Well everybody, it’s Christmas Eve and that means that after this, we only have one journey left.
Today, come with me, The Ghost of Christmas Past, and we’ll go back to see how Christmas became a wondrous, major holiday celebrated today and how different cultures celebrated.
A Holly Jolly Christmas
Even before the birth of Jesus, before Christmas became the religious holiday we know it as today, early cultures and civilizations celebrated the winter solstice. As we learned in some of our earlier journeys this week, the changing of the seasons was a fascination to many, and winter was, of all the four seasons, one of the most fascinating seasons of all. Everything that was once beautiful became bleak and lifeless. Snow covered the ground in many places. Temperatures dropped and people stayed indoors and enjoyed their families and lived off of what they had stored up for the winter. It was a time to appreciate what you had and anticipate what was yet to come. Winter was a reminder that all things come to and end, and yet can be renewed.
Cultures all over the world celebrated winter in a variety of ways. In Rome, when winters weren’t as harsh, Saturn the god of agriculture was celebrated, as was the sun god Mithra who was an infant god born on December 25th. Scandinavians celebrated Yule on December 21st as they looked forward to the return of the sun. Pagans celebrated winter with dancing and singing and festivals.
After the birth of Jesus and during Christianity’s earliest years, Easter was celebrated more than Christmas. It wasn’t until the 4th century when church officials chose to honor the birth of Jesus, and because the Bible doesn’t say when it was that Jesus was born, Pope Julius I decided to combine the celebration of Jesus’ birth with the winter solstice celebrations during the last week of December in an effort to make the birth of Jesus recognized and add it into the celebrations already going on.
The first official Christmas was called The Feast of The Nativity and it was celebrated December 25th, which Pope Julius I chose as the day to celebrate, and by the end of the eighth century, Christmas had spread through Europe, but church officials could not control how the holiday was celebrated.
By the Middle Ages, Christianity replaced Pagan religion, but in the 17th century, when Puritans took over England, the Puritan forces declared Christmas as blasphemous because the birth of Jesus had been paralleled with the date of a pagan holiday and the celebration of it in any form was outlawed. After Charles II took the throne, he gave Christmas back to the people.
When the Puritans came to America, they were even more Orthodox in their beliefs than the first Puritans were, so Christmas was not a recognized holiday in the New World and was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone celebrating Christmas was punished by a fine of five shillings. Christmas was still celebrated in some of the other first colonies.
During the American Revolution, some colonists still celebrated Christmas but after the British were defeated and the war came to an end in 1781, many Americans swept out British customs and that included Christmas. Less than half of American families celebrated the holiday until it gained popularity again in the 1840s.
After Christmas was once again embraced in America, it was “Americanized”; not so much a religious holiday as it was a time of reflecting on nostalgia and enjoying peace and comfort and family. In 1819, Washington Irving wrote “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent” which was a book of small stories about Christmas being celebrated in an English manor house. Irving’s book helped contribute to the shaping of an American Christmas. In the book, a wealthy man invited peasants to his home for Christmas and both classes enjoyed each other’s company. The book served as a reminder of what Christmas really should be about; community, peace, generosity, and kindness. Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in 1843 further brought about this sense of harmony between the two classes around Christmastime, and Christmas became a holiday focused on the importance of charity and goodwill. It also became a time of celebrating family and loved ones, and giving gifts to them to show appreciation to them. Gift giving especially became focused on children.
Santa Claus was introduced to America by the Dutch immigrants in the 1700s but in the 1830s and 1840s, the Santa Claus character was used in stores as the store’s attempt to attract children and persuade their parents to buy gifts. Christmas became a day that children and parents alike looked forward to; children got gifts and parents had an excuse to spoil them without actually looking like they were spoiling them.
Old customs that had first originated in Europe began to unearth as Christmas became popularized in America. In addition to peace, harmony, and charity being the primary focus, these good deeds began to remind people that they were doing exactly what Jesus would want them to do; be kind to others, love others, give to others, and so on. Once again the birth of Jesus was celebrated on Christmas, and people began to flock to churches to celebrate Christmas properly; with praise and worship.
Christmas became an official holiday in 1870, but by then, Americans had already made a Christmas that was all their own; a Christmas that combined several other customs and traditions from other cultures. Christmas had been reinvented and ever since, has been the most widely known and celebrated holiday in the country, and thanks to America being a melting pot of cultures, there is no right or wrong way to celebrate it.
Ok. This is my own personal tradition in our little family at home. You know it’s Christmas morning at our house with the smell of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, hot cocoa, and coffee emanating from the kitchen. Every Christmas morning, my husband and daughter get to wake up to freshly baked cinnamon rolls that I get up early to prepare. I’m not fancy, so I cheat and use Rhode’s Cinnamon Rolls (Hey, I still have to get up early to thaw them and put them in the oven and frost them ). But, this is a good recipe for cinnamon rolls (from Paula Deen’s website) if you want to go all out. It’s my favorite one of homemade cinnamon rolls. It takes a little while, so you want to do it the night before.
1/4 -ounce package yeast
1/2 cup warm water
1/2 cup scalded milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter or shortening
1 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 to 4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup melted butter, plus more for pan
3/4 cup sugar, plus more for pan
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
3/4 cup raisins, walnuts, or pecans, optional
4 tablespoons butter
2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 to 6 tablespoons hot water
1.Heat oven to 350 degrees F.
2.In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water and set aside. In a large bowl mix milk, sugar, melted butter, salt and egg. Add 2 cups of flour and mix until smooth. 3.Add yeast mixture. Mix in remaining flour until dough is easy to handle. Knead dough on lightly floured surface for 5 to 10 minutes. Place in well-greased bowl, cover and let rise until doubled in size, usually 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
4.When doubled in size, punch down dough. Roll out on a floured surface into a 15 by 9-inch rectangle. Spread melted butter all over dough. Mix sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over buttered dough. Sprinkle with walnuts, pecans, or raisins if desired. Beginning at the 15-inch side, role up dough and pinch edge together to seal. Cut into 12 to 15 slices.
5.Coat the bottom of baking pan with butter and sprinkle with sugar. Place cinnamon roll slices close together in the pan and let rise until dough is doubled, about 45 minutes. Bake for about 30 minutes or until nicely browned.
Meanwhile, mix butter, powdered sugar, and vanilla. Add hot water 1 tablespoon at a time until the glaze reaches desired consistency. Spread over slightly cooled rolls.