Trees and buildings are brightly lit, stores are crowded with shoppers, kitchens exude familiar and delicious scents, and seasonal music fills the airwaves as much of the world prepares for Christmas.
How dull would winter be if Christmas was suddenly outlawed? It has happened before.
Prior to the birth of Jesus, people celebrated the promise of the returning sun at the winter solstice, especially in northern Europe where it’s cold, dark and food was almost non-existent in winter – it was a matter of life and death, says retired Okanagan College professor and compelling storyteller Les Ellenor.
“They were so glad the sun came back so they could grow crops. Families would get together and celebrate with gifts, cakes and by bringing flowers into the house,” he says, acknowledging the fear that overtook the populace every year as the long, dark nights returned in the fall.
It was a happy celebration that took place over thousands of years, Ellenor says.
But some 300 years after Jesus’ birth, the Greeks, who preferred to celebrate Christmas on Jan. 6, lost the argument to the Romans who insisted it would be celebrated on Dec. 25, when the sun is even brighter than it is on the 21st (solstice).
“And, in time, the Roman Catholic Church decided they would take over the celebration, which was marked by light and joy, angels, shepherds, kings and singing,” Ellenor says. “Life continued happily until 1517 when Martin Luther and the Protestants took over, favouring pious prayer. And the worst were the Scots – cold, stony Presbyterians.”
And so began the Reformation, a split in Western Christianity initiated by Martin Luther and continued by several Protestant reformers in 16th-century Europe.
In Scotland, the Presbyterians took over parliament and determined people were basically naughty, that Jesus did not like naughtiness and that God would punish them if they misbehaved, Ellenor adds.
Disdain for celebration took an even more serious turn just over 100 years later.
“Parliament, in an ordinance in 1642, said there will be no Christmas, no Whitsuntide, no Easter, no saints days – all those things that are not in the Bible,” Ellenor says, pointing out that between 1642 and 1660, there were no puddings, no mince pies, no holly, no dancing, no music or any other kind of fun or entertainment. And shops, businesses and schools were open on Dec. 25. “They were just dour, Scottish clergy and they wanted earnest Christians who were devout and true.”
Oliver Cromwell was an English military and political leader and independent British Puritan committed to “purifying” the Church of England by eliminating all aspects of Catholicism from religious practices. He was elected to parliament in 1630 and took his beliefs to extremes, signing the death warrant for an English king.
“King Charles the First was a lover of all things sensuous, was married to a Roman Catholic, had a passion for art and fancy dress; he thought he was God’s representative on earth and had the divine right of kings,” Ellenor says, noting that the Puritans believed they were doing God’s will when they removed his head in 1649.
During this time, people living in rural areas were able to continue singing familiar songs without much fear, but in the cities, boys armed with clubs would go into people’s homes and churches, tear down the greenery and beat anyone who they caught singing, to force them to be virtuous, Ellenor says.
People were sick to death of 20 years without fun and when Cromwell died in 1658, King Charles’ son, Charles the Second, was invited back from Holland where he had been living in exile.
“He was called the Merry Monarch and loved fornication even more than his father,” says Ellenor, noting his court was filled with all manner of inappropriate behaviour and that the papers containing the regulations set out by the Presbyterians were burned by the public hangman. “People got Christmas back again and were thrilled; they could honour Jesus on the day of his birth.”
Many of the Puritans headed west where they created “New England” and maintained their rules as they wanted.
They went to America to create a pure country, but a poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” first published anonymously in 1823, introduced St. Nicholas to a welcoming audience.
“So Santa Claus took over as the focus of the celebration and Christmas became commercial,” Ellenor says. “The Americans are good at selling and this was a way to make money. So they changed the holy into the present extravaganza.”
In England, treasured old carols were dug up and Charles Dickens, who wrote a Christmas story for a magazine every year, introduced another concept in his A Christmas Carol in 1843.
“The rich people, out of the goodness of their hearts, should help the poor,” Ellenor says, of the book’s message in a season marked by enjoying a hot drink, sharing and neighbourliness, a story that came to be well-loved by children and adults every year. “When he died, the children actually said, ‘will there be no more Christmas?’”
And, adds Ellenor, several aspects of today’s Christmas celebrations were introduced by Queen Victoria and Albert, who set up a Christmas tree and exchanged gifts.