The Man Who Invented Christmas
By Les Standiford
Hardcover, 256 pages
List price: $19.95
Let Nothing Ye Dismay
For all the strengths that are evident to the modern eye in A Christmas Carol, and despite his own confidence in the power of his tale, Dickens had at least two good reasons to be apprehensive as publication day for his story approached. One had to do with the nature of the holiday itself, and the other with the dire financial straits he found himself in.
As for the first, Christmas in 1843 was not at all the premier occasion that it is today, when Christmas stories and their Grinches and elves and Santas abound, when "Christmas stores" purvey Yule decorations the four seasons round, and a marketing effort that begins sometime in mid-October is said to determine the fate of an entire year for retailers.
There were no Christmas cards in 1843 England, no Christmas trees at royal residences or White Houses, no Christmas turkeys, no department-store Santa or his million clones, no outpouring of "Yuletide greetings," no weeklong cessation of business affairs through the New Year, no orgy of gift-giving, no ubiquitous public display of nativity scenes (or court fights regarding them), no holiday lighting extravaganzas, and no plethora of midnight services celebrating the birth of a savior. In fact, despite all of Dickens's enthusiasms, the holiday was a relatively minor affair that ranked far below Easter, causing little more stir than Memorial Day or St. George's Day does today. In the eyes of the relatively enlightened Anglican Church, moreover, the entire enterprise of celebrating Christmas smacked vaguely of paganism, and were there Puritans still around, acknowledging the holiday might have landed one in the stocks.
In fact, for much of the first two centuries of settlement in New England, Christmas was scarcely celebrated. As Yule scholar Stephen Nissenbaum points out, from 1659 to 1681 there was actually a law on the books in the Massachusetts Colony that forbade the practice and levied a fine of five shillings upon anyone caught in the act. Sitting down with their new native friends for a Thanksgiving feast might have been perfectly acceptable, but when Governor William Bradford discovered a few of his fellow Pilgrims trying to celebrate Christmas the year after their arrival, he broke up the ceremonies and ordered everyone back to their jobs.
Part of the reason that Puritans found the holiday such anathema lies in the holiday's roots in pagan celebrations that date back to Roman times. There is in fact no reference in the Christian gospels to the birth of Jesus taking place on the twenty-fifth of December, or in any specific month at all. When Luke says, "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior," there is not the slightest indication of what day that might have been. Moreover, as climatologists have pointed out, the typical weather patterns in the high desert region, then as now, make it difficult to believe that shepherds would have been out tending their flocks during frigid, late-December nights, when nighttime lows often dipped below freezing.
For the first several hundred years of Christianity's practice, and while the death and rebirth of Jesus were venerated upon the highest holy day of Easter, the birth of the savior was not celebrated. It was Pope Julius I who, during the fourth century, designated December 25 as the official date for the birth of Jesus, and scholars believe that he chose the date so that Christianity might attract new members by co-opting the lingering sentiments for the ancient festival of Saturnalia, held annually by Romans in honor of their god of agriculture. Beginning the week before the winter solstice (which occurs between December 20 and 23 each year) and for an entire month, Romans turned their ordinary world topsy-turvy and embarked upon an orgy of drinking and feasting, during which businesses and schools were closed, the government of the city was turned over to the peasants, and slaves were relieved of their masters.
The decision to create Christmas (the term derives from the original "dismissal" or "festival," i.e., "Mass of Christ"), officially celebrating the birth of Jesus for the first time, brought mixed blessings to the Church. Indeed, many pagans found the new religion that embraced their old customs inviting, and the membership rolls grew. On the other hand, Church leaders found that their new Christmas celebrations often got out of hand. As soon as services were over for the day, churchgoers in early modern Europe found it perfectly acceptable to transition directly to a drunken bacchanal, especially if they were part of the disenfranchised class.
One young man of no special standing would be chosen as the "lord of misrule," and was often provided with a "wife" for the day. The revelers would eagerly make themselves available to carry out his whimsical orders, especially if they involved some mischief at the expense of their true masters. Throngs of the needy and less fortunate would present themselves at the gates of the wealthy, demanding food and drink.
