Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Merry Christmas

Merry...was originally a reference to the nihilistic merry making of the mob that would eat, drink and be merry in the moment, for tomorrow it dies. For the nostalgic:
Before we brood and protest too much over the ruin of what we think Christmas must have been like in generations long past, we might actually feel encouraged about the season we celebrate today when we consider what Christmas was really like in the days of old.

Only in relatively recent times, the past two hundred years, has Christmas even been celebrated by most Christians. Up until the 1800s, the day recognized as Christ’s birthday was largely a pagan celebration. Those who bemoan the lack of religious zeal in modern Christmases would have been appalled at the way people in early America celebrated the day. For a majority of people who embraced Christmas throughout history, Christ wasn’t a part of the day at all. In most of the world, especially in England and America, Christmas was not a time of worship, prayer, and reflection; rather, it was a day set aside to sing bawdy songs, drink rum, and riot in the streets.

For centuries, Christmas was anything but a holy day [i.e. holiday, ironically]. It was most often a sinful parade of excess, a day set aside for ignoring laws and even terrorizing citizens. Mummers, the British carolers of the day, were musicians and actors who roamed the streets, presenting plays and singing songs. Mirroring the boisterous nature of the English Christmas, these songs rarely acknowledged the Christian aspects of the holiday. Those who attended church did so in wild costumes, the messages of many priests were anything but scriptural, and gambling was common during the services. After church the poor often stormed the homes of the elite in moblike fashion, pounding on doors and windows, demanding the finest food and drink. If the hosts did not respond, the guests broke into the homes and took what they wanted...
The drunken celebrations hearkened back to the time when Romans and Greeks marked the winter solstice with a weeklong festival of self-indulgence.
[The history of Christmas in the West:]
...Cromwell managed to put a cap on the traditionally riotous English Christmas behavior. Yet after he died and was replaced by his son, the commoners demanded the restoration of the old-fashioned Christmas celebrations. ...Charles, and those who followed him, restored the debauchery of Christmas past. Many in the royal family even encouraged the social chaos and misbehavior by contributing liquor and food for the celebrations. [...]

With the holiday again a drunken street celebration, songs of the era, including “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” alluded to the nature of the carnival. Large bands of men would go to upper-class homes demanding food, drink, and money. If the homeowners did not comply their houses were often looted.

Church leaders of all denominations were aghast at the return of the pagan Christmas celebrations, but they were also powerless to do anything about it. In fact, except for the Church of England and the Catholic Church, churches simply closed their doors and ignored Christmas altogether. The police usually wrote off the often violent day as a tradition, so few lawbreakers were arrested. For generations, in many areas of London, Christmas was a day when women and children feared to venture into the streets.

Over the next two centuries the hope for a Christ-filled Christmas might have been lost altogether if it had not been for many Catholic and Anglican churches stubbornly holding Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. Other than these gatherings of worship and the quiet reflections of some families that shared the story of the Savior’s birth at home, Christmas was anything but holy in almost all of the English-speaking world.

After failing to stop the sinful nature of Christmas celebrations in England, the Puritans attempted to simply outlaw Christmas in the New World. Beginning with the landing of Englishmen at Plymouth Rock in 1620, the holiday was banned throughout New England. Churches did not meet on this day, and businesses were ordered to stay open. Anyone who was caught celebrating Christmas in any way was subject to arrest and fines. These laws remained in effect for more than 150 years, through the Revolutionary War. Christmas was so largely ignored in early America that beginning in 1789, and on each Christmas for the next sixty-seven years, Congress met December 25th. During these meetings, no one stopped to acknowledge Jesus’ birth.

In spite of the early success at outlawing Christmas in the New World, boatloads of immigrants soon overpowered the wishes of the Puritans. The anti-Christmas laws may have remained on the books, but they were soon ignored. In most American cities, the "Lords of Disorder" took over the streets on December 25th. The drunken parties and gang riots grew so bad that in 1828 that the New York City Council met in special session to discuss the issue, and a special police force was formed just to deal with the unlawful conduct of citizens on Christmas Day. Yet even as New York put men in uniform out in the streets to protect life and property from the unruly Christmas revelers, the spirit of the season was about to change.
(Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas
by Ace Collins :9-17)

The spirit of the season changed, thank God for that (along with writers like Charles Dickens and Clement Moore).

If you don't like your culture then it seems to me that the best way to change it is through works of art drawn from creativity and passion.

I'd much rather have a Christmas in which the focus has been shifted to family, children and gift giving than one that is like a winter Mardi Gras.

[Related posts: Holiday Trees?]

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