Throughout the remainder of 2017, many, if not most, people will be preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Christmas is now both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. But are you aware of its origins and its evolution?
The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on Dec. 25 was in 336, during the time of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor. Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th December a few years later. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Roman Saturnalia festival. Christmas was first called the Feast of the Nativity and the custom spread to Egypt by 432, to England by the end of the sixth century, and to Scandinavia by the end of the eighth century.
The “12 days of Christmas”, lasting from Christ's birth until the arrival of the “Three Wise Men,” were not celebrated as a single holiday until the 12th century. In some Christian cultures, gifts are given on the 12th day; in others, on all 12.
When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday. The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell.
Early colonists considered Christmas “popish” and pagan. They believed that 25 December was an arbitrarily selected date, rather than the true anniversary of Christ's birth, and because drinking, eating, dancing and having fun were not things that went down well with 17th-century American Puritans generally. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston.
The early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil in America. During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season. In 1828, the New York city council instituted the city’s first police force in response to a Christmas riot. This prompted certain members of the upper classes to begin to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America. Other forces were also at work.
In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon”, a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Also around this time, English author Charles Dickens created the classic holiday tale, “A Christmas Carol”. The story’s message - the importance of charity and good will towards all humankind -- struck a powerful chord in the United States and England and showed members of Victorian society the benefits of celebrating the holiday. The family was also becoming less disciplined and more sensitive to the emotional needs of children during the early 1800s. Christmas provided families with a day when they could lavish attention - and gifts -- on their children without appearing to “spoil” them. Eventually, Christmas Day became a federal holiday in 1870.
Of many 20th century developments worthy of remembrance, I’ll mention just one. Three months after the start of the First World War, an amazing thing happened. In long stretches of the Front, as German and British troops stared across No Man's Land, a spontaneous ceasefire broke out between the two armies. It began as German troops started hanging candles on trees and singing carols, notably Stille Nacht (Silent Night). The British troops responded, and eventually, cautiously, representatives of the two sides crept out into the wasteland and exchanged gifts. In places, impromptu football games broke out between the enemies. Proper burials of the dead were possible as both sides mourned. In places, the truce lasted until the New Year.
Many other religionists celebrate the birth of the founder of their tradition. Buddhists, for example, celebrate Vesak, the Birth of the Buddha in 563 BCE, on April 8. The birth of the Muhammad in 570 CE is celebrated annually on Mawlid. Perhaps the common belief is that once their founder entered the world, the rest was inevitable despite the seeming ups and downs that history records.
This year, members of the Baha’i Faith around the world will celebrate the twin birthdays of Baha’u’llah, and his forerunner, the Bab, on consecutive days in October. It is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Baha’u’llah in 1817. The message of the Baha’i Faith is the essential unity of God (there is only one God worshipped by all), of religion (there is only one religion that has been progressively revealed throughout history), and mankind (all are children of the same Creator). The world is in the process of learning what unity means and how to achieve it. As in the past, the forces of change are not welcomed and many arise to impede progress. Such principles as the abandonment of all prejudice, the equality of men and women, universal education, elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty, and others must be embraced and instituted. When this will happen and after how many severe trials and tribulations we do not know, but we believe that a glorious future is inevitable due to the religion of peace and tolerance and justice which, though in its infancy, now flourishes throughout the world.
Clifford Stevens is chairman of the local spiritual assembly Baha'i Faith of Helena