From Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1869:
The festival of Christmas is regarded as the greatest celebration throughout the ecclesiastical year, and so important and joyous a solemnity is it deemed, that a special exception is made in its favour, whereby, in the event of the anniversary falling on a Friday, that day of the week, under all other circumstances a fast, is transformed to a festival.
That the birth of Jesus Christ, the deliverer of the human race, and the mysterious link connecting the transcendent and incomprehensible attributes of Deity with human sympathies and affections, should be considered as the most glorious event that ever happened, and the most worthy of being reverently and joyously commemorated, is a pro-position which must commend itself to the heart and reason of every one of His followers, who aspires to walk in His footsteps, and share in the ineffable benefits which His death has secured to mankind. And so though at one period denounced by the Puritans as superstitious, and to the present day disregarded by Calvinistic Protestants, as unwarranted by Scripture, there are few who will seriously dispute the propriety of observing the anniversary of Christ’s birth by a religious service.
A question, however, which has been long and eagerly agitated, is here brought forward. Is the 25th of December really the day on which our Saviour first shewed himself in human form in the manger at Bethlehem? The evidence which we possess regarding the date is not only traditional, but likewise conflicting and confused. In the earliest periods at which we have any record of the observance of Christmas, we find that some communities of Christians celebrated the festival on the 1st or 6th of January; others on the 29th of March, the time of the Jewish Passover; while others, it is said, observed it on the 29th of September, or Feast of Tabernacles. There can be no doubt, however, that long before the reign of Constantine, in the fourth century, the season of the New Year had been adopted as the period for celebrating the Nativity, though a difference in this respect existed in the practice of the Eastern and Western Churches, the former observing the 6th of January, and the latter the 25th of December. The custom of the Western Church at last prevailed, and both of the ecclesiastical bodies agreed to hold the anniversary on the same day. The fixing of the date appears to have been the act of Julius I, who presided as pope or bishop of Rome, from 337 to 352 A.D. The circumstance is doubted by Mosheim, but is confirmed by St. Chrysostom, who died in the beginning of the fifth century.
This celebrated father of the church informs us, in one of his epistles, that Julius, on the solicitation of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, caused strict inquiries to be made on the subject, and thereafter, following what seemed to be the best authenticated tradition, settled authoritatively the 25th of December as the anniversary of Christ’s birth, the ‘Festorum omnium metropolis,’ as it is styled by Chrysostom. It is true, indeed, that some have represented this fixing of the day to have been accomplished by St. Telesphorus, who was bishop of Rome 128—139 A. D., but the authority for the assertion is very doubtful. Towards the close of the second century, we find a notice of the observance of Christmas in the reign of the Emperor Commodus; and about a hundred years afterwards, in the time of Dioclesiaun an atrocious act of cruelty is recorded of the last named emperor, who caused a church in Nicomedia, where the Christians were celebrating the Nativity, to be set on fire, and by barring every means of egress from the building, made all the worshippers perish in the flames. Since the, end of the fourth century at least, the 25th of December has been uniformly observed as the anniversary of the Nativity by all the nations of Christendom.
Thus far for ancient usage, but it will be readily comprehended that insurmountable difficulties yet exist with respect to the real date of the momentous event under notice. Sir Isaac Newton, indeed, remarks in his Commentary on the Prophecies of Daniel, that the feast of the Nativity, and most of the other ecclesiastical anniversaries, were originally fixed at cardinal points of the year, without any reference to the dates of the incidents which they commemorated, dates which, by the lapse of time, had become impossible to be ascertained. Thus the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary was placed on the 25th of March, or about the time of the vernal equinox; the feast of St. Michael on the 29th of September, or near the autumnal equinox; and the birth of Christ and other festivals at the time of the winter-solstice. Many of the apostles ‘days—such as St. Paul, St. Matthias, and others—were determined by the days when the sun entered the respective signs of the ecliptic, and the pagan festivals had also a considerable share in the adjustment of the Christian year.
To this last we shall shortly have occasion to advert more particularly, but at present we shall content ourselves by remarking that the views of the great astronomer just indicated, present at least a specious explanation of the original construction of the ecclesiastical calendar. As regards the observance of Easter indeed, and its accessory celebrations, there is good ground for maintaining that they mark tolerably accurately the anniversaries of the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord, seeing that we know that the events themselves took place at the period of the Jewish Passover. But no such precision of date can be adduced as regards Christmas, respecting which the generally received view now is, that it does not correspond with the actual date of the nativity of our Saviour. One objection, in particular, has been made, that the incident recorded in Scripture, of shepherds keeping watch by night on the plains of Bethlehem, could not have taken place in the month of December, a period generally of great inclemency in the region of Judea.
