There's no doubt that Christmas is one of the most celebrated holidays in America. But how did the Christmas celebration begin? This look at Christmas from it's origins to the celebrations of today reveals an informative and eye-opening look at this popular holiday.
Like many American traditions, the Christmas holiday can be traced back to Europe. During the fourth century, Romans celebrated a "Feast of the Nativity" held on December 17th. This celebration was based on the Christian observance of the birth of Jesus. Pagan feasts and rituals were also popular during this time period. Many Romans paid homage to their deities during a week's long celebration held from December 17 through January 1st.
Concerned by the increasing popularity of pagan worship and the annual pagan festival, the Roman Church changed the official date of the Nativity Feast to December 25th in an effort to curtail rampant pagan celebrations.
Over the next thousand years, the observance of Christmas followed the expanding community of Christianity. The spreading Christian community took the holiday far Northward into England. From the 13th century on, nearly all of Europe observed Christmas.
These Christmas celebrations involved heathen indulgences that were discouraged the rest of the year. The annual celebration included over-eating, dancing, singing, card playing and gambling; pleasures which escalated to magnificent proportions over the years.
In 1607, King James I insisted that a play be acted on Christmas night along with the playing of Christmas games. In another account of the secular nature of the holiday a feast noted 16 different dishes for the first course. In 1626, the Duke of Buckingham charged the entire crew of three ships, including the ship's captains, with abandoning their service in favor of Christmas revels, leaving their vessels preys to any enemy.
As the magnitude of the Christmas celebration grew, religious institutions of the day struggled to gain control of the holiday. However, it continued to be a religious event celebrated through the pleasures and indulgences that went against the holy teachings of the day.
During the 1600 and 1700's Puritan Reformers took aim at changing the lack of religious activities of the Christmas celebration. They declared it a day of mourning rather than a day of rejoicing. This along with the economic and social upheavals of the day began to alter English life and the way Christmas was celebrated. The spread of the Puritan Reformers movement took hold and its policies continued to chip away at the pagan nature of the celebrations. In 1642, Parliament outlawed seasonal plays and ordered monthly fasts which fell on Christmas day during December. Christmas celebrations were "strongly prohibited" and in 1652 fines were imposed on businesses that decorated or closed in observance of the holiday. There was some resistance to the law but the largess of previous celebrations was drastically reduced to small reverend observances.
It was within this turbulent era that English Christmas customs entered early Virginia and New England. Though most settlers observed the holiday, the types of celebrations varied throughout the regions. Some celebrated it as a feast and some as a purely religious holiday. While most observed Christmas there were some that didn't such as the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony. And in some areas the hardships and challenges of the land did not permit the settler's free time for celebrations of any kind.
The observance of Christmas was recorded in non-English settlements as being more religious in nature. The French settlers of St Croix Island off the coast of Maine held religious observances and spent the remainder of the day playing games.
As the first settlements grew into more established colonies patterns of Christmas observances began to form that were unique to the geographic area. The distance from European homelands, the disparate religious and ethnic groups and the hardship of the new beginnings disrupted old habits and holiday traditions.
Pennsylvania was home to a large group of Quakers who, like the Puritans, were against observance of the holiday. They believed that most Christmas revelers spent the day in riot and drunkenness. Though Quaker areas did not celebrate Christmas, the Moravians, Dutch Reformers and Anglicans all held observances in their own way. By and large, most settlers in the New World welcomed Christmas as a day of respite from the routines of work and hardship that came with establishing new lands.
The disparate Christmas observances continued until the American Revolution. The next hundred years following the Revolution shaped the way Americans celebrated the holiday. During the 1800's as areas grew in population and prosperity Christmas observances began to resemble the Christmas celebrations as we know them.
Today it is observed as a family centered celebration complete with traditional foods, Christmas tree, decorations, parties and gift-giving. Many celebrate by attending religious ceremonies and participating in religious practices. Much like its origins, today's Christmas celebrations remains to be an observance of a religious event with much festivity and merriment. As America's most popular holiday, it is celebrated as a season of joy, peace and hope for humankind.
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