to the Christmas story since the Magi gave gifts to Mary and Joseph when Jesus was born.
Going house to house singing Christmas carols seems like an innocent and fun thing to do to help bring cheer to your neighbors, but during Christmas time it came out of a drunken festival tradition.
The practice of singing Christmas Carols comes from an Anglo-Saxon practice of Wassailing. People would get drunk off mulled ale and wish their neighbors “waes hael” or good health. The singing and dancing were also thought to drive away evil spirits from the winter festival.
In the 19th century, the practice was changed to singing Christmas songs.
Decorating the Christmas tree
During the Saturnalia festival, homes were decorated with evergreen leaves, ivy, vines, and laurel wreaths. Ancient Egyptians used palm fronds, which symbolized rebirth and resurrection. The greenery and trees were decorated with golden ornaments that represented Saturn, other gods, or a family’s patron deity. Candles and fruits were used by Germanic tribes to honor Odin.
Around the 8th – 15th century, Christmas trees were used to symbolize Christ and to preach the Gospel.
There are stories that an 8th century English missionary to Germany, St. Boniface, used the evergreen tree as a symbol for Christ, and Martin Luther cut down a tree and decorated it with candles to represent the stars.
In the Bible, God tells the Hebrews to not do what the Gentiles do. He speaks of the practice of cutting down trees, decorating them, and putting them in their homes. Out of all the Christmas traditions, this one especially shouldn’t be practiced by believers in Christ.
Jeremiah 10: 2 – 5:
2 Thus saith the Lord, learn ye not the ways of the heathen, and be not alarmed at them, falling on their faces. 3 For the customs of the nations are vain; it is a tree cut out of the forest, the work of the carpenter, or a molten image. 4 They are beautified with silver and gold, they fix them with hammers and nails; 5 they will set them up that they may not move.
Some might argue that this verse wasn’t referring to a Christmas tree, but I believe that is not the point. The practice, whatever the reason, shouldn’t be practiced because it is what the Gentiles do to celebrate their holidays. We should also consider if we might have picked up other practices and traditions that might be unbiblical unintentionally or unknowingly.
The red berries of the holly are said to represent the blood of Jesus and the sharp-edged leaves the crown of thorns on Christ’s head. But for pagan cultures, this plant was associated with the god of winter. During the winter months, holly wood was used to drive away evil spirits from the home (Learn Religions “Christmas Customs with Pagan Roots“).
Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas
While most Christians regard Santa as a purely secular figure, his presence is very much evident in Christmas celebrations. It is believed that he can be traced to the long-bearded German god, Odin, also known as “the Yule ” or “the Yule father”. He would take nighttime flights in the sky to observe and judge who should prosper and who should perish. He is often depicted riding his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, who later became the source for Santa’s reindeer.
Children would leave their boots near the chimney filled with straw and carrots for Sleipnir, and they would in turn receive gifts from Odin. This tradition turned into leaving Christmas cookies for Santa and stockings to be filled.
Many believe that the modern-day Santa Claus is a secularization of the Christian St. Nicholas, however, it is really the opposite. The legend of St. Nick is the Christianizing of Odin. St. Nicholas, a Turkish monk born in the third or fourth century, is believed to have given away all his wealth and traveled the countryside helping and giving to the poor. He was known as the protector of children and sailors. In the late 18th century Dutch families gathered in America to honor the anniversary of his death. “Sint Nikolaas” or “SinterKlaas” is the Dutch pronunciation, from which we get “Santa Claus”.
The “Twas the night before Christmas” poem by Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore in 1822, Washington Irving and Thomas Nast all helped to give us the modern depiction of Santa Claus as a jolly man who flys his sled by reindeer to deliver toys.
Krampus – The Mean Santa Claus
Krampus meaning “claw” is known as the scary evil counterpart to Santa. While Santa rewards those that are good, Krampus would punish those who were bad. He is depicted as a clawed, horned figure in sheepskin, who assimilated into the characterized figure of the devil. Krampus played a role in a comedic play held during Church services in the wintertime.
Krampus and Santa Claus seem to represent the dual nature of Odin. The people feared Odin and at the same time, they wished to get on his good side by leaving presents for him.
Again many of the plants or even customs surrounding Christmas are not bad in themselves. It is the way they are used in pagan celebrations that are bad, and the crossover seen by pagans and Christians. Why does the Christian celebration of Christmas look almost identical to the way the pagans – modern and ancient – celebrate?
Oftentimes it is the traditions and customs of a holiday that keeps us connected to it, even if its roots are pagan. Many know that the roots of Christmas are pagan, but still, they continue to celebrate. I believe many do this because they believe that Christmas is pagan in a general sense, but do not recognize that almost every aspect of this holiday has some sort of pagan roots or influence.
It is unpleasant to start believing that the traditions and customs that we grew up with are not innocent or godly. Instead many reject the roots of Christmas – the truth of Christmas, in favor of believing it can be Christianized, and instead believe that our service is for Him. But is our service, our work, and celebration for God if the roots didn’t begin with Him and He didn’t command us to celebrate this holiday?
Should Believers in Christ Continue to Celebrate Christmas? (Part 3)