Friday, December 1, 2017

Christmas Firsts #1 : The Date

Diary Doodle - Wilma Simmons 2017 
It's THAT time of the year again.  For the last few years, I have posted a daily post for Advent, featuring some interesting and sometimes weird information about all things Christmas. You can always go back and have a look at these posts from previous years  by searching for the tags "Christmas" or "Christmas Countdown." This year, I am going to explore the facts, the speculation, the stories and my interpretation of Christmas "FIRSTS"...and today, 1 December, let's have a look at the first time Christmas was actually celebrated. 

The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336 AD, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (he was the first Christian Roman Emperor). A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th December. For at least three hundred years, birthdays were obviously not days of celebration and the Church calendar concentrated on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ as the important dates  of the year. It was not until 596 AD that Christmas was first celebrated in England.
I had always assumed that Christmas was celebrated on 25 December because that was the date of the birth of Christ.... not so! No one knows for sure on what day Christ was born. Cultures around the Mediterranean and across Europe observed feasts and celebrations on or around December 25th, marking the winter solstice. At the pagan festival of Saturnalia, Romans feasted and gave gifts to the poor. Drinking was closely connected with these pagan feasts. It has been speculated that at some point, a Christian bishop may have adopted the day to keep his people from indulging in the old pagan festival - a case of "if you can't beat them, join them!" Historian William J. Tighe offers a different view - When a consensus arose in the church to celebrate Christ's conception on March 25th, it was reasonable to celebrate his birth nine months later.
It is rather amazing to think in 2017 of Christmas on any other date, but   Bishop Clement of Alexandria  (c.150-c.215) favoured May 20 but noted that others had argued for April 18, April 19, and May 28. Hippolytus (c.170-c.236) championed January 2. November 17, November 20, and March 25 all had backers as well. A Latin treatise written around 243 pegged March 21, so many of you might have also had your birthday on the same day as Christmas! However, we have been celebrating Christmas Day on 25 December for 1681 years now, so it is unlikely to change -   it's now only 24 days away! 

PS American friends might be surprised to hear that 25 December was first declared a holiday in 1870 by President Ulysus Grant. Until then it was just any other work and school day. USA, with Puritan traditions,  had followed England's example of banning Christmas celebrations (c1647- 1660) but it took a long time to reinstate 25 December as a special day.  Alabama was the first American state to declare Christmas Day a holiday in 1836 and other states followed soon after. 
Tomorrow : The first Christmas Card. 

Sources of information:

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