What's the real meaning of Christmas? Like a lot of people who grew up in the sixties and seventies, I first learned about this question from the TV special, "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Year after year, I’d watch as Charlie Brown grew ever more dismayed at the yuletide attitudes of those around him, from Snoopy, with his extravagant doghouse decorations, to Sally with her request for Santa to forget the presents and just bring her cold hard cash. Finally, it takes Linus—and his famous recitation of the manger scene from the Gospel of Luke—to bring Charlie Brown around and make him see that, despite his and everyone else’s shortcomings, the Christmas spirit is alive and well.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, this question of what Christmas really means, and which Christmas rituals do or don’t measure up, is a very old one indeed. In fact, it’s as old as Christmas itself.
The story of the Christmas holiday begins with the winter solstice, which falls close to December 25, and is, in terms of the planets, the year’s great turning point. The earth, which spins at a slight angle as it circles the sun, passes through a subtle shift on the day of the solstice, so that instead of deflecting most of the sun’s rays, the surface of the northern hemisphere now absorbs them. The change is unnoticeable at first, but in the coming weeks it makes all the difference. The days, which had been getting ever shorter and colder, like a candle burning down, now grow stronger and brighter. Spring is on the way, and with it the earth’s return to life.
Centuries before there was any such thing as Christmas, the peoples of the ancient world celebrated this miraculous reversal with a kaleidoscopic variety of festivals and celebrations. Yule, Martinmas, Saturnalia…Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas today originally were borrowed from these ancient festivities built around that magical moment when the earth returns from death and darkness to light and life.
But for a long time, Christians were deeply troubled about the associations that came with the season of Jesus’ birth. It was no secret that many of the winter festivals featured decidedly unchristian elements. Even the more benign and joyous of them were open to criticism. Was celebration of any kind suited to so holy a moment as the birth of the world’s redeemer?
Even caroling, that quintessential Christmas activity, hasn’t always been an accepted tradition, at least not in the shape we know it today. For centuries, what singing there was to be heard at Christmastime came from monasteries, in the form of Latin hymns and chants. The first Christmas carols came about when someone joined Gospel messages to popular tunes. The practice spread, but wasn’t received without controversy, especially among the English Puritans.
In fact, all these questions about what was and what wasn’t appropriate to do on Christmas came to a head with the Puritans in the seventeenth century. They were so troubled by the unseemly worldliness of making merry on Jesus Christ’s birthday that they banned any commemoration of Christmas, public or private. According to Gerard and Patricia Del Re in their book The Christmas Almanac: “Town criers passed through the streets ringing their bells and shouting, ‘No Christmas! No Christmas.’” The Puritans brought this attitude to America when they left England for its shores. In Boston as late as 1856, Christmas was just another workday, and those who stayed home to honor it risked getting fired.
How did the pendulum swing back? As the Del Res tell the story, “It was probably the influence of immigrants from Germany and Ireland that finally convinced the Yankees that Christmas could be a harmless, pleasant and even religious festivity. The first state to declare Christmas a legal holiday was Alabama in 1836. The last was Oklahoma in 1890.”
So was born the unique mix of reverence and merriment, solemnity and joy, that makes the Christmas season what it is today. Looking back on all the controversies and dramas that shaped this most beloved of holidays, it’s hard for me not to be impressed anew at how clever Linus was in reading those lines from Luke to Charlie Brown. At the heart of Christmas, and of all the great Christmas traditions and festivities, be they old or new, borrowed or original, is light—the light that shone around the angel of the Lord when he appeared to the shepherds on that Bethlehem hillside bringing tidings of great joy. It’s that same light that shines in the branches of countless Christmas trees, and glows from the crèche. A light that will never wane, a candle that will never sputter out, for it is the Light of the World, lit on the first Christmas, when all of creation emerged from cold and darkness once and for all.