Though Christian nations have thus, from an early period in the history of the church, celebrated Christmas about the period of the winter-solstice or the shortest day, it is well known that many, and, indeed, the greater number of the popular festive observances by which it is characterized, are referable to a much more ancient origin. Amid all the pagan nations of antiquity, there seems to have been a universal tendency to worship the sun as the giver of life and light, and the visible manifestation of the Deity. Various as were the names bestowed by different peoples on this object of their worship, he was still the same divinity. Thus, at Rome, he appears to have been worshipped under one of the characters attributed to Saturn, the father of the gods; among the Scandinavian nations he was known under the epithet of Odin or Woden, the father of Thor, who seems after-wards to have shared with his parent the adoration bestowed on the latter, as the divinity of which the ‘sun was the visible manifestation; whilst with the ancient Persians, the appellation for the god of lights was Mithras, apparently the same as the Irish Mithr, and with the Phoenicians or Carthaginians it was Baal or Bel, an epithet familiar to all students of the Bible.
Concurring thus as regards the object of worship, there was a no less remarkable uniformity in the period of the year at which these different nations celebrated a grand festival in his honour. The time chosen appears to have been universally the season of the New Year, or, rather, the winter-solstice, from which the new year was frequently reckoned. This unanimity in the celebration of the festival in question, is to be ascribed to the general feeling of joy which all of us experience when the gradual shortening of the day reaches its utmost limit on the 21st of December, and the sun, recommencing his upward course, announces that mid-winter is past, and spring and summer are approaching. On similar grounds, and with similar demonstrations, the ancient pagan nations observed a festival at mid-summer, or the summer-solstice, when the sun arrives at the culminating point of his ascent on the 21st of June, or longest day.
By the Romans, this anniversary was celebrated under the title of Saturnalia, or the festival of Saturn, and was marked by the prevalence of a universal license and merry-making. The slaves were permitted to enjoy for a time a thorough freedom in speech and behavior, and it is even said that their masters waited on them as servants. Every one feasted and rejoiced, work and business were for a season entirely suspended, the houses were decked with laurels and evergreens, presents were made by parents and friends, and all sorts of games and amusements were indulged. in by the citizens. In the bleak north, the same rejoicings had place, but in a ruder and more barbarous form. Fires were extensively kindled, both in and out of doors, blocks of wood blazed in honour of Odin and Thor, the sacred mistletoe was gathered by the Druids, and sacrifices, both of men and cattle, were made to the savage divinities. Fires are said, also, to have been kindled at this period of the year by the ancient Persians, between whom and the Druids of Western Europe a relationship is supposed to have existed.
In the early ages of Christianity, its’ ministers frequently experienced the utmost difficulty in inducing the converts to refrain from indulging in the popular amusements which were so largely participated in by their pagan countrymen. Among others, the revelry and license which characterized the Saturnalia called for special animadversion. But at last, convinced partly of the inefficacy of such denunciations, and partly influenced by the idea that the spread of Christianity might thereby be advanced, the church endeavored to amalgamate, as it were, the old and new religious, and sought, by transferring the heathen ceremonies to the solemnities of the Christian festivals, to make them subservient to the cause of religion and piety. A compromise was thus effected between clergy and laity, though it must be admitted that it proved anything but a harmonious one, as we find a constant, though ineffectual, proscription by the ecclesiastical authorities of the favorite amusements of the people, including among others the sports and revelries at Christmas.
Ingrafted thus on the Romani Saturnalia, the Christmas festivities received in Britain further changes and modifications, by having superadded to them, first, the Druidical rites and superstitions, and then, after the arrival of the Saxons, the various ceremonies practiced by the ancient Germans and Scandinavians. The result has been the strange medley of Christian and pagan rites which contribute to make up the festivities of the modern Christmas. Of these, the burning of the Yule log, and the superstitions connected with the mistletoe have already been described under Christmas Eve, and further accounts are given under separate heads, both under the 24th and 25th of December.
The name given by the ancient Goths and. Saxons to the festival of the winter-solstice was Jul or Yule, the latter term forming, to the present day, the designation in the Scottish dialect of Christmas, and preserved also in the phrase of the ‘Yule log.’ Perhaps the etymology of no term has excited greater discussion among antiquaries. Some maintain it to be derived from the Greek, Ãu0192Ãu2026ÃŽÂ»Ãu0192ÃŽÂ¹, or, ÃŽÂ¹Ãu0192Ãu2026ÃŽÂ»Ãu0192Ãu201a, the name of a hymn in honor of Ceres; others say it comes from the Latin jubilum, signifying a time of rejoicing, or from its being a festival in honour of Julius Caesar; whilst some also explain its meaning as synonymous with ol or oel, which in the ancient Gothic language denotes a feast, and also the favorite liquor used on such occasion, whence our word ale. But a much more probable derivation of the term in question is from the Gothic giul or hiul, the origin of the modem word wheel, and bearing the same signification. According to this very probable explanation, the Yule festival received its name from its being the turning-point of the year, or the period at which the fiery orb of day made a revolution in his annual circuit, and entered on his northern journey. A confirmation of this view is afforded by the circumstance that in the old clog almanacs, a wheel is the device employed for marking the season of Yule-tide.
