From Garrison Keillor's "The Writer's Almanac" on NPR:
Today is Christmas Day, celebrated by Christians since the 4th century AD. Early Christians believed that the only important holiday of the year was Easter, but in the 4th century, a heretical Christian sect started claiming that Jesus had only been a spirit, and had never had a body. The Church decided to emphasize Jesus' bodily humanity by celebrating his birth.
Most Christian theologians believe that Jesus was actually born in the spring, because the scripture mentions shepherds letting their animals roam in the fields at night. The Christian church probably chose December 25th as the official birth date because of competition with pagan cults, who celebrated the winter solstice on that date.
The problem with combining Christian and pagan traditions was that the winter solstice had traditionally been a time of drunken feasting and revelry, and many Christmas celebrations became similarly festive. Many preachers began to speak out against the celebration of Christmas, and after the Protestant Reformation, Puritans outlawed Christmas altogether.
It was only in the mid 19th century that Christmas became a domestic holiday associated with family. The transformation was due in part to government crackdowns on wild street parties. In 1828, New York City organized its first professional police force in response to a violent Christmas riot. Eventually it became more fashionable to stay at home with family than to go out to big parties.
One practice that endures from pagan traditions is the singing of carols. The word "carol" comes from the Greek "choros," which is a circular dance accompanied by singing, usually to celebrate fertility. After most Europeans became Christians, they began to write and perform folk songs at Christmas time to express their joy at baby Jesus' birth.
But the church often discouraged the singing of carols because they were considered too secular, and the practice of caroling almost died out under church pressure. When Christmas became a more domestic holiday in the mid-1800s, there was a carol renaissance, and many of the most popular carols were written in that period, including, "Away in a Manger," "O Little Town of Bethlehem", and "Silent Night" written in Austria in 1818.
Tags: Garrison Keillor, Christmas