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Holidays and Observances

Christmas, Development of

Source: Francis X. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (New York; Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1958), pp. 62-67. Copyright 1952 by Francis X. Weiser. Used by permission of the publishers.

[p. 62] Middle Ages. The great religious pioneers and missionaries who brought Christianity to the pagan tribes of Europe also introduced the celebration of Christmas.

[p. 63] The period from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries was the peak of a general Christian celebration of the Nativity. It was at this period, too, that most of the delightful Christmas customs of each country were introduced. Some have since died out; others have changed slightly through the ages; many have survived to our day. A few practises had to be suppressed as being improper and scandalous, such as the customs of dancing and mumming in church, the "Boy Bishop's Feast," the "Feast of the Ass," New Year's fires, superstitious (pagan) meals, impersonations of the Devil, and irreverent carols.

Decline. With the Reformation in the sixteenth century there naturally came a sharp change in the Christmas celebration for many countries in Europe. The Sacrifice of the Mass the very soul of the feast was suppressed. The Holy Eucharist, the liturgy of the Divine Office, the sacramentals and ceremonies all disappeared. So did the colourful and inspiring processions, the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints. In many countries all that remained of the once rich and glorious religious festival [p. 64] was a sermon and a prayer service on Christmas Day. Although the people kept many of their customs alive, the deep religious inspiration was missing, and consequently the "new" Christmas turned more and more into a feast of good-natured revelling.

On the other hand, some groups, including the German Lutherans, preserved a tender devotion to the Christ Child and celebrated Christmas in a deeply spiritual way within their churches, hearts, and homes.

In England the Puritans condemned even the reduced religious celebration that was held in the Anglican Church after the separation from Rome.

When the Puritans finally came to political power in England, they immediately proceeded to outlaw Christmas.

[p. 65] Revival in England. When the old Christmas eventually returned with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, it was actually a "new" Christmas. The spiritual aspect of the feast was now left mostly to the care of the ministers in the church service on Christmas Day. What was observed in the home consisted of a more shallow celebration in the form of various non-religious amusements and of general revelling. However, a spirit of good [p. 66] will to all and of generosity to the poor ennobled these more worldly celebrations of the great religious feast. Two famous descriptions of this kind of popular celebration are found in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and in Washington Irving's Sketch Book.

Christmas in America. The feast was celebrated with all the splendour of liturgical solemnity and with the traditional customs of the respective nationalities in Florida, on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, in Canada, and in the territory of the present State of Michigan.

In the colonies of New England, however, the unfortunate and misdirected zeal of the Puritans against Christmas persisted far into the nineteenth century.

[p. 67] It was not until immigrants from Ireland and from continental Europe arrived in large numbers toward the middle of the last century that Christmas in America began to flourish. The Germans brought the Christmas tree. They were soon joined by the Irish, who contributed the ancient Gaelic custom of putting lights in the windows.

Very soon their neighbours, charmed by these unusual but attractive innovations, followed their example and made many of these customs their own.

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