Throughout the middle ages, and down to the period of the Reformation, the festival of Christmas, ingrafted on the pagan rites of Yule, continued throughout Christendom to be universally celebrated with every mark of rejoicing. On the adoption of a new system of faith by most of the northern nations of Europe in the sixteenth century, the Lutheran and Anglican churches retained the celebration of Christmas and other festivals, which Calvinists rejected absolutely, denouncing the observance of all such days, except Sunday, as superstitious and unscriptural. In reference to the superstition anciently prevalent in Scotland against spinning on Christmas or Yule day, and the determination of the Calvinistic clergy to put down all such notions, the following amusing passage is quoted by Dr. Jamieson from Jhone Hamilton’s Facile Traictise:
‘The ministers of Scotland—in contempt of the vther halie dayes obseruit be England—cause their wyfis and seruants spin in oppin sicht of the people upon Yeul day; and their affectionnate auditeurs constraines their tennants to yok thair pleuchs on Yeul day in contempt of Christ’s Natiuitie, whilk our Lord has not left vnpunisit: for thair oxin ran wod [mad], and brak their nekis, and leamit [lamed] sum pleugh men, as is notoriously knawin in sindrie partes of Scotland.’
In consequence of the Presbyterian form of church-government, as constituted by John Knox and his coadjutors on the model of the ecclesiastical polity of Calvin, having taken such firm root in Scotland, the festival of Christmas, with other commemorative celebrations retained from the Romish calendar by the Anglicans and Lutherans, is comparatively unknown in that country, at least in the Lowlands. The tendency to mirth and jollity at the close of the year, which seems almost inherent in human nature, has, in North Britain, been, for the most part, transferred from Christmas and Christmas Eve to New-year’s Day and the preceding evening, known by the appellation of Hogmenay. In many parts of the Highlands of Scotland, however, and also in the county of Forfar, and one or two other districts, the day for the great annual merry-making is Christmas.
From a curious old song preserved in the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, we learn that it was considered peculiarly lucky when Christmas-day fell on a Sunday, and the reverse when it occurred on a Saturday. The intermediate days are, for the most part, characterized by a happy uniformity of propitious augury. The versification is of the rudest and most rugged description, but as an interesting specimen of medieval folk-lore, we subjoin the stanzas relating to Sunday and Saturday:
Lordinges, I warne you al beforne,
Yef that day that Cryste was borne,
Falle uppon a Sunday;
That wynter shall be good par fay,
But grete wyndes alofte shalbe,
The somer shall be fayre and drye;
By kynde skylle, wythowtyn lesse,
Throw all londes shalbe peas,
And good tyme all thyngs to don,
But he that stelyth he shalbe fownde sone;
Whate chylde that day borne be,
A great lord he shalbe.
If Crystmas on the Saterday falle,
That wynter ys to be dredden alle,
Hyt shalbe so fulle of grete tempeste
That hyt shall sle bothe man and beste,
Frute and corn shal fayle grete won,
And olde folke dyen many on;
Whate woman that day of chylde travayle
They shalbe borne in grete perelle
And chyldren that be borne that day,
Within half a yere they shall dye par fay,
The summer then shall wete ryghte ylle:
If thou awght stele, hyt shel the spylle;
Thou dyest, yf sekenes take the.’
Somewhat akin to the notions above inculcated, is the belief in Devonshire that if the sun shines bright at noon on Christmas-day, a plentiful crop of apples may be expected in the following year.
From the Diary of that rare old gossip, Mr. Pepys, we extract the following entries relative to three Christmas-days of two hundred years ago:
‘Christmas-day (1662).—Had a pleasant walk to Whitehall, where I intended to have received the communion with the family, but I came a little too late. So I walked up into the house, and spent my time looking over pictures, particularly the ships in King Henry the Eighth’s Voyage to Bullaen; marking the great difference between those built then and now. By and by, down to the chapel again, where Bishop Morley preached on the song of the angels, “Glory to God on high, on earth peace and good-will towards men.” Bethought he made but a poor sermon, but long, and reprehending the common jollity of the court for the true joy that shall and ought to be on those days. Particularised concerning their excess in plays and gaming, saying that he whose device it is to keep the gamesters in order and within bounds, serves but for a second rather in a duel, meaning the groomer porter. Upon which it was worth observing how far they are come from taking the reprehensions of a bishop seriously, that they all laugh in the chapel when he reflected on their ill actions and courses. He did much press us to joy in these public days of joy, and to hospitality. But one that stood by whispered in my eare, that the bishop do not spend one groat to the poor himself. The sermon done, a good anthem followed with vials, and the king came down to receive the sacrament.