In time, elements of these practices were modified into the custom of Boxing Day in England, during which members of the upper classes would package up some of their castoff goods and clothing as year-end gifts for their servants. And, Nissenbaum points out, even to this day, officers of the British Army are compelled to wait upon their enlisted men at Christmas meals. On this side of the Atlantic, Halloween has become the day when anyone has the right to bang on any door and demand a gift from those inside, and the December issues of popular magazines print "tipping guides" for those who wish to stay in the good graces of their paperboys, manicurists, and barbers for the ensuing year.
By the early 1600s, however, the excesses of "Christmaskeepers" in England had only increased, when such practices as "mumming" had become common. Among other things, mumming men and women were wont to exercise their passion for the season by exchanging their clothing and going from one neighbor's house to the next, engaging in the sorts of behavior that one might expect when undressing and cross-dressing were involved. Such carnality distressed Anglicans such as the Reverend Henry Bourne of Newcastle most grievously; in his eyes, Christmas was "a pretense for Drunkenness, and Rioting, and Wantonness." His Puritan counterpart in America, Cotton Mather of Boston, whose outrage would carry over to the Salem witch trials, chimed in: "Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking and in all Licentious Liberty."
There might have been practical reasons for men less fortunate or upright to blow off some steam from time to time, but that was of little concern to such church leaders as Bourne and Mather. They may well have understood that the beginning of the winter season was the time when wine and beer were finally fermented and ready to drink, and when meat and game could finally be slaughtered without the fear of spoilage. And of course, who could fail to understand a common man's wish for a bit of bounty and the chance for some fooling around when he spent most of his year grubbing just to stay alive?
But in the eyes of Bourne and Mather and those with similar views of the practice of Christianity, things had simply got out of hand. Father Christmas, an elderly folk figure that had developed as an avuncular emblem of the celebration, was now painted as a blasphemous icon, and these libidinous urges of his fellow-travelers, natural as they might have been, were no different from the natural inclinations of the beasts. If not controlled, they would lead man to his moral and spiritual ruin. Christmas, then — characterized "by mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling" — must be brought under control.
When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan adherents took over the government of England in the mid-1600s, they did so with a vow to cleanse the country of its wickedness and excess. Ornate cathedrals, for instance, were no longer seen as testaments to God's power and magnificence, but as temples to human pretention. The lengthy seasonal celebrations leading up to major holidays only encouraged intervening lapses of piety and would have to be eliminated. More effective in reminding man of his proper relationship to his creator would be the steady, day-by-day and week-by-week focus on one's behavior and responsibilities, a practice that would be punctuated every Sabbath day by stern leaders like Mather, conducted in utilitarian "meeting houses" where distractions could be held to a minimum.
As for Christmas, which had been given over utterly to "carnall and sensual delights," Parliament put it into law in 1644 that December 25 was from then on to be a day of fasting and repentance. Such legislation led to discontent and even rioting in rural corners of the land, but the ban on Christmas would stay in place until Charles II returned in 1660 and the monarchy was restored.
Things might have been bad for Christmas in England in the mid-seventeenth century, but in the United States, conditions were even worse. Puritans had gone so far as to expunge the names of days of the week like Thursday (Thor's Day) and Saturday (Saturn's Day) from their calendars (replacing them with simple numbers) because of their pagan associations. Though Massachusetts was the only colony that had made the observation of Christmas illegal, there was no formalized celebration of the holiday by church or state throughout New England.
In all colonial records, according to Nissenbaum, there appears only one instance of scofflaws flaunting the Massachusetts decree. In 1679, four young men from Salem village were spurned by orchard owner John Rowden when they came caroling, seeking a cup of a fine pear wine that he produced. When they had finished their singing, one of the men called out to Rowden, "How do you like this, father? Is this not worth a cup of perry?"
"I do not like it so well," Rowden answered, and added, "Pray begone."
His suggestion led to a riot in which his assailants "threw stones, bones, and other things" at him and his house, keeping up their assault for an hour and a half, during which they "beat down much of the daubing in several places," stole several bushels of apples from a storage bin, and broke down a considerable length of fence. A "wassail gone bad," Nissenbaum terms the incident.
Excerpted from The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford Copyright © 2008 by Les Standiford. Excerpted by permission of Crown Publishing. All rights reserved.