The word “Christmas” comes from the old English, Christ’s Mass, and is the holiday celebrated by billions of people around the world marking the birth of Jesus Christ.
Most celebrate Dec. 25, but the truth is we’re not positive of the year of Christ’s birth, let alone the exact day. What we do know is that the celebrations and traditions we practice in the United States have roots in the feasts, festivals and traditions that predate the birth of Christ.
A Roman winter holiday, Saturnalia, included public banquets, gift-giving and partying — think Mardi Gras. In an effort to curb some of the hedonistic excesses, the early church leaders came up with a competing festival, which they hoped would in time replace Saturnalia. They selected Dec. 25 as the Feast of the Nativity.
During the 17th century in England, we see the legacy of Saturnalia in Christmas. Dec. 25, Christmas Day, was celebrated as the holy birth date of Christ, but the remaining “Twelve Days of Christmas” was “all party, all the time.”
Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), military and political leader, and first Puritan English ruler, played an instrumental role in the abolition of Christmas in England. As “The People’s Protector,” Cromwell described the holiday as generally a period of leisure, of eating and drinking to excess, of dancing and singing, gambling, gaming and stage plays of drunkenness and sexual immorality; a period when normal rules and self-control did not apply; a period of deliberate inversion and “misrule.”
The Cromwell Association, in defense of the role Cromwell played in the Christmas ban asserts that, “People visited family, friends and colleagues, eating, drinking and exchanging presents, and the more affluent distributed boxes containing money to servants, tradesmen and the poor. Special food and drink was available and consumed in larger quantities than normal including turkey and beef, mince pies, plum porridge and specially brewed Christmas ale; taverns and taphouses did a roaring trade.”
Though the Cromwell government put an official end to Christmas, all that revelry seemed like a terrible thing to waste, and eventually Christmas was resurrected. To many, it is again Saturnalia — just an excuse to have a 12-day, government-sanctioned party. For merchants, it’s a chance to make more money than most of the rest of the year combined. For government, it’s a boom in sales taxes. For others, it’s all about giving and getting lots of presents. But for some, it truly is about the birth of the Christ child who taught us love, compassion, forgiveness and hope.
Whatever it means to you, may this year be a real memory maker for you and yours.
Linda Brown is marketing director for The Ottawa Herald. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org