The festival we know as Christmas is far older than Christianity. It is one of the institutions that the early Christians adopted from, their pagan rivals.
During its teething years it was touch and go whether Christianity survived or succumbed to its foremost rival, Mithraism. The Mithraists were sun worshippers and they combined a solemn fertility ritual with aspirations after moral purity and a hope of immortality. The main Mithraic festival was held at the winter solstice, that time from which, each year, the days began to lengthen and the sun to arouse from its winter rest with the promise of a fertile springtime. The focal point of the ritual was a portrayal of a virgin giving birth to a new sun.
The Christian gospels give no hint of the date of the birth of their Christ and, accordingly, the early Christian Church did not celebrate it. The Christian priests were severe men and woman who urged their followers to live equally severe lives of work, abstinence and charity. But they found that many of their adherents took part in the solemnities and festivities of the Mithraists and, if they wished to win and retain converts, they would have to pander to peoples’ hearty liking for festivity and pageantry. Accordingly, the Christians of Egypt came to regard January 6th (by the Julian calendar) as the date of the nativity of their Christ and the custom of commemorating his birth on that date spread until, by the beginning of the fourth century, it was widely adopted in the east.
The western Christian church, probably influenced by the Roman festival of Saturnalia and the northern Yule, was the first to adopt December 25th, the day of the winter solstice, for their Christmas celebrations. The idea spread until, at an assembly held at Antioch in the year 375 A.D., the eastern church accepted the same date and officially changed from January 6th to December 25th.
As well as taking over the date of the pagan festival the Christians absorbed many of the heathen rites and symbols, such as the virgin birth, the burning of candles and the use of seasonable greenery for decoration.
By the middle ages Christmas was firmly established as the foremost annual Christian festival. The period of ritual and celebration extended over the whole twelve days from December 25th to Epiphany. It was a time of feasting, music, dancing, mumming, boisterous fun, and horseplay with the religious significance prominent in, but not dominating, the festivities. The twelve days ended with a ceremonial return to work on what was then known as Plough Monday.
A number of religious symbols from different parts of the world had become grafted on to the Christmas ritual. The mistletoe, considered a sign of fertility in some areas, became part of the Christmas festivity. The yule log, originally cut from the oak tree on which mistletoe was supposed to grow prolifically, became the traditional fuel for the occasion. Saint Nicholas of Russia, who died in 350 A.D., was eventually adopted by the Greek church and legends illustrating his benevolence and good nature were handed down to create the image of the Santa Claus of later generations.
The sixteenth century saw a growth in early capitalist industry and the first pressures being applied to abridge the period of Christmas festivity. Early restrictions had little effect in agricultural areas but it was easier to keep the poverty-stricken wage workers of the towns with their noses to the grindstone. For them a long holiday meant unbearable privations.
In England, effective political action to subdue Christmas festivities came with the Puritan revolution of the seventeenth century. During the period of the so-called Commonwealth fun and frivolity was severely frowned upon and even the churches were closed on Christmas day.
The next two hundred years witnessed the complete commercialisation of the festival. Capitalism drew each aspect of the institution into its maw. The spontaneous games and recreations were gradually replaced by organised entertainment; the amateur religious players and mummers made way for paid entertainers; communal self-help dried up and a smug, dignity-destroying charity took its place.
Nineteenth century sentimental writers, like Dickens and Kingsley, focussed attention, on the pitiable plight of the working class after the Industrial Revolution. They were of the “change-of-heart” school of reformers, urging employers to be a little more charitable to their employees. Dickens best depicted the attitude in his A Christinas Carol wherein he portrays a mean and grasping employer,’ scared by a bad dream into becoming a charitable man on Christmas day and a little less mean one in the days following, to the benefit of his happiness and at the expense of his bank account.
Practically all of the Holy days of the middle ages have been eliminated. May day, as a workers’ holiday, has been moved to a Sunday in May where it does not interfere with the working week, but the tradition of Christmas, shorn of most of its religious significance, dies hard. It lives on because it offers an attractive expansion of the market for innumerable goods. Workers save up for much of the year to have a spending spree and some festivity over the Christmas period. New symbols are introduced from time to time to attract these hard earned savings into different pockets. Christmas trees were an innovation, developed in this country from a German custom, during the reign of Queen Victoria following her marriage to Albert of Saxe Coburg. Christmas cards are also a comparatively recent profit making introduction.
The attitude of capitalist politicians to the festive season is often amusingly contradictory. In 1939, with a war getting under way, the Chancellor of the Exchequer broadcast a plea to save money to keep prices down, a minister at the Board of Trade called for a little spending to keep trade on the move, a state Forestry official announced that plenty of Christmas trees would be available as usual, firms with gift goods to market advertised them up to the hilt, and writers in the press urged people not to bankrupt patriotic business men who were doing their best to pay the costs of the war.
Social institutions are measured by their adaptability to a commodity producing society and are fostered or discouraged according to their usefulness to a profit making system.
Noble sentiments are prostituted and even the charity advocated by Christians is harnessed to the capitalist cart and whipped up with the gift-giving pleas and advertisements at Christmas.