Christmas has become a global non-religious celebration, but their are many holiday traditions.
Christmas as we know it today is a blend of Ancient, Roman, Nordic, English, New York, and purely commercial traditions. From its very beginning, Christmas blended religious and popular traditions.
The Winter Solstice and Ancient Holidays
The longest night/shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere have been a time of celebration since before history.
The longest night is the Winter Solstice. It falls somewhere between December 21st and 23rd.
It was a time of feasting because animals were slaughtered to avoid feeding them over the winter, and the year’s beer and wine were ready for drinking. There was less work to do in the dark and cold. People huddled together in the cold and the availability of meat and spirits fueled a winter party.
Romans honored Saturn, their god of agriculture, with a month-long Saturnalia festival around the winter solstice. Like the later Carnival, it was a time when social roles were reversed and standards of behavior were loosened. Work and study stopped. Slaves, women, and peasants were allowed more freedom. Some Romans celebrated the birth of Mithra, a Persian sun god popular with warriors, on December 25th.
The Beginning of Christmas
The Christmas tradition started in Italy to celebrate the birth of Christ. It was Pope Julius I (337-352, Rome) who decided to celebrate on December 25. It was celebrated with a mass. That’s where the name of Christmas comes from. It’s “Christ-mass.” Pope Julius I probably chose the date to bring popular Roman celebrations under the church umbrella.
Once started, Christmas traditions began spreading around the world. Early traditions focused on the nativity, the birth of Christ in a manger or animal shed.
The Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day (Tres Reyes), was also important. The feast celebrates the revealing of Christ as the son of God. The celebration is popularly expressed through stories of the Three Kings’ visit to the baby Jesus.
Popular Traditions Get Out of Hand
Christmas became more popular in Europe as Christianity replaced Pagan religions. Already, popular traditions dominated. Christians would go to mass and then join a drunken party. Mobs of the poor would visit homes of the rich and demand to be fed. If they weren’t, they might riot.
These popular traditions came to the Americas with the English. The early 1800s were a time of social turmoil which added to the intensity of Christmas riots.
A New Yorker Invents Ancient Traditions
Washington Irving is famous for writing a purely fictional satire A History of New York under the pen name “Diedrich Knickerbocker” in 1809. Some nouveau rich New Yorkers took it so seriously that they claimed to be Knickerbocker descendants. The New York Knicks basketball team take its name from this story.
Irving did something similar for Christmas traditions. In 1819-1820, Irving published a collection of short stories called The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.. It contains the now popular stories of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It also includes several stories about the celebration of Christmas at an old English manor.
Instead of a class riot, Irving painted a picture of harmonious ancient customs that brought the social classes together. Irving was one of the first American writers to be widely read in Europe. People began thinking that this was how Christmas should be celebrated.
A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens’ 1848 novella, A Christmas Carol, built on Irving’s and other stories to reinforce this message of peace on earth and goodwill to men.
Concepts of Christmas continued to evolve. Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870. New York City merchants adapted the traditions and created new ones like holiday windows and visiting Santa Claus in the store to help sell stuff.
Three Kings Day
In many Latin countries, Three Kings Day is the day when children receive gifts.
Many countries and regions have their own Three Kings Day traditions. In Puerto Rico, children put grass under their beds for the camels. In the morning they wake up to find a present. It may be just one simple thing, but it is a treasure for sure.
Something for Everyone
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was a Black awakening. It encouraged other ethnic groups to come forward with the pride of their heritage. That led to the promotion of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa as community alternatives to Christmas.
Because Latins are made up of all peoples, we celebrate the holidays in many different ways. Each of the traditions has something to give to those who open their hearts.
Whatever the holidays mean to you and your family, New York is one of the greatest places in the world to celebrate it.