Writer and lecturer Andy Thomas goes behind the sparkle and the merriment to look at the social history of Christmas in his new book Christmas, A Short History from Solstice to Santa.
In it, Thomas explores everything from ancient pagan ceremonies to present-day traditions around the world.
The earliest recordings of choral music can be traced back to 4th century Roman Christians.
Thomas says many of our modern Christmas staples date back to pre-Christian holiday traditions – one of them being alcohol.
“It has always been about booze and enjoying oneself. If you look back at the Roman festivals that came before Christmas, they have very much influenced, even today, what we still do. It’s one of those festivals that’s evolved over the years from a number of different sources.”
He says there was the ancient midwinter solstice festival that gave way to the Christian festival. Later on, came the Norse mythology, the Feast of Yore.
“Somewhere down the line, they all merged together to become something that at once is just to celebrate and have a laugh, and at the other side, it’s something very deep and meaningful on a spiritual level to many people.
“There’s not many things we have like that in our culture and that’s why Christmas really is unique.”
Thomas says Christianity changed Christmas fundamentally and really got going around 300-400 AD when the emperor Constantine declared that the Romans would now be a Christian culture.
“Traditionally, the 25th of December had been associated with what’s called the Sol Invictus festival – Sol Invictus being the Roman sun god.”
He says that some early Christians argued that the baptism of Jesus was a more important event than his birth and arguments ensued about which day to celebrate the most.
“That’s where you get the twelve days of Christmas from. In 567 AD, they held a council in France to sort this out and declared they would end all the arguments and have a big festival that would begin with Christmas and end with the Epiphany.”
Thomas says the Epiphany used to represent the baptism of Jesus, but the day has changed meaning over the years.
“This is where you start to find all these really intriguing things falling into place and, once the twelve days of Christmas got declared, it became a fantastic excuse for two weeks of merriment and feasting. By the time it got to the medieval period, it’d gotten mixed in with the Norse mythology and this is where you start to see it becoming more like what we know now.”
It was the Norse myths that gave us the notion of a fat, jolly man flying through the skies. He says the legend of Santa Claus goes back to the Norse God Odin.
“He was said to, every year at the Winter Solstice, to lead this wild, supernatural chase of gods across the sky and he would go around the world rewarding the good and punishing the bad. That is the earliest seed of what would become the Father Christmas myth.”
Christmas has been under threat at different points throughout the ages but the biggest threat to it in England came in the form of the rise of the Puritans in the 1640s.
“They were very strict Protestants and believed you should only do that which is in the Bible and they knew the 25th of December was the old sun god festival, so they didn’t like the Pagan element. They also had an objection to all the drinking and silliness that would bubble up around Christmas.”
He says their opinions didn’t really matter until they won the England civil wars and got rid of King Charles I, finding themselves essentially in charge of the country.
“Now, they could do anything they wanted – and they did, they banned Christmas in 1647 and it was outlawed for about 15 years.”
The Pilgrim Fathers in America also refused to acknowledge Christmas and many Protestants in the country thought it was a frivolity too far.
After the Puritan republic collapsed Christmas began to return to English life, but it took many centuries before it reached the heights it had once held.
Thomas says it was the Victorian Age that ushered in the Christmas that we’re more familiar with today.