‘Christmas-day (1668).—To church in the morning, and there saw a wedding in the church, which I have not seen many a day; and the young people so merry one with another, and strange to see what delight we married people have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition, every man and woman gazing and smiling at them.
‘Christmas-day (1668).—To dinner alone with any wife, who, poor wretch ! sat undressed all day till ten at night, altering and lacing of a noble petticoat; while I by her making the boy read to me the Life of Julius Ceasar, and Des Cartes’s book of Music.’
The geniality and joyousness of the Christmas season in England, has long been a national characteristic. The following poem or carol, by George Wither, who belongs to the first-half of the seventeenth century, describes with hilarious animation the mode of keeping Christmas in the poet’s day:
‘So now is come our joyful feast;
Let every man be jolly;
Each room with ivy leaves is drest,
And every post with holly.
Though some churls at our mirth repine,
Round your foreheads garlands twine;
Drown sorrow in a cup of wine,
And let us all be merry.
Now all our neighbours’ chimneys smoke,
And Christmas blocks are burning;
Their ovens they with baked meat choke,
And all their spits are turning.
Without the door let sorrow lye;
And if for cold it hap to die,
We’ll bury’t in a Christmas-pie,
And evermore be merry.
Now every lad is wond’rous trim,
And no man minds his labour;
Our lasses have provided them
A bagpipe and a tabor;
Young men and maids, and girls and boys,
Give life to one another’s joys;
And you anon shall by their noise
Perceive that they are merry.
Rank misers now do sparing shun;
Their hall of music soundeth;
And dogs thence with whole shoulders run,
So all things then aboundeth.
The country-folks, themselves advance,
With crowdy-muttons out of France;
And Jack shall pipe and Jyll shall dance,
And all the town be merry.
Ned Squash hath fetcht his bands from pawn,
And all his best apparel
Brisk Nell hath bought a ruff of lawn
With dropping of the barrel.
And those that hardly all the year
Had bread to eat, or rags to wear,
Will have both clothes and dainty fare,
And all the day be merry.
Now poor men to the justices
With capons make their errants;
And if they hap to fail of these,
They plague them with their warrants:
But now they feed them with good cheer,
And what they want, they take in beer,
For Christmas comes but once a year,
And then they shall be merry.
Good farmers in the country nurse
The poor, that else were undone;
Some landlords spend their money worse,
On lust and pride at London.
There the roysters they do play,
Drab and dice their lands away,
Which may be ours another day,
And therefore let’s be merry.
The client now his suit forbears;
The prisoner’s heart is eased;
The debtor drinks away his cares,
And for the time is pleased.
Though others’ purses be more fat,
Why should we pine or grieve at that?
Hang sorrow! care will kill a cat,
And therefore let’s be merry.
Hark! now the wags abroad do call,
Each other forth to rambling;
non you’ll see them in the hall,
For nuts and apples scrambling.
Hark! how the roofs with laughter sound,
Anon they’ll think the house goes round,
For they the cellar’s depth have found,
And there they will be merry.
The wenches with their wassel-bowls
About the streets are singing;
The boys are come to catch the owls,
The wild mare in it bringing,
our kitchen-boy hath broke his box,
And to the dealing of the ox,
Our honest neighbors come by flocks,
And here they will be merry.
Now kings and queens poor sheepcotes have,
And mate with every body;
The honest now may play the knave,
And wise men play the noddy.
Some youths will now a mumming go,
Some others play at Rowland-ho,
And twenty other game boys mo,
Because they will be merry.
Then, wherefore in these merry daies,
Should we, I pray, be duller?
No, let us sing some roundelayes,
To make our mirth the fuller.
And, while thus inspired we sing,
Let all the streets with echoes ring;
Woods and hills and every thing,
Bear witness we are merry.’
At present, Christmas-day, if somewhat shorn of its ancient glories, and unmarked by that boisterous jollity and exuberance of animal spirits which distinguished it in the time of our ancestors, is, nevertheless, still the holiday in which of all others throughout the year, all classes of English society most generally participate. Partaking of a religious character, the forenoon of the day is usually passed in church, and in the evening the re-united members of the family assemble round the joyous Christmas-board. Separated as many of these are during the rest of the year, they all make an effort to meet together round the Christmas-hearth. The hallowed feelings of domestic love and attachment, the pleasing remembrance of the past, and the joyous anticipation of the future, all cluster round these family-gatherings, and in the sacred associations with which they are intertwined, and the active deeds of kindness and benevolence which they tend to call forth, a realization may almost be found of the angelic message to the shepherds of Bethlehem—’Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men.’