Christmas is an old and a young holiday – Christians are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ of over 2,000 years ago, but the holiday as we know it today is little more than 100 years old.
For centuries, Christmas was only a minor event, with Easter being the main Christian holiday – but the date of December 25 was still celebrated for the pagan festival of Yule. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon “Cristesmæsse,” a term first recorded in 1038. The Catholic Church changed Yule to create the festival of Christmas, but it did not look like current day celebrations, full of feasting and gift-exchanging – it was a somber time of worship. According to the 8th-century cleric Ecgbert of York:
“[T]he English people have been accustomed to practise fasts, vigils, prayers, and the giving of alms both to monasteries and to the common people, for the full twelve days before Christmas.”
Over the centuries, peasants were granted 12 days off to celebrate Christmas and New Year, but people still didn’t have the same traditions that we observe today.
It was not until the Victorian era that modern-day Christmas began, in the late 1800s. When England’s Queen Victoria married German Prince Albert, the German tradition of the Christmas tree became popular. This era that also saw the invention of the Christmas cracker, Christmas cards, and the images of families sitting around tables and enjoying holiday meals together.
The rise of mass production made tree decorations and gifts cheap enough for all classes in society to buy them. Printing inventions also made Christmas cards affordable for the masses.
The author Charles Dickens helped create modern Christmas. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is not only a classic book that is still popular today, it also became a guide for the Christmases that would follow. Let’s look at a poem of the same name, printed in the London Society Christmas edition of 1868.
A Christmas Carol
By Astley H. Baldwin
In the dale-church, o’er the fells.
Be our ways of life so varied,
Be our fortunes poor or bright,
Hand in hand with all our brothers,
We are one at least tonight.
Nor the noble in his mansion,
Nor the sovereign on her throne,
Nor the beggar in his hovel,
Will enjoy themselves alone.
We all seek the kindly greeting
Of some dear, familiar face;
We all know that hermit feeling
For to-night is out of place.
But one night! Why not for ever
Should we bind the golden chain
That shows man his poorest fellow
Was not sent to earth in vain?
That each sorrow hath a purpose,
That each gift hath an alloy,
That ever finely balanced
Are the scales of grief and joy.
Spare a little, then, ye rich ones,
From your laden coffers now;
Bring to poverty a sun-ray,
Bring a smile to sorrow’s brow.
Take it gratefully, ye toilers,
Toilers up earth’s weary hill;
‘Tis a green spot in your desert,
‘Tis a good sprung from your ill.
Yes! Be rich and poor united,
‘Tis most grand in Heaven’s sight,
And a blessing, not earth’s blessing,
Is on all the world to-night!
The holiday has changed so much over the last 100 years, who knows what Christmas will look like in another century’